Poem Sampler

Martín Espada 101

A brief guide to his work.
Portrait of Martín Espada by Sophie Herxheimer

“For some poets, social class is the triangle in the orchestra, a distant tinkling,” Martín Espada writes in his essay collection Zapata’s Disciple (1998). “For me, the matter of social class is the beat itself, an insistent percussion.” In more than a dozen poetry collections over nearly 40 years, Espada has stayed true to this urgent thrum, making music out of language that’s both resolutely political and unfailingly beautiful. Some of his poems are born out of his own experiences: the son of a community organizer, civil rights activist, and documentary photographer, Espada has worked in factories and as a bouncer, a reporter, a tenant lawyer, an activist, and a teacher. His words often reach far beyond his own life, giving glimpses of lives poetry too often overlooks, relating the stories and histories with humility, humor, and urgency. Espada’s writing has earned him many accolades: he is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, an American Book Award winner, and a National Book Critics Circle nominee. Sandra Cisneros once called him “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors.” Like Neruda, Espada is both accessible and versatile, writing poetry in which, as he so memorably puts it, “I pay homage, bear witness, act as an advocate, and tell secrets.”

Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper
In this early poem, Espada relates his teenage experiences working in a printing plant. The “hidden cuts” on Espada’s own hands serve as a powerful image for how capitalism alienates us from labor, disguising the human costs—the very real suffering—of even our most mundane and disposable objects. The detailed descriptions and emphatic line breaks here offer a kind of corrective to that alienation: they are as painstaking and “exact” as the work they evoke, and they suggest the knowing seriousness with which Espada puts pen to paper. If the poem offers a detailed reply to the title’s query, it’s also a powerful reminder of how often these questions go unasked or hang in the air, unanswered.

The Meaning of the Shovel
In this poem from Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), Espada brings his considerable powers of witness to bear upon Central America, where he traveled to aid the Sandinistas. Repetition and present-tense narration give the poem an almost physical immediacy, but its catalogic structure also allows Espada to pile up meanings and tones, tying divergent scenes to his digging, which makes this poem a kind of ars poetica. If the list here contains heartbreak and resilience, its concluding lines are ones of purposive fury, challenging inherited ideas about what work we value and why. Its final image—“the passport / in [Espada’s] back pocket [saturated] with dirt”—is particularly pointed, considering US opposition to the left-wing Sandinistas: one can read it not just as an expression of solidarity but also as a rebuke of American imperialism.

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100
The word alabanza means “praise” in Spanish, which is indeed what this poem offers as it celebrates an undersung, often invisible group: the immigrant service workers who keep US restaurants, hotels, and skyscrapers running. Espada’s poem eulogizes their deaths in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 by documenting their lives and the specific textures of their day-to-day: “the kitchen radio” with its “dial clicked / even before the dial on the oven,” the “yellow Pirates cap / worn in the name of Roberto Clemente,” and the “stoves that glowed in the darkness … like a cook’s soul.” Though the poem ends quietly, with its litany giving way, its last stanza enlarges the poem, envisioning a dialogue between “Manhattan and Kabul.” It’s a connection, forged in music and dance, that transcends borders, language, and even death.

En la Calle San Sebastián
Espada writes what June Jordan called New World poetry, building on the earthy, demotic foundations laid by Walt Whitman and later by Pablo Neruda. But this piece from Alabanza (2003) also has a Continental pedigree: it borrows its structure and intensity from “Son de negros en Cuba,” a poem by the visionary Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Like its surrealist inspiration, Espada’s poem is a praise song of place—Puerto Rico, in this case—and to its multicultural heritage. The insistent repetition and slant rhymes here (cobblestone / arrow, appear / beard) imitate both a heartbeat (that “drums in the chest”) and the beat of the conga drum, whose importance in Latin music is (as the poem reminds us) inextricably bound up in the history of slavery.

You Got a Song, Man
Espada’s collection The Republic of Poetry (2007), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, features numerous poems dedicated to other poets, including this elegy for his friend Robert Creeley. Inspired by an actual visit the two poets made to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the piece not only quotes Creeley but also channels him, imagining the wily poet alongside Thoreau, “loaning [him] a cigarette.” If such a meeting feels whimsical, even comic, it’s also representative of Espada’s fluid sense of history, of how the past and present constantly reshape one another. In Espada’s eyes, we see both Creeley and Thoreau differently, as vagabonds whose political power derived from their “all night conversation with the world.” 

Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913
Drawing on archival materials, this sequence from Espada’s 2016 collection paints vivid (and often visceral) portraits of the “overcome heroes” of a major textile strike in Paterson, New Jersey. They’re woven together not only by a common subject and red imagery but also by a formal conceit: each section puts the Petrarchan sonnet through narrative paces, with the volta marking a climax that the first octave sets up and the final sestet comments upon or contextualizes. The final sonnet puts the entire series in perspective, leaping forward in time to a later strike and offering the river as a figure for collectivity, for the history of struggle into which even the smallest actions feed.

Letter to My Father
Espada’s father, a civil rights activist and documentary photographer, is a highly important figure in the poet’s life and poetic work. In an earlier poem, for example, the elder Espada takes on an almost mythical dimension, dying and then coming back to life (“The Sign in My Father’s Hands”). Here, in this powerful 2018 elegy, Espada has no illusions of return or salvation—as his father taught him, there is “no life after life”—but he imagines them anyway, in part to memorialize the man but also to fix attention on the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria “gutted” the mountains where Frank Espada was born, reducing its towns to a “Camp of the Forgotten,” and in the poem’s final lines, the poet wishes his father could confront President Trump the way he once dealt with neighborhood kids who stole cars. Though the poet’s wishes cannot come true, his poem becomes its own kind of confrontation: an act of defiance that continues a family legacy of both might and mercy, of “swinging machetes” and “open hands.”

Originally Published: May 1st, 2018

Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.