Songs for an Invisible Nation
Rapt in discussion and a bowl of spicy noodles with poet Martín Espada
Martín Espada is in great demand as a poet-performer. He headlines at this year’s Dodge Festival. Last year, he tells me, he gave over sixty readings. One evening in June, during the SLS Summer Literary Seminars in Montreal, I watched Espada perform his own dazzling brand of decadent cadence to a packed auditorium. He received a standing ovation. One woman spoke to me after the reading with tears in her eyes. She had purchased all of Espada’s books although she claimed never to have been much into poetry. She said, ‘To watch that big man perched there on the stage like some kind of strange bird, his voice quivering and singing and echoing as if from another time was simply—breathtaking.’ She was still sniffling twenty minutes later.
Espada says he writes from a compulsion as a working class Puerto Rican-American. His poems of social conscience speak out on behalf of the mistreated, maligned, and the invisible. From his poem ‘Alabanza: In Praise of the Local 100,’ dedicated to 43 restaurant and hotel employees who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center, to his elegy for political prisoners who suffered under the bloody whip of Chile’s Pinochet regime, ‘The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi,’ much of Espada’s work sings out for those who are voiceless, or simply forgotten.
A voice for generations of unheard Latin Americans living in the United States of America, Espada is about to release his tenth collection of poems, The Trouble Ball in April 2011. One finds out very quickly that he is even more prolific in his craft, more determined in his subject matter, more passionate about the music of poetry than ever; but, as always throughout his career, he remains highly sensitive to his message.
Espada’s vision is one of crystal clarity and directness. There are no L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E experiments going on here. It is perhaps this brutal honesty paired with a love of the musicality of language that rings unabashedly sincere. The Bloomsbury Review has called him ‘the true poet laureate of his nation.’ John Freeman of The San Francisco Chronicle once said that Pablo Neruda’s ghost lives through the poet Martín Espada.
Espada and I sat down to contemplate politics, Diaspora, social conscience and marginalization in the nosiest Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. While we were ordering our noodle soups, a few of the workshop’s students joined us and were soon snapping their own chopsticks.
Who was the first poet that inspired you?
Ah, there are so many poets I could name. The first book of poems that really belonged to me was The Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyám, the FitzGerald translation. I was really struck, not only by the philosophy, but by the music of the language.
Of course, the two poets that I consistently return to are Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda—my continued sustenance. I won’t say that I completely understood these poets at first, yet there was something about their work that conveyed more than just a message. Whitman and Neruda still raise the hair on my arm.
From collection to collection, I feel your poetry becomes more and more musical. It’s even more clear seeing you perform your work live. Was it something you’ve consciously been perfecting over the years?
Well, some of it is just experience. In recent years, there was another development that pushed my poems in the direction of music: I started acting. I joined a community theatre in western Massachusetts called the Shoestring Players. It was Shakespeare. My son has been acting in Shakespeare since the age of eleven. We ended up doing several plays together. We were both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We were both ‘Mechanicals.’ Not leading roles. I get all the ‘big guy’ roles, by the way.
Guess who I was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Not sure. I couldn’t quite imagine you as Puck.
(Laughs) I was The Wall! In As You Like It, I was Charles The Wrestler.
What I was subconsciously gathering from the plays—both the plays I was involved in, and those I was watching when my son was acting—was the music. The music of language has a way of finding a way into your brain, and staying there.
Participating in these plays, I remembered certain things that I knew all along, but that had somehow had slipped away from my consciousness. Like iambics. I was developing a deeper appreciation of the musicality of the language. At the same time, for me, meaning and message are paramount, but they have to be balanced with that music.
The music, the rhythm is what transforms prose into something else: poetry.
The other factor, of course, that has inspired the music in my poems is the Spanish language—a very musical language, a very rhythmic language.
Once again, I find you use the Spanish much more. I can almost feel the cadence in your more recent work. A poem like ‘Alabanza,’ for example.
Once again, as I become more comfortable doing that, the ear becomes more attuned.
Dean: I heard you once worked in a primate lab.
That’s right. I’m the only poet you’ll ever meet who’s been bitten by a monkey.
Guess there was quite a bit of music in the monkey lab?
Kirk: What were you doing in a primate lab?
