Two Poems by Martin Espada
Martín Espada is a Latino poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator. He has also been the recipient of many honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an American Book Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In October 2015, Martin visited City of Asylum. Prior to his reading, he shared a poem from his 2011 collection, The Trouble Ball, published by W.W. Norton. He also read work from Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, his new collection forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2016.
How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way
From Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016)
Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister’s heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.
I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway, hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede barehanded into the bullets drilling his forehead.
I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking, words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.
I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.
Blessed Be the Truth Tellers
from The Trouble Ball (2011)
For Frank Espada (1930-2014)
The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves
of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light.
The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again.
My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest
Puerto Rican in New York, who scraped doorways,
who could crack the walls with the rumble of his voice,
kept a moriviví growing in his ribs. He would die, then live.
My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me
the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette
into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like fish.
My father was a bony boy, the nerves in his back
crushed by the Aiello Coal and Ice Company, the load
he lifted up too many flights of stairs. Three times
they would meet to brawl for a crowd after school.
The first time, my father opened his eyes to gravel
and the shoes of his enemy. The second time, he rose
and dug his arm up to the elbow in the monster’s belly,
so badly did he want to tear out the heart and eat it.
The third time, Fleming did not show up, and the boys
with cigarette burns clapped their spindly champion
on the back, all the way down the street. Fleming would
become a cop, fired for breaking bones in too many faces.
He died smoking in bed, a sheet of flame up to his chin.
There was a moriviví sprouting in my father’s chest. He would die,
then live. He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck.
He would come to know the jailhouse again, among hundreds
of demonstrators ferried by police to Hart Island on the East River,
where the city of New York stacks the coffins of anonymous
and stillborn bodies. Here, Confederate prisoners once wept
for the Stars and Bars; now, the prisoners sang Freedom Songs.
The jailers outlawed phone calls, so we were sure my father must be
a body like the bodies rolling waterlogged in the East River, till he came
back from the island of the dead, black hair combed meticulously.
When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night, my father
was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone. A fiery
chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head by inches.
My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets.
He spoke at a rally with Malcolm X, incantatory words
billowing through the bundled crowd, lifting hands and faces.
Teach, they cried. My father clicked a photograph of Malcolm
as he bent to hear a question, finger pressed against the chin.
Two months later the assassins stampeded the crowd
to shoot Malcolm, blood leaping from his chest as he fell.
My father would die too, but then he would live again,
after every riot, every rally, every arrest, every night in jail,
the change from his pockets landing hard on the dresser
at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.
My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die,
then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail,
shook his head and walked away without a web of scars
or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway,
toppled onto the tracks, and somehow missed the third rail.
He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store,
pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters
demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale
as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air.
When the family finally took a vacation in the mountains
of the Hudson Valley, a hotel with waiters in white jackets
and white paint peeling in the room, the roof exploded
in flame, as if the ghost of Joe Fleming and his cigarette
trailed us everywhere, and it was then that my father
appeared in the smoke, like a general leading the charge
in battle, shouting commands at the volunteer fire company,
steering the water from the hoses, since he was immune
to death by fire or water, as if he wore the crumbled leaves
of el moriviví in an amulet slung around his neck.
My brother called to say el moriviví was gone. My father tore
at the wires, the electrodes, the IV, saying that he wanted
to go home. The hospital was a jailhouse in Mississippi.
The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded
the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film,
the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father
was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.