Daniel Wolff

From Ayiti


Sometime in the night,
        as the bougainvillea creeps a finger
        higher on the stone wall,
the barking of the skinny dog changes.

The barks of the skinny dog
        grow rougher and numerous:
        many dogs. “Lavalas!” they bark.
Except it’s not a bark; it’s a chant.

Up the dark street they come:
        “Lavalas! Lavalas!”
        Hundreds of bare feet
climb out of the mud and up the hill.

At the doors of the rich,
        they chant “Lavalas!”
        It means a flooding or
overturning, as strong as any avalanche.

To which the rich
        make no reply.
        But a rooster answers,

A rooster crows in the dark:
        a three-note call,
The name of the priest turned savior.

“Lavalas!” the dogs all bark.
        “Aristide!” the rooster answers.
        As if it was already dawn,
as if the dark was gone for good.

A tourist sleeps in a tourist hotel,
        hears the noise,
        and to prove it’s a dream,
wakes and walks to the window.

Lights lie strewn like trash
        on the city.
        Off in the distance,
the dark of the sea.

It isn’t a dream. It isn’t a dream.
        The tourist leans out
        to spot the mob,
its torches and clubs and crippled hands.

There isn’t a mob;
        it isn’t a dream.
        A rooster crows at a low moon;
a dog keeps barking.


“When I was elected president, it wasn’t a strictly political affair; it wasn’t the election of a politician, of a conventional political party. No, it was an expression of a broad popular movement, of the mobilization of the people as a whole. For the first time, the National Palace became a place not just for professional politicians but for the people themselves.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                —Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 2006

The security guards at the National Palace take our American driver’s licenses—laminated plastic—and exchange them for visitor’s passes—worn paper. Then they show us through a metal detector. It’s like a big modern scale: it weighs what we carry. While they check our credentials, we wait in a dirty white room lined with tiles.

After we’ve been okayed, an escort leads us around the side of the building to a set of monumental stairs. Across the green lawn, crowds have massed by the gates. They stare at us like we’re somebody. And we’re somebody because we’re this side of the gates. We climb the stairs to the official entrance.

Inside, the wall-to-wall carpet is worn. Old chandeliers dangle from high ceilings. Along the wall, only four of ten marble sconces are left; the rest, we’re told, were taken by the previous military government.

A set of double doors leads to a small balcony. If you stepped out, you’d be overlooking the green lawn and the gates and the crowd, which would probably cheer simply because you stepped out. Beyond them is the marketplace and the traffic, beyond that the airport with its base camp and the beaches, beyond that the Caribbean. If you were somebody, you’d wave to the crowds below. If this were your history.

While we wait, a helicopter lands on the lawn. The grass is blown in little green waves as officials disembark. They look American: men and women in suits with briefcases. They keep their heads down, below the blades. An escort of Marines hurries to greet them, and the officials clap the Marines on the shoulders, then dash toward the Palace.

We watch them the way the people at the gates watched us. Who are they? Why do they deserve this treatment? How will they change our lives?

A redheaded man comes in and begins to chat. He’s wearing a heavy silver college ring—Princeton—and a tiny pink earpiece that whispers now and then. He talks about Aristide’s first trip outside the palace, only a few hours ago. After the president gave a brief speech, he shook off his security guard and walked into the crowd, talking to people, touching them. They went wild. “A politician,” the redheaded man explains, making it seem both compliment and criticism.

Moments later, we meet the president. He’s small, unpresumptuous, a little walleyed. He seems delighted to be here—to be back in Haiti, to be in the palace. As he greets each person in the large circle of visitors, he’s almost laughing out loud. It’s like he’s being carried on our shoulders, taken up.

He leads us back to his office. There’s very little furniture. He points to the almost bare desk: “This is where I work.” He shows us a back room with a pull-out couch and, past that, in the bathroom, three cushions stacked against the wall. “The First Bed,” he calls it, smiling at the joke: the might of the American military airlifts him back into power so he can sleep on the floor. “Of course,” he adds, “compared with how most Haitians have it, this is paradise.”

He speaks with careful modesty, like a priest. Aristide was expelled from his Salesian order six years ago. The reason given was “glorification of class struggle, in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church” and “using religion to incite hatred and violence.” Technically, though, he stayed a priest till this month. And he still acts like he’s a servant, doing the will of the people now, rather than—or as well as—God’s.

If it’s an act, it’s a convincing one. Joyous, humble, enthusiastic, he talks with us till the redheaded man comes and whispers in his ear. Then the president bows out, apologizing. He has, he says, “official business.” We’re led back through security, where they return our laminated licenses. We walk down the national drive to the national gates, where we stop to talk with the American guards. Outside, the crowd is mostly cripples and beggars.


“Our job is to intervene.
I mean, we already kicked butt.
Our orders are to stand between:
to supervise
the transfer of power
from the bad guys
I was never
trained for this: eight hours
of guard duty
outside an empty jail.
Now and then, the wail
of big American cars
but mostly kids wanting candy bars.
Then what?
In a month or three, democracy.”