I was a caretaker: swept the floors, cleaned out the cages and such. It didn’t really require any level of skill. You know, I was a grunt. This was actually a famous primate lab at the University of Wisconsin, founded by Harry Harlow years ago.
But yes, I’ve probably had every job you might imagine, a few I’m not all that proud of: I was a telemarketer for Time-Life books. I was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica.
Somehow I can’t quite imagine you standing at the door with a salesman glimmer in your eye and a barrel of faux-leather bound tomes under your arm.
(Pause for eating noodles and the like.)
When did you actually start publishing poetry?
My first book was published in 1982. It was a chapbook, and was called The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. It was illustrated with photos by my father, Frank Espada, who was not only a community organizer and a political leader, but a talented documentary photographer. His photos, from earliest memory, were really quite gripping to me, both in terms of form (i.e. the image), but also in terms of their social or political commentary.
Aha, well I see where the poet of social conscience arose then.
Yes, my father was a big influence for me. He became politically aware at the tender age of nineteen, when he was in the military, stationed at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Texas. In December of 1949, my father took a Trailways bus through the South to spend the Christmas holiday with his family. The bus stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my father was arrested for not going to the back of the bus. He was the only person on the bus.
But the drivers changed in Mississippi, and the new driver insisted that he obey this particular law of segregation. My father was put in jail. Later he said it was the best week of his life, because he decided what to do with the rest of it.
Which was working as a leader for the Puerto Rican community?
I asked him more recently: ‘When you finally left Biloxi, where did you sit?’
He said: ‘I folded my arms and sat at the front of the bus.’
He also believed—and he said this later—that the reason he was not treated more harshly by the authorities was because he had been arrested in military uniform.
Was your father was more dark skinned than yourself?
Well, yes, he was, and is, quite dark skinned. Hispanics, Puerto Ricans in particular, come in all shades of the spectrum, from very dark to very light, even within the same family; so much so, in fact, that we as a people put the whole concept of race into question. There’s so much racial mixture within the Puerto Rican identity, within Latino and Latin American identity in general. (Looking at Dean) You’d understand this, living in New Orleans.
How do you perceive Puerto Rican America today?
About Puerto Rico: you must understand that it has been a colony of the United States since the Spanish-American War of 1898. One of the by-products of any colony is migration. That’s why, when you look around Canada—for example, here in Montreal—you find so many people from French colonies, from Haiti, from French-speaking Africa. Well, the same thing happens in the United States, except that the ‘Imperium’ for the United States is, in all senses, Latin America. Thus, there are fifty million Spanish-speaking people in the United States today.
It is quite remarkable that the Puerto Rican identity is so resilient, that it has survived so resolutely over the centuries, and that we still speak Spanish. When the United States took over Puerto Rico, English was made the language of the schools and courts; yet today, outside of San Juan, English is not as widely spoken as you might imagine. My father was punished for speaking Spanish at school—in Puerto Rico!
Your poetry has been sometimes been called ‘overtly political’.
Well, it’s really very organic. First of all, I grew up with an ethos of resistance all around me, coming, again, from my father. But it also emerges quite naturally from being in a certain social condition. Being Puerto Rican in the United States is a political condition. So you respond to it politically. It’s quite natural.
It’s what my father was doing, so it’s what I do. There are poems I’ve written where I simply describe a scene. That scene comes out of my experience, yet a reader may look at it and say: that’s a political poem. Yes, but it also happens to come from my personal history, which is so often the stuff of poetry.
Have you been criticized for mixing politics with your poetry?
Criticized is too fine a word. I got a bomb threat once at a reading in Tucson, Arizona.
What on earth happened?
Well, this was a while ago. The city of Tucson is close to the border with México. This was a benefit event on behalf of Derechos Humanos. It’s a human rights group that monitors abuses on the border, particularly involving the U.S. Border Patrol.
There are many people out there crossing (or trying to cross) that border and dying in the process. Not only that, but at this time there was also quite a bit of vigilante or militia activity on the border, sabotage and so on, committed by right-wing groups. I got up to read, but when I opened my mouth someone else’s voice came out. That voice came from a loudspeaker over my shoulder.
The loudspeaker said: ‘Would everyone please vacate the premises. We have just received a bomb threat.’
