(1) "The air clear sweat, mosquitoes & their tracks; birds & elusive" mean?
About this line, I’m looking at the text of the poem in Atwood’s “Selected Poems II” and it looks like your version leaves out a word. The lines in my text read as follows:
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds, blue & elusive.
That’s a little easier to parse. As you know, in this stanza, the speaker is listing the things that you’d actually find in this setting – wherever she is.
She’s already listed shattered Coke bottles, various ripe tropical smells, rotting mangos. These lines continue the list: the tropical air is like “clear sweat” – hot, sticky – it’s like breathing sweat.
“Mosquitoes & their tracks” – that’s a little harder. I’m not really sure what she means by “tracks.” Maybe the patterns of bites they leave across everybody’s bodies? Like track marks from a needle? Maybe it’s that there are so many mosquitoes flying through the air, you can practically see them carving tracks through the air.
“birds, blue & elusive” – evidently, there are blue-feathered tropical birds there as well, practically invisible against the bright blue sky.
Why does she use “&” (the ampersand)? My guess would be as a gesture towards the writing style of post cards, right? One thing the poem does is shifts in and out of the abbreviated, telegraphic style of post cards and the more fluid free verse reverie style. So the & signals that she’s parodying the post card writing style.
“prisoners … race of cripples ….”
About this section: Atwood’s Canadian. The poem comes her 1981 “True Stories” collection of poems. She probably vacationed in Central America – El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, maybe even Nicaragua. Panama?
Both of those nightmarish images are part of the reality of life in Latin America. Life is rougher; in general, you’re less shielded from some of the less pleasant aspects of life. So, in the “hold” (or storage area) of the ship that brought here, there very well may have been two manacled prisoners being transported. In the same way, the “race of cripples” could very well be part of a local feast day -- something that happens every year. Attitudes are different in places. (One thing – war, poor medicine and hygiene, horrific working conditions all mean that there are a lot of cripples in any third-world town.)
Think of this section as related to that famous phrase associated with the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” (it was on the dust jacket – not a lyric in the song): “a cheap vacation in someone else's misery."
When you vacation in poor countries, it’s hard to get away from that fact. This is just another aspect (like the smell of sewage and the mosquitoes) of unpleasant reality intruding into her vacation.
The hotel? You don’t have to go super-symbolic with this. Any part of the world with beach property will see periodic overbuilding of luxury hotels. So she’s probably staying in some traditional waterside tropical town – and a new hotel is being built.
The thing is … there are far too many of these hotels. So they’re built and start crumbling almost right away. Investors with a few dollars have a dream of turning a beach property into a tourist hotspot – but generally it’s not going to happen.
At the same time, she’s probably also aware that she’s dealing in some “crumbling dreams” of her own. The dramatic situation of the poem is clearly that she’s writing to someone she’s in a strained relation with. Think of the lines “a universe that includes you can’t be all bad, but does it [actually include you]?” In other words, she’s wondering if the person is even still a part of her universe – is still a part of her life.
She calls her love a “sickness” that comes in waves.
The straight shot is that the postcard is being sent to someone she ended a relationship with? The “vacation” is a way to deal with the pain of ending, to get some distance, a change of scenery. And yet, her desire for this person, her wish to be with him or her – it pounds on her in “waves.”
So at one level, just like the hotel might be someone’s unrealistic dream of a prosperous and luxurious future, she’s having a hard time abandoning her own dreams and wishes.