Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
The word “alabanza” can be translated into English as “praise,” and the idea of praise runs through much of Martín Espada’s poetry. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Espada learned at an early age that it was difficult, if not impossible, for many Hispanic immigrants to make a living. His...
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The word “alabanza” can be translated into English as “praise,” and the idea of praise runs through much of Martín Espada’s poetry. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Espada learned at an early age that it was difficult, if not impossible, for many Hispanic immigrants to make a living. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the American Civil Rights movement during the 1950’s. The elder Espada was born in Puerto Rico, and after settling in New York City he became a leading activist in the Puerto Rican community. The young Espada learned from his father that minorities needed to work twice as hard as others in order to have a chance to succeed in the United States. As a teenager, Martín started expressing himself through poetry. Writing became an obsession for him, and it consumed almost all his time.
After earning a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in 1985, Espada worked in Chelsea, Massachusetts, as a tenant lawyer. He wanted to make a difference and did his best to assist those who had been victimized by the American legal bureaucracy. Espada was determined to write poetry that put a spotlight on how the less fortunate in the United States have attempted to succeed against all odds. Since 1993, Espada has been an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Espada believes that a poet can wear many hats. According to him, the poet can be a journalist, a teacher, a sociologist, and a historian. As a historian, Espada writes poetry that “challenges the official history.” He finds heroes in those who have been forgotten. In a 2002 interview, he quoted the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman as having said, “The duty of the poet is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” This sentiment fits perfectly with Espada’s approach to his own role as a poet.
Alabanza is divided into seven parts. The first six parts include selections from Espada’s six previous poetry collections. The seventh part contains seventeen new poems. Espada’s first collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, was published in 1982. Six poems were chosen for Alabanza and represent some of Espada’s earliest published poetry. In “Jim’s Blind Blues,” the poet describes the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is a heroin addict. The poem opens with the line, “There are some things/ doctors can’t fix,/ his brother said./ Heroin and diabetes.” Unfortunately, it was impossible for one brother to save the other, who was consumed by his addiction to heroin.
Espada’s second collection, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction, was published in 1987 and is represented in Alabanza by twelve poems. The title poem of his second volume presents everyday challenges faced by Puerto Rican immigrants to New York. The first stanza vividly invokes the swirl of life, with the lines “immigrants with Spanish mouths/ hear trumpets/ from the islands of their eviction./ The music swarms into the barrio/ of a refugee’s imagination,/ along with predatory squad cars/ and bullying handcuffs.” The balance that Espada understands is necessary in his poetry allows for the wedding of art and message. Without his art as a poet, the message would come across as self-indulgent rhetoric. In an interview, Espada said he wants his work to be “based on the image,” because “the image will show and that should be enough.” He believes in the old adage that a writer should strive to show and not merely tell.
In 1990 Espada published Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, his third volume of poetry. This collection was heralded as his most forceful to date. In addition to the Paterson Poetry Prize, the book was awarded the PEN/Revson Fellowship, and the judges’ citation for this award stated, “The greatness of Espada’s art, like all great arts, is that it gives dignity to the insulted and the injured of the earth.” There are seventeen poems from this collection included in Alabanza. In the foreword toRebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, and black activist, said that Espada’s poetry “does not necessitate fantasy as its voice, it illuminates reality.”
One of the pieces in this collection that drives home this point is the short lyric poem “Latin Night at the Pawnshop.” Espada was inspired to write this poem after walking by a Chelsea pawnshop during the 1987 Christmas season. He was practicing law in Chelsea at the time, and it was not out of the ordinary for him to pass the pawnshop on his way from his office to the Chelsea district court. On this occasion, he was inspired to make sense of what he saw in the window of the pawnshop: musical instruments that could be found in a salsa band. The poet sees “a salsa band/ gleaming in the Liberty Loan/ pawnshop window.” Espada also imagines that such instruments as the “Golden trumpet,” the “silver trombone,” the “congas,” and the “maracas” had made beautiful, life-affirming music in the past and sees it as tragic that they would end up in a pawnshop. All of the instruments have “price tags dangling,” which make him flash on a “city morgue ticket/ on a dead man’s toe.” The fate of these instruments represents, for the poet, the fate of the Latin culture, a culture that seemingly has been tossed away without regard or respect.