I’ve never seen people move so fast in my life. I was very nearly trampled. Moments before I had been the honored guest. We got out to the sidewalk, and for a while there was a sense of unreality, almost as if this were a kind of fire drill. We all thought we would go back in imminently, but we were wrong.
The Tucson police showed up with bomb-sniffing dogs. They sealed off the building and would not allow us back in, so we mingled in the parking lot, wondering what to do. What we finally decided to do was to hold the reading in the parking lot. I did the reading in the parking lot under a street lamp. Then someone called the news and TV cameras showed up. We were the lead story in Tucson live that night.
It was only much later that I woke up in a sweat in the middle of the night, and realized that someone just threatened to blow me up.
I guess it goes to show that even in our modern, whitewashed, multi-media age, poetry can still affect people in significant ways.
Of course, the whole thing boomeranged, as that kind of attempted censorship often does. We got far more attention for what we were doing and saying than we would have gotten otherwise. Beyond that bomb threat, I’ve also received some hate mail in response to my writing. All of this tends to be anonymous, which just confirms the cowardice of the people involved.
What’s your take on the reasoning that politics and poetry should not mix? I know Carolyn Forché received a lot of flack in the early days from the academic community about her political ‘poetry of witness.’ Then there’s the case of the Chinese dissident poet writing from Italy. That’s accepted, but if you’re an American writing about suppression in Chile, that’s considered ‘poetry of witness.’ So the general feeling is that you really only deserve to write about something political if you are really from there.
Well, there is the argument that you can only write politically based on direct experience. There are plenty of people doing just that. Let me preface this by saying that there were three major poets of Puerto Rico imprisoned by the United States because they were part of the independence movement. They were Clemente Soto Vélez, Juan Antonio Corretjer and Francisco Matos Paoli. Soto Vélez, living in New York, eventually came to be my mentor. We have our political prisoners too.
But coming back to the question: If you go back to the 1930s in the United States, what you find is that political poetry is an accepted part of the discourse. It’s a given. There were poets like Edwin Rolfe, who later became known as the Poet Laureate of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, that is, the Americans who volunteered to fight on behalf of the democratically elected Spanish government during the Spanish Civil War. There were a number of political poets who were a serious part of this dialogue.
So what happened?
McCarthyism happened. We tend to forget that McCarthyism was not only a political but also a cultural backlash. Poets in the United States responded, as did everyone else. Some poets were blacklisted. They lost their means to make a living and strangely, somehow, they lost their identities as poets. Some, like Rolfe, just dropped dead. Some were exiled. Some were jailed. Some had their reputations later restored, but a number of poets during the late 40s and 50s were just obliterated.
At that time there was this paradigm shift, and all of a sudden it became unacceptable to connect poetry with politics. English Departments throughout the United States followed suit. Those prejudices remain firmly with us today.
And Latino literature?
Although there is a learning curve in the United States, it’s extremely long; Latino literature is marginalized to this very day. It’s only very recently that African-American poetry has started to get the attention it deserves. The first and only African-American man to win the Pulitzer Prize is Yusef Komunyakaa—which probably says more about the Pulitzer Prize than anything else.
It always amazes me that the New York intelligentsia, living in the metropolis, has been so slow to adapt and learn about the Latino community.
Who’s emptying your garbage? Who’s taking care of your kids? Latinos are everywhere in New York, and yet invisible at the same time. Intellectuals and academics are just as ignorant and naïve and indifferent as everyone else.
Would you say this phenomenon is similar with the African American population?
In terms of literature, African-Americans have gained some belated recognition. What is the key? You organize yourselves. For example, there’s an organization in the United States called Cave Canem.
Founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte, right?
Precisely. Cave Canem is an organization—a home, if you like—for African- American poets. By organizing themselves, African-American poets have raised their visibility and created a broader audience for their work. We Latinos have yet to do that. We Latino writers need to increase our visibility, our opportunities, and our organization.
And so, whom does the Hispanic community consist of?
There are about fifty million Latinos in the United States, which I believe makes the U.S. the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Seventy-five or eighty percent are of Mexican origin or descent, who mostly live in the Southwest or on the West coast—although that is rapidly changing. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have been living in large numbers in New York since after the Second World War.
And you know what?
There’s not even a single statue of a Puerto Rican in the Big Apple. But that’s what you do with an underclass.
