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Poetry Moment: Carl Marcum and 'Un Miércoles en Febrero'

 Poet Carl Marcum
Poet Carl Marcum

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “Un Miércoles en Febrero” by Carl Marcum.

Carl Marcum is a Chicano poet and the author of two collections of poetry, most recently A Camera Obscura, from which today’s poem is drawn. For his writing, Marcum has been awarded various fellowships and prizes, including from Stanford University, the National Endowment for the Arts, Canto Mundo, and elsewhere. Marcum lives in Pittsburgh, where he is Managing Director of a small Engineering & Environmental Consulting Firm.

The title of Marcum’s lyric poem, “Un Miércoles en Febrero,” translates to “A Wednesday in February.” That the poet leaves the title untranslated, though, is crucial. This isn’t any Wednesday in February, we learn in the poem, but specifically Ash Wednesday. The speaker’s practice of the ritual marking with ashes a cross on one’s forehead cannot be fully translated. It is tied to culture and family and passed down in the way rituals often are: their origins may be “forgotten” yet they remain scripted in our bodies. The poem’s speaker seeks the words to convey this to the boy he encounters and addresses as “hijo mío”—meaning “my son” or “my child.” But language alone fails. Instead, it is the speaker’s act of sharing the ashes by pressing his forehead to the boy’s that perhaps most transmits to us what the poet believes: about ritual as it ties us to the present, about faith and doubt, about the past and future, the dust and stars we are made of.


Un Miércoles en Febrero

The bare elm twisted, light snow stuttering.
What spring promises seems only cruel rumor.

The boy asked me what happened to my forehead.
These ashes, I explain, remind me that

I believe something, but can’t recall why
that’s so anymore—or why Fridays leave me

hollow. I pretend I’m the peddler of hats
in the boy’s storybook, and I’ve no money

for lunch. I pretend it still means something
to deny the flesh. The boy tells me he likes

my ashes, and asks will I share them?
I press my forehead to his. Faith is doubt,

hijo mío, remember this: we are dust, we are
stars—we are what happened and what is next.

That was “Un Miércoles en Febrero” by Carl Marcum.
Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

Shara McCallum was the 2021-22 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.
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