You Got a Song, Man

By Martín Espada b. 1957 Martin Espada

for Robert Creeley (1926—2005)

You told me the son of Acton’s town nurse   
would never cross the border   
into Concord, where the Revolution   
left great houses standing on Main Street.   
Yet we crossed into Concord, walking   
through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery   
to greet Thoreau, his stone   
stamped with the word Henry
jutting like a gray thumbnail   
down the path from Emerson   
and his boulder of granite.   
We remembered Henry’s night in jail,   
refusing tax for the Mexican War,   
and I could see you hunched with him,   
loaning Henry a cigarette, explaining
the perpetual wink of your eye   
lost after the windshield   
burst in your boyhood face.   
When Emerson arrived
to ask what you and Henry
were doing in there, you would say:
You got a song, man, sing it.   
You got a bell, man, ring it.

You hurried off to Henry in his cell   
before the trees could bring their flowers   
back to Sleepy Hollow.
You sent your last letter months ago   
about the poems you could not write,
no words to sing when the president swears
that God breathes the psalms of armies in his ear,   
and flags twirl by the millions
to fascinate us like dogs at the dinner table.   
You apologized for what you could not say,   
as if the words were missing teeth
you searched for with your tongue,
and then a poem flashed across the page,
breaking news of music interrupting news of war:   
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.

Today you died two thousand miles from Sleepy Hollow,   
somewhere near the border with México, the territory   
Thoreau wandered only in jailhouse sleep.
Your lungs folded their wings in a land of drought   
and barbed wire, boxcars swaying intoxicated at 4 AM   
and unexplained lights hovering in the desert.   
You said: There’s a lot of places out there, friend,
so you would go, smuggling a suitcase of words   
across every border carved by the heel
of mapmakers or conquerors, because
you had an all-night conversation with the world,
hearing the beat of unsung poems in every voice,   
visiting the haunted rooms in every face.
Drive, you said, because poets must
bring the news to the next town:
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.

Martin Espada, "You Got a Song, Man" from The Republic of Poetry. Copyright © 2006 by Martin Espada,  published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  Reprinted by permission of Martin Espada.

Source: The Republic of Poetry (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2006)

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Poet Martín Espada b. 1957

Subjects Sorrow & Grieving, History & Politics, Living, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Elegy

 Martín  Espada


Poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney: Martín Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for Latino rights and reclaiming the historical record. Espada’s critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the immigrant and working class experience. Whether narrating the struggles of Puerto Ricans and Chicanos as they adjust to life in the United States, or . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Sorrow & Grieving, History & Politics, Living, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Elegy

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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