Thursday, April 23, 2009

Martín Espada, A Writer's Life

Martín Espada

Dear Readers:

I was teaching an Intro to Lit class the other day and afterward one of my students approached me, wanting some one-to-one discussion time. This particular student is 6'4", about 225 lbs -- a working class guy who'd had a variety of jobs before ending up in my class. With some digging in of his heels, he'd grudgingly begun reading the assigned work for the poetry section of the class.

With a laser beam smile, he told me that reading Federico's Ghost altered his whole view of poetry. He said he previously thought it was irrelevant to everyday people, hard-to-understand, fussy and precious. (Which frankly, I told him, was a fairly accurate assessment of a good deal of it.)

However, Martín Espada changed what he thought and what he was going to read in the future. He went on and on about the use of images that got under his skin, images that made the labor and the suffering a visceral, unforgettable experience.

(Ah, we poets, we teachers, live for that!)

Please take a look at that life-changing work and a repeat look at my review of his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Republic of Poetry.


Federico's Ghost

The story is
that whole families of fruitpickers
still crept between the furrows
of the field at dusk,
when for reasons of whiskey or whatever
the cropduster plane sprayed anyway,
floating a pesticide drizzle
over the pickers
who thrashed like dark birds
in a glistening white net,
except for Federico,
a skinny boy who stood apart
in his own green row,
and, knowing the pilot
would not understand in Spanish
that he was the son of a whore,
instead jerked his arm
and thrust an obscene finger.

The pilot understood.
He circled the plane and sprayed again,
watching a fine gauze of poison
drift over the brown bodies
that cowered and scurried on the ground,
and aiming for Federico,
leaving the skin beneath his shirt
wet and blistered,
but still pumping his finger at the sky.

After Federico died,
rumors at the labor camp
told of tomatoes picked and smashed at night,
growers muttering of vandal children
or communists in camp,
first threatening to call Immigration,
then promising every Sunday off
if only the smashing of tomatoes would stop.

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed
in the dark,
and the old women in camp
said it was Federico,
laboring after sundown
to cool the burns on his arms,
flinging tomatoes
at the cropduster
that hummed like a mosquito
lost in his ear,
and kept his soul awake.

from Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands


Martín Espada's The 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.

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

1 comment:

Manuel Paul Lopez said...

"Federico's Ghost," the greatest middle finger in literature.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post,