Burning for Justice
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Burning for Justice. Every year, The Poetry Foundation honors a living US poet for his or her outstanding lifetime achievement. The Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, it’s called. Previous winners include Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, and many others familiar to Poetry readings. This year’s winter is Martín Espada, who’s life and work have been devoted to social justice. He was born in Brooklyn to a politically engaged family, he worked as a tenant lawyer before focusing on writing, translating and anthologizing. According to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine, Espada tells “the real history of America, one in which the importance of poems and legal rights goes hand in hand as we tell our stories”. He currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he joins me from the studios of New England public radio. Hi Martín.
Martín Espada: Hello.
Curtis Fox: If it’s okay with you, I’d like to get straight to a poem which will tell us more about you than a more elaborate introduction from me, that’s for sure. Can I get you to read a poem called, “The Sign in My Father’s Hands”.
Martín Espada: Yes.
The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.
In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.
Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.
That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.
Curtis Fox: That was “The Side of My Father’s Hands” from Martín Espada’s 1996 book, Imagine The Angles of Bread”. Martín, this poem is about a harrowing episode when, for a few days when you were a boy, you believed your father was dead. Can you tell us a little bit more about that episode?
Martín Espada: Well, the background is that my father was a civil rights activist, a community organizer, he was a leader, some would say the leader of the Puerto Rican community in New York City in the 1960s. He was working hand and glove with Brooklyn Core. Brooklyn Core in turn decided not only to boycott Shaefer Beer, because of their discriminatory hiring practices, but also to demonstrate at the world fair in New York, 1964, which if you were around was a very very big deal. My father figured out a way to get inside the pavilion. So they not only demonstrated and picketed, they sat in, and they were arrested en mass. In those days, if they didn’t take you to Rikers Island, if there was an overflow in the jail, they would take you instead to a place called Heart Island, which is best known as the place where New York City houses it’s potters field.
Curtis Fox: I was going to say, that’s where impoverished people are buried when they’re families don’t claim them.
Martín Espada: Almost a million people there. So my father went to the sublivian, the isle of the dead. Being that he was taken away in this fashion, he didn’t have the usual contact with his family or anyone else. No phone call like you see in the movies. So we had no idea where he was, and being seven years old, no one was about to explain it to me.
Curtis Fox: So your whole family thought he was dead?
Martín Espada: No, we just didn’t know where he was. My mother had no idea. I simply knew that he was gone. I knew from the atmosphere around me that it was serious. I would hold his photograph in my hands and I would look at it and I would cry. I was doing that, I was engaged in this little ceremony when my father walked in the door. I remember, the first thing I said to him was “I thought you were dead”. And he burst out laughing. There was an awareness in him that he would have to explain himself to me in some way. He would have to explain what this other life was all about to a seven year old. So he tried. I’m not sure how much I actually understood. I would learn a lot more and fill in the blanks later. But what did change is I started to accompany him here and there. I would go to meetings, as I say in the poem. I would be drawing on the blank side of a leaflet. That’s what I did in those days, I didn’t write poems. I drew.
Curtis Fox: The final image of the boy, you, searching his father’s hands for the sign of a miracle. I think it deliberately brings to mind stigmata of Jesus and the wounds on his hands from the crucifixion. Is that the intent there? Your father came back to life and it felt to you like a miracle?
Martín Espada: Yes. He did come back from the dead, and it’s a reference of course to stigmata although we were not Catholic. My father was a lapsed Catholic. Very lapsed, seriously lapsed. It was on that level a reference to stigmata, but on a more literal level it was a reference of a boy searching his father’s hands, touching them because he never expected to do that again. I was 7, his hands were enormous. His hands in themselves were miraculous. But the fact that I could touch his hands again was equally miraculous.
Curtis Fox: I’m curious, your father was an activist, dedicated his life to changing the status quo and bettering the lives of poor people. Did he read your poetry? And did he respond to it?
Martín Espada: Yes, my father was capable of being intensely proud of my work. It was difficult for him to come out and say it. There was also conflicts to be honest. There was things that I wrote that he didn’t like because they revealed family secrets, for example. We had some pretty fierce arguments about that. I remember there was a while where we weren’t even speaking to each other, because there was such anger about a couple poems I’d written, his response to those poems. Then what happened was my father, who was also a documentary photographer, had an exhibit here at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that I co-organized. He came in to do the opening, and as was the custom, I was going to read a poem at the opening. I said, you know what, I’ve written a poem and I want to read it at the opening. We were five minutes away from doing this at the gallery. I said, I want to show it to you first. He said oh, you don’t have to do that. You really don’t. You don’t have to run it by me, I’m not going to censor you or anything like that. I said no, I really think you need to see this first. And the poem was “The Sign in My Father’s Hands”. He looked at the poem, he read it in my presence, and he lurched forward, sobbing. This was two minutes before he was supposed to speak at this opening.
Curtis Fox: That’s awkward.
