In contrast to the political poetry that epitomized so much of the 1970s, Martin Espada's work kicks aside the pulpit and abandons the megaphone. Espada calls his readers to action in a more indirect fashion -- he envisions a free world... [more]
In contrast to the political poetry that epitomized so much of the 1970s, Martin Espada's work kicks aside the pulpit and abandons the megaphone. Espada calls his readers to action in a more indirect fashion -- he envisions a free world without idealizing and describes social horrors without reprimanding. Espada talks to his audience intimately, unfolding the stories of survivors, victims, and workers in their own, first-person voices. He is never whimsical with the use of this borrowed, eyewitness authority; he owns the experiences he tells, places appropriate responsibility, and allows the reader to make the final judgment.
Espada's poems let many people speak: Demetria Martinez the writer, Clemente Soto Velez the activist, a Chilean friend escaping a firing squad, a carpenter, a pizza man. His extraordinary and expansive cast of characters brings American injustices -- from the colonization of Puerto Rico to racism in public education -- to light with careful honesty and accessibility.
In "Thieves of Light," a Spanish-speaking attorney tries to help a poor woman whose abusive, corrupt landlord has cut off her electricity. The attorney nervously assembles a team of impromptu vigilantes (the locksmith, the Edison man, and himself) and, with a search warrant in his holster, breaks the landlord's barricade to restore light to Luisa. Espada uses the light as a metaphor for redemption, renewal, and the triumph of the oppressed; for him, the recovered electric glow is like a modern-day angel. Espada's poetic strength lies in his ability to draw magic from desperation, to grant mystic powers to the powerless.
In 1997, at the request of National Public Radio, Espada wrote "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent." The poem offers commentary on the ongoing death-row watch of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Imagining the black activist's eventual execution, Espada proposes that his outraged ghost seek refuge at the tomb of Walt Whitman, where "fugitive slaves may rest." Here Espada shows his more politically aggressive side by suggesting the convicted man is a slave and the legal system is his unjust, racist oppressor. In fact, the poem proved so controversial that the producers of NPR refused to air it. Enraged by this censorship, Espada distributed the work through various nonprofit outlets and the Internet to ensure that his message reached the masses.
Clearly Espada does not shy away from tough, political issues, even if he usually eschews brashness for subtlety. Social injustices rise to the surface of his simply told, almost mythical narratives. But in the end, he seems more hopeful than angry. In his "Imagine the Angels of Bread," the oppressors are apologetic, the oppressed are forgiving, and both sides reach a quiet truce over a cup of coffee. As Espada says in the final lines of the poem:
So may every humiliated mouth,
Teeth like desecrated headstones,
Fill with the angels of bread. [show less]