Thursday, May 20, 2010

Martin Espada: A poet for social justice and human rights

Martin Espada is a Latino poet, writer and critic and academic at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches poetry.

Martin Espada has published seventeen books as poet, translator and publisher and his poetry and writings display a deep commitment to issues of social justice, political activism and human rights. For many years Espada worked as a tenancy lawyer in a legal service in a neighbor legal services program. An interview with Martin Espada can be read here.

Martin Espada was born in Brooklyn. His poem the Sign in My Father's Hands was written about his father who was a leader in the Puerto Rican community and civil rights movement. The poem The Soldiers in the Garden is from his book The Republic of Poetry.

The Sign in My Father’s Hands
by Martín Espada

—for Frank Espada

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.
Martin Espada,

“The Sign in My Father’s Hands” is from Imagine the Angels of Bread. Copyright © 1996 by Martin Espada.

The Soldiers in the Garden

by Martín Espada

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.

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