How would you explain that?
It all harks back to colonialism. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States; it’s a political anachronism, a public embarrassment.
So why have Latinos not managed to organize themselves in the manner African Americans do? What continues to marginalize the Latino community? Is it a color issue?
There are all kinds of lines being drawn. There are color lines for sure, but there are also linguistic lines. Here we are in Montreal [where the Francophone/Anglophone debate goes on]. There are language politics in the United States on a scale at least comparable to what you see here. I once had a guy in the street threaten to rip out my tongue for speaking Spanish.
That kind of antagonism baffles me. Where did it happen?
Boston. I was standing in front of the State House, participating in a demonstration in favor of bilingual education. Bilingual education was something that came relatively early in the United States. In fact, it had been accepted until the First World War. The language in controversy was not Spanish, but German.
During World War I, German was banned. You couldn’t even speak it on the telephone. A number of people were arrested because they spoke German. That attitude towards bilingual education persisted until the early 1970s. You began to see bilingual education programs return to the United States— and then the power struggle really began.
We were part of that struggle. My legal work, in the beginning, centered around bilingual education. I was one of the speakers at this particular demonstration. As I said, we were in front of the State House, right there on Beacon Street. This man came charging down the stairs behind me. I didn’t know what he wanted, but when I turned I put myself directly in his path. I was thinking in Spanish, so that’s what came out: Spanish.
I said to him: ¿Como estás? ‘How are you?’ He got right in my face—I could smell his breath—and he said, furiously: ‘If I ripped your tongue out, you couldn’t say that to me.’ His eyes were bright red. This guy was quite serious. We were nose to nose for a long moment. Then he pushed his way through the crowd and across the street.
Minutes later, I was standing there with the microphone. My hands were still shaking. I incorporated what had just happened when I spoke to the crowd.
I said: ‘He can rip out my tongue if he wants to, but it’s not going to work, porque yo hablo español con el corazón (because I speak Spanish from the heart).’
We won that battle, but we lost the war. Eventually bilingual education was wiped out in the state of Massachusetts.
It’s truly surprising especially considering the historical ban on speaking Spanish in Puerto Rico when it became an American colony in 1898. I recall reading that the 1948, ‘Ley de la Mordaza’ (the ‘Law of the Muzzle’) even made it illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag. I am sure most young Americans today are unaware of that, but I do begin to see how politics and poetry are almost obliged to go hand in hand as a Puerto Rican poet. What is your take on the aesthetics of political poetry?
I believe there has to be an aesthetic; that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I believe that political poetry should be grounded in the image, in the five senses, in the concrete, and that serves as a barricade against the rhetorical, because political rhetoric is often too abstract.
As such, a lot of what I write that is defined as political poetry is grounded in direct experience. Sometimes that experience is simply a matter of being in a certain place at a certain time. I wrote a poem (‘Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass’) that I read the other night about visiting the tomb of Frederick Douglass immediately after Barack Obama’s election.
Of course, I wasn’t around when Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, but I found myself standing at what I felt was the crossroads of history. So I wrote the poem from that point of view. It begins with the tactile, visceral experience of being in that place and time, and goes from there. That was the connection for me.
I tried to soak up the ghost of Frederick Douglass through the soles of my feet.
Do you visualize yourself somehow traveling back in time? You know, do you see the horse-drawn carriages in your mind, and so on?
Mostly, it’s a combination of sensory impression plus historical research. I made a record of what I saw at that moment standing there, but then I read and read. I read biographies and autobiographies, histories, and so on.
The poem is only one page long, but there’s a lot of history packed in there.
I guess that it was a similar process when writing any number of your Chile poems from The Republic of Poetry—and, I understand—your forthcoming collection, The Trouble Ball.
I visited Chile twice. The second time, I visited a place called Villa Grimaldi, which is in Santiago, and was a centre of interrogation, torture and execution during the Pinochet dictatorship. There has been an attempt to convert it into a peace park, which is halfway done. But there are still remnants of the original site there. The site is also being reconstructed from the accounts of the inmates and even the guards. I got a tour of the torture chamber, so to speak.