Martín Espada: Well, it was also liberating. It was one of the most remarkable moments that he and I ever shared. We sort of cleaned each other up, is your tie straight? You ready? I spoke first before he did. The poem made him cry again. He actually got up and admitted that in front of this audience which was very unusual.
Curtis Fox: I want to get you to read another poem that’s also autobiographical, but you’re a little older in this one. It’s called “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”. Can you read that please?
Martín Espada: Yes, it is called “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”.
At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
stacked seven feet high
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
Then the glue would sting,
till both palms burned
at the punchclock.
Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open lawbook
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.
Curtis Fox: That was “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” form Martín Espada’s 1993, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. Martín, one way to read this poem is that the bright glossy venire of consumer society is underwritten by hard, often painful labor. Is that a fair way to read this poem?
Martín Espada: Certainly. The fact is we take for granted the labor that produced everything we use. That’s part of what I’m trying to say here. You look at an innocuous every day item like a legal pad. You don’t consider what went into it. And more, you don’t consider the sacrifice, not just the manufacturer, but the sacrifice, the blood in the glue. The connection I’m making in the last stanza of course is that there is a legal system that supports this economic system that values property over people, that exploits human beings and makes their labor invisible, not to mention bloody.
Curtis Fox: There’s another way to interpret that last stanza. I want to run this one by you. The speaker, you, “know that every open law book / was a pair of hands / upturned and burning”. One way to read that is, this isn’t just legal jargon in law books, this is language written in response to real human suffering. I’m assuming that the laws are beneficial here. So you’re saying just the opposite, that the legal system is there to oppress people.
Martín Espada: Well listen, I spent ten years working as a tenant lawyer. While you might hear, especially from people who own property, that the law favours tenants, in point of fact the law exists to support the powerful, federal. There are exceptions. Of course, there’s a body of law that enumerates our rights as well. But you don’t have any rights A) if you don’t know about them, and B) if you don’t have the economic means to enforce them. I saw this time after time in court in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is where I practiced. The outcome was so pre-determined that it was routinely referred to by everyone was evection day. The clerk of the court used to throw open the door on Thursday morning, and she used to yell “All evictions in court”. What does that say? I used to see hearings that would last a matter of minutes. I knew a judge who would inquire of the tenant, no matter what the facts were, “Are you receiving well-fare?”. And if the answer was yes, he would say “Judgement for the landlord”. I saw this over and over again. Property over people, there’s no question about it. If you look at the larger economic structure of this country today, the economic crises in which so many millions of people find themselves. That is supported by a legal system, you couldn’t do that without the law behind it. The law is there to serve the interests rich and the powerful first, and the rest of us come after that. This is a poem I wrote, as I’ve put it elsewhere, that I wrote for those who do not know, but also for those who do.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear one more poem. This one has been called your signature poem. It’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”. Can you read this for us?
Martín Espada: Sure.
Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100
for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Curtis Fox: That was “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” from Martín Espada’s New and Selected Poems. Martín, in the weeks and months after September 11th, there was a lot of attention paid to the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, 658 of whom died in the attack. Less attention I think was paid to the working class workers who lost their lives, including the employees of Windows on the World. Was that part of what moved you to write this poem, that some of the lives lost were not being paid attention to?
Martín Espada: Absolutely. First of all, like everyone else I was struggling to make sense of something so utterly senseless. Trying to find a part that would stand for the whole, and feeling this as someone who was born and raised in the city of New York. There was a story, I think it was the BBC first program, concerning some of these workers in the kitchen at Windows of the World. The particular angle was these were mostly immigrants, and many undocumented. Invisible in life, even more invisible in death to the point where their families could not even come forward to claim benefits. They had literally vanished into nothing. I was taken by this particular story, and I began thinking about it, reading about it. So the poem came out.
Curtis Fox: And you cast it as a praise song, which is an interesting choice. It’s very unlikely considering it’s subject matter of 9/11. In essence, it’s a celebration of lives that went unheralded, except perhaps in your poem.
Martín Espada: Yes. First of all, there’s a fine line between elegy and ode. So many elegies contain within them the element of praise. So this was what emerged, came forward for me. Yes, one purpose of my work certainly is to rescue the dead from oblivion. If I don’t write the poem, who will? This applies to individuals as well. I often feel that way, and I’m often called upon in fact to perform the same function that preachers traditionally perform; that is to speak at memorial services, and to write something, to say something that would make sense fo the great loss. The elegy as a form is something I’ve had to come to terms with. You reach a certain age and basically, people around you start dying. Not just your elders, but the peers around you as well. I found it necessary to speak in that voice. You grieve, but you want to transcend grief. You lament but you want to transcend lamentation. The way to do that is to engage in praise, and to find what was praise worthy and then honor that praise. The word “Alabanza” of course means praise in Spanish.
Curtis Fox: Martín Espada, thanks so much for coming on the podcast, and thanks for your poetry.
Martín Espada: Oh, thank you very much.
Curtis Fox: Martín Espada is the winner of the 2018 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement. You can read the poems you just heard and a few more on our website, poetryfoundation.org. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. You can link to the podcast on social media from SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it on the Apple Podcast app. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.