Thursday, March 08, 2007

¡Viva la República!

Martín Espada's Republic of Poetry reminds me of Oscar de la Hoya's boxing. Beautiful to behold, it's unerring in its aim. Pared down to the essential--it's body blows to the chest, to the gut, head blows that annihilate the opponent and leave the viewer stunned, reeling, gasping for air.

Democracy subverted in Chile and by implication, everywhere, reverberates on every page. The Republic of Poetry is not an elegy, it's an upper cut to complacency, a left hook to amnesia. Wake up, remember what was, see what's happening right in front of you.

The comparison of Espada to Neruda, to Whitman are many, but to me, what comes to mind is poet warrior, able to fight and raise an army with the power of his words. But in case you're not convinced, here is some additional praise for this remarkable book.

“What a tender, marvelous collection. First, that broken, glorious journey into the redemptive heart of my Chile, and then, as if that had not been enough, the many gates of epiphanies and sorrows being opened again and again, over and over.” —Ariel Dorfman

“Martín Espada is a poet of annunciation and denunciation, a bridge between Whitman and Neruda, a conscientious objector in the war of silence.” —Ilan Stavans

“Martín Espada’s big-hearted poems reconfirm ‘The Republic of Poetry’ that (dares) to insist upon its dreams of justice and mercy even during the age of perpetual war.” —Sam Hamill

Martín Espada is indeed a worthy prophet for a better world.—Rigoberto González

This is tight, muscular writing. Espada make his point with an economy of language, concealing a dense terrain of imagery and meaning. In this universe, the dead are not ghosts, but fully fleshed--staving off the soldiers, marching in the battlefield, struggling in the streets, and inspiring new generations. Read these and you'll see what I mean.


The Soldiers in the Garden
Isla Negra, Chile, September 1973

After the coup,
the soldiers appeared
in Neruda’s garden one night,
raising lanterns to interrogate the trees,
cursing at the rocks that tripped them.
From the bedroom window
they could have been
the conquistadores of drowned galleons,
back from the sea to finish
plundering the coast.

The poet was dying:
cancer flashed through his body
and left him rolling in the bed to kill the flames.
Still, when the lieutenant stormed upstairs,
Neruda faced him and said:
There is only one danger for you here: poetry.
The lieutenant brought his helmet to his chest,
apologized to señor Neruda
and squeezed himself back down the stairs.
The lanterns dissolved one by one from the trees.

For thirty years
we have been searching
for another incantation
to make the soldiers
vanish from the garden.

The soldier leaves, not because the poet is super human, but because he's supremely human. Poetry taps into a power that no bullet can halt nor cancer eat away. Armies of everyday people have been set loose with words like Neruda's. Then and now, the men in power with bloody hands know it's dangerous, know it's subversive. But in the end, it remains unstoppable.

Black Islands
for Darío
At Isla Negra,
between Neruda’s tomb
and the anchor in the garden,
a man with stonecutter’s hands
lifted up his boy of five
so the boy’s eyes could search mine.
The boy’s eyes were black olives.
Son, the father said, this is a poet,
like Pablo Neruda.
The boy’s eyes were black glass.
My son is called Darío,
for the poet of Nicaragua,
the father said.
The boy’s eyes were black stones.
The boy said nothing,
searching my face for poetry,
searching my eyes for his own eyes.
The boy’s eyes were black islands.

What possibility dwells in those black eyes? What page of history will be written for him to read, and what page will he write himself? Knowing that Espada is a father, I can only imagine how many times he's asked himself those questions in the still hours of the night, watching his own child sleep. Toward the end of The Republic of Poetry, Espada meditates on the "smaller" world of family and relationships, personal joy and private grief. Every fighter has his scars, and every poet, his pleasures.

Now, stop reading this, it won't get the job done. Go. Get the book. Read that instead. It's time to wake up.

Republic of Poetry
W. W. Norton
  • ISBN-10: 0393062562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062564


Admission is free but reservations are required.

March 15: Reading, 6 PM
Poetry Off the Shelf
sponsored by the Poetry Foundation
Newberry Library
60 W. Walton Street
Chicago, IL
Contact: Steve Young
(312) 787-7070

March 16: Reading, 8 PM
English Language and Literature Conference
St. Francis University
500 Wilcox Street
Moser Performing Arts Center Auditorium
Joliet, IL
Contact: Marcia Marzec
(800) 735-7500

March 17: Plenary, 9 AM

English Language and Literature Conference
St. Francis University
500 Wilcox Street
Moser Performing Arts Center Auditorium
Joliet, IL
Contact: Marcia Marzec
(800) 735-7500

written by: Lisa Alvarado


msedano said...

unlike a boxer, a poet never loses to a younger, faster, stronger bodypuncher. once a contender, always a contender. i'm sure there's a rhyme and a reason for that. good series on martin espada. thanx.


Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

But like a boxer, poetic language packs a hell of a punch. Lisa, your review was excellente! I loved the "tight, muscular writing"

Lisa Alvarado said...

Don Miguel, point well taken.
Pero, a thing of beauty.... (de la Hoya's record in this case.)

But the white light words of the poet DO have special staying power. As for the metaphor, soy poetisa, y permitame la licencia poetica, no?