There was one place within the park that stood out above all the others. It was an original part of Villa Grimaldi, and it was a swimming pool. Now, you expect certain things when you go to see a centre of torture and execution. You expect to find the rooms where people were tortured, the rooms where they were executed. You do not expect to find a swimming pool. Yet, there it was: an ordinary, suburban, concrete swimming pool that you might find in any backyard in any city in the United States.
So what did I do?
I climbed up. I held on to the railing of the swimming pool. I wanted to have the perspective of those who used the pool; I looked down, and in particular, I listened.
As you know, sound travels. Whatever I could hear, those who had used the pool could hear. I could hear the birds singing a hundred yards away. If you can hear the birds singing, you can hear the prisoners screaming. I began to put together what was going on at that swimming pool, which for me became the heart of Villa Grimaldi.
Grotesque. So what exactly was that swimming pool?
It was used by the guards, the police and their families. It was very mundane. They swam in the pool; parents taught their kids how to swim.
While people were being executed?
People were being tortured and executed seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, all within view of the pool.
That’s one of the most inhumane, bizarre things I’ve ever heard.
The pool was immediately adjacent to a tower. The tower was Death Row. That’s where people were kept before they were executed, right there, over your shoulder. On the other side, there is a parking lot clearly visible from the pool. The parking lot was the place where they took recalcitrant prisoners who would not talk. They were made to lie down; then the interrogators rolled over them with pickup trucks.
The only way to escape the experience—at the swimming pool—would have been to dive into the water. There you’d have silence. Some of it was escape. Some of it was even more malevolent.
The place was used to both intimidate and entice prisoners. Prisoners who agreed to talk were brought to the pool and fed cookies and Coca-Cola, so they’d give away the names of their friends. But then, if you didn’t talk, you might get thrown into the pool and dragged back and forth on a rope. There was at least one recorded instance of a prisoner who died of hypothermia, killed in the pool.
And a few days later, wives and daughters were paddling in the same place.
Days? Hours. Most of the time the pool area was used for barbeques, cocktail parties and swimming lessons for the kids. What does that tell you about human beings? What are we capable of? That’s what I focused on in that poem. Now, if you want to call that a poem of witness. Go ahead. I’ll live with it.
After I got home and had the visceral experience of being there, I started to read. I found out a lot about Villa Grimaldi. Survivors had talked about it; historians had written about it. When I started to write that poem, I began getting physically ill.
I have a good friend, Steve Stern, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has written about the Pinochet era and its survivors. So I called him, and said: ‘I’m trying to write this poem, man.’ And he said: ‘Well, how are you feeling?’ He anticipated that I was becoming physically ill, that I was internalizing it—not that I would ever compare my experience with someone who has actually been tortured. I know the difference. I’ve taken a punch in the face, but that’s not the same thing as torture, which involves the complete dehumanization of the human being. Steve warned me to pull back from the abyss. I finished the poem, though.
But, of course, the poem is about much more than Villa Grimaldi.
Yes. I think it’s important to bear witness to these things. Why? Well, now in the United States we are openly discussing torture as a political tool. So this is not just a matter of going to a place where something terrible happened. It’s going to a place where this could happen again. This is happening right now, somewhere.
In China, in Burma, in parts of Africa. And here I am polishing off my Vietnamese Pho Ga noodle soup.
Can you believe in the United States we’re openly talking about it right now: What’s the most effective torture? Who should we torture? When is it right to torture?
It’s incredible. Mankind never learns.
These are things that are more common to humankind than not. But when I see people in the United States openly discussing torture as a political option, then you have to remind them: what is the experience of societies who have done this? Torture was openly sanctioned during the Pinochet regime. They offered their justification. So what is ours?
In North America it’s often forgotten how much pain we export, and how much we profit from suffering that we never see for ourselves.
Jenya: It’s all isolated, filtered out by the corporate media. You know, I get three news stations at home, including Russian and American. It’s like they’re talking about two different worlds. I sometimes wonder if we’re missing something entirely.
I used to work at a radio station in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late seventies and early eighties. We had the newswire called Reuters, and we used to get things on the Reuters European wire that we never saw anywhere else in the U.S. media.
And then, the people we worked for at the radio station took Reuters out and put in the Associated Press wire.
And all of a sudden we lost it. It was gone.
Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass
Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York
November 7, 2008
This is the longitude and latitude of the impossible;
this is the epicenter of the unthinkable;
this is the crossroads of the unimaginable:
the tomb of Frederick Douglass, three days after the election.
This is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries,
where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar.
This is the tomb of a man born as chattel, who taught himself to read in secret,
scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood; now on the anvil-flat stone
a campaign button fills the O in Douglass. The button says: Obama.
This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints
on the slavebreaker’s throat so the whip would never carve his back again;
now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up
by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. A sticker on the sleeve says: I Voted Today.
This is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press,
peering through spectacles at the abolitionist headline; now a newspaper
spreads above his dates of birth and death. The headline says: Obama Wins.
This is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body
of the first slave, dragged aboard the first ship to America. Yellow leaves
descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the sails
Douglass saw in the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself
escape with the tide. Believers in spirits would see the pages trembling
on the stone and say: look how the slave boy teaches himself to read.
I say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call
the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.
Revolutionary Spanish Lesson
Whenever my name
I want to buy a toy pistol,
put on dark sunglasses,
push my beret to an angle,
comb my beard to a point,
hijack a busload
of Republican tourists
force them to chant
for the bilingual SWAT team
to helicopter overhead,
to be reasonable
At Scot Gas, Darnestown Road,
the high school boys pumping gas
would snicker at the rednecks.
Every Saturday night there was Earl,
puckering his liquor-smashed face
to announce that he was driving
across the bridge, a bridge spanning
only the whiskey river
that bubbled in his stomach.
Earl’s car, one side crumpled like his nose,
would circle slowly around the pumps,
turn signal winking relentlessly.
Another pickup truck morning,
and rednecks. Loitering
in our red uniforms, we watched
as a pickup rumbled through.
We expected: Fill it with no-lead, boy,
and gimme a cash ticket.
We expected the farmer with sideburns
and a pompadour.
We, with new diplomas framed
at home, never expected the woman.
Her face was a purple rubber mask
melting off her head, scars rippling down
where the fire seared her freak face,
leaving her a carnival where high school boys
paid a quarter to look, and look away.
No one took the pump. The farmer saw us standing
in our red uniforms, a regiment of illiterate conscripts.
Still watching us, he leaned across the seat of the truck
and kissed her. He kissed her
all over her happy ruined face, kissed her
as I pumped the gas and scraped the windshield
and measured the oil, he kept kissing her.
The Poet’s Coat
for Jeff Male (1946 – 2003)
When I cough, people duck away,
afraid of the coal miner’s disease,
the imagined eruption of blood
down the chin. In the emergency room
the doctor gestures at the X-ray
where the lung crumples like a tossed poem.
You heard me cough, slipped off your coat
and draped it with ceremony across my shoulders,
so you became the king of rain and wind.
Keep it, you said. You are my teacher.
I kept it, a trench coat with its own film noir detective swagger.
The war in Viet Nam snaked rivers of burning sampans
through your brain, but still your hands
filled with poems gleaming like fish.
The highways of Virginia sent Confederate ghost-patrols
to hang you in dreams, a Black man with too many books,
but still you tugged the collar of your coat around my neck.
Now you are dead, your heart throbbing too fast
for the doctors at the veterans’ hospital to keep the beat,
their pill bottles rattling, maracas in a mambo for the doomed.
On the night of your memorial service in Boston,
I wore your coat in a storm along the Florida shoreline.
The wind stung my face with sand, and with every slap
I remembered your ashes; with every salvo of arrows
in the rain your coat became the armor of a samurai.
On the beach I found the skeleton of a blowfish,
his spikes and leopard skin eaten away by the conqueror salt.
Your coat banished the conqueror back into the sea.
Soon your ashes fly to the veterans’ cemetery at Arlington,
where once a Confederate general
would have counted you among his mules and pigs.
This poet’s coat is your last poem.
I want to write a poem like this coat,
with buttons and pockets and green cloth,
a poem useful as a coat to a coughing man.
Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100
for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rocan with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in the darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung into constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
Two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
Mingling in the icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
City of Glass
for Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia
La Chascona, Santiago de Chile
The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles,
ships in bottles, zoo of bottles,
rooster, horse, monkey, fish,
heartbeat of clocks tapping against crystal,
windows illuminated by the white Andes,
observatory of glass over Santiago.
When the poet died,
they brought his coffin to the city of glass.
There was no door: the door was a thousand daggers,
beyond the door an ancient world in ruins,
glass now arrowheads, axes, pottery shards, dust.
There were no windows: fingers of air
reached for glass like a missing lover’s face.
There was no zoo: the bottles were half-moons
and quarter-moons, horse and monkey
eviscerated with every clock, with every lamp.
Bootprints spun in a lunatic tango across the floor.
The poet’s window said, We will not sweep the glass.
His wake is here. Reporters, photographers,
intellectuals, ambassadors, stepped across the glass
cracking like a frozen lake, and soldiers too,
who sacked the city of glass,
returned to speak for their general,
three days of official mourning
announced at the end of the third day.
In Chile, a river of glass bubbles, cooled,
hardened, and rose in sheets, only to crash and rise again.
One day, years later, the soldiers wheeled around
to find themselves in a city of glass.
Their rifles turned to carnival glass;
bullets dissolved, glittering, in their hands.
From the poet’s zoo they heard monkeys cry;
from the poet’s observatory they heard
poem after poem like a call to prayer.
The general’s tongue burned with slivers
invisible to the eye. The general’s tongue
was the color of cranberry glass.
The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi
Beyond the gate where the convoys spilled their cargo
of blindfolded prisoners, and the cells too narrow to lie down,
and the rooms where electricity convulsed the body
strapped across the grill until the bones would break,
and the parking lot where interrogators rolled pickup trucks
over the legs of subversives who would not talk,
and the tower where the condemned listened through the wall
for the song of another inmate on the morning of execution,
there is a swimming pool at Villa Grimaldi.
Here the guards and officers would gather families
for barbeques. The interrogator coached his son:
Kick your feet. Turn your head to breathe.
The torturer’s hands braced the belly of his daughter,
learning to float, flailing at her lesson.
Here the splash of children, eyes red
from too much chlorine, would rise to reach
the inmates in the tower. The secret police
paraded women from the cells at poolside,
saying to them: Dance for me. Here the host
served chocolate cookies and Coke on ice
to the prisoner who let the names of comrades
bleed down his chin, and the prisoner
who refused to speak a word stopped breathing
in the water, facedown at the end of a rope.
When a dissident pulled by the hair from a vat
of urine and feces cried out for God, and the cry
pelted the leaves, the swimmers plunged below the surface,
touching the bottom of a soundless blue world.
From the ladder at the edge of the pool they could watch
the prisoners marching blindfolded across the landscape,
one hand on the shoulder of the next, on their way
to the afternoon meal and back again. The neighbors
hung bedsheets on the windows to keep the ghosts away.
There is a swimming pool at the heart of Villa Grimaldi,
white steps, white tiles, where human beings
would dive and paddle till what was human in them
had dissolved forever, vanished like the prisoners
thrown from helicopters into the ocean by the secret police,
their bellies slit so the bodies could not float.
“Revolutionary Spanish Lesson,” first received book publication in Rebellion is the Circle of Lover’s Hands (Curbstone Press, 1990); “Rednecks” in Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton, 1996); “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” in Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982 – 2002 (Norton, 2003); “The Poet’s Coat,” and “City of Glass,” in The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006). These poems were first published in the following magazines: “Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass” in The Bloomsbury Review and “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi” in Café Review. All poems copyright Martin Espada.
Martin Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He has published over 15 books of poetry, essays and translations. His poetry collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, (Norton, 1996) won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (Curbstone, 1990), won the PEN/Revson Fellowship and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982 – 2002, won the Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement. His most recently published collection, The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A new collection, The Trouble Ball is forthcoming April, 2011 (Norton). His poems have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, Ploughshares and The Nation. Espada is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachussets-Amherst.
Marc Vincenz is of Swiss-British descent, was born in Hong Kong, and worked in China for many years. Recently based out of Iceland, he writes a featured column for The Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s English language newspaper. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in various journals, including: Poetry Salzburg Review, MiPOesias, nth position, the nervous breakdown, Poets & Artists, FRiGG, Prick of the Spindle, Ducts Journal, and Danse Macabre. He is currently putting the finishing touches on two collections of poetry, and a spoken-word CD.