Espada is able, quite brilliantly, to take a small specific episode or incident and let it stand for a more universal cultural predicament. It is never his intent, though, to hammer the reader over the head with his political views. If the individual poem works on all intended levels, then the poet’s purpose will have been served.
Espada chose fourteen poems from his fourth collection, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), for Alabanza. Once again, the poet takes up the challenge of merging the political with the poetic. The danger for the poet is always that his art will be overwhelmed by political rhetoric, by strident slogans. In the title poem of this collection, the poet paints startlingly vivid images of the poor who struggle to survive in Chelsea. The poem opens with “I cannot evict them/ from my insomniac nights,/ tenants in the city of coughing/ and dead radiators.” The poor live under the constant weight of the legal system. They live in rooms where they must “protect food/ from ceilings black with roaches,” and yet they are hounded to pay rent or be thrown out into the cold. Never sentimental in his approach, Espada is matter-of-fact, with a pinch of sardonic humor.
His 1996 collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, won the American Book Award for poetry. He has included twenty-one poems from this major collection in Alabanza. The title poem opens with the intriguing line, “This is the year that squatters evict landlords.” Even though such a scenario is not likely to happen, Espada is willing to be optimistic. Without hope, there can be no change, no poetry that rattles the imagination. The title poem ends with the line, “So may every humiliated mouth,/ teeth like desecrated headstones,/ fill with the angels of bread.” This poem magnificently sets the tone for the whole collection.
In 2000 Espada published his sixth volume, A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen. As evidenced by his earlier works, the poet is relentless in his advocacy of those who are disadvantaged. Fourteen poems from this volume are included in Alabanza. In the poem “My Name Is Espada,” he takes pride in saying that the word “espada” means “sword” in Spain. The family name will survive, and, therefore, the family will survive.
One of the most tender and humorous poems from the collection is one that Espada dedicates to his wife, Katherine. After reading the title “I Apologize for Giving You Poison Ivy by Smacking You in the Eye with the Crayfish at the End of My Fishing Line,” a reader can conclude that something quite amusing is about to take place in the poem. It opens with the revelatory lines “I apologize for not knowing how to fish./ In Brooklyn all the fish are dead,/ from the goldfish spinning in the toilet bowl/ to the bluefish on ice at the market/ with eyes like Republicans campaigning for Congress.” Espada’s environment has left him clueless as to what fishing entails, and Katherine pays the price for his ignorance.
The acclaimed writer Marge Piercy has commented that Espada’s power as a poet comes from “his range, his compassion, his astonishing images, his sense of history, his knowledge of the lives on the underbelly of cities, his bright anger, his tenderness, his humor.” With Alabanza, all of Espada’s attributes as a poet are on display.
The seventeen new poems of Alabanza enhance Espada’s reputation as a major American poet. He believes that poetry can make a difference and leave its mark on the cultural psyche of North America. Along with millions of other Americans, Espada was touched by the terrorist attacks and their tragic consequences on September 11, 2001. The last poem of the book, “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” honors the forty-three union “members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center.” These workers were immigrants who had taken the subway to work and who would not be returning home. Espada gives praise to all of them, no matter their country of origin. In reference to September 11, Espada has stated that “Poetry humanizes. Poetry gives a human face to a time like this. Poetry gives eyes and a mouth and a voice to a time like this.”
For those who are not familiar with Espada’s poetry, Alabanza will serve as a marvelous introduction to the poet’s astonishing work. For those who have followed Espada’s growth as a poet from collection to collection, the seventeen new poems will profoundly touch the heart, but there also may be a twinge of disappointment that many fine poems from his earlier collections have been omitted. It is hoped that the publication of Alabanza will bring greater recognition to Espada as not merely a powerful voice for the Hispanic community and the immigrant community but as a voice for all residents of the United States.
Booklist 99, no. 15 (April 1, 2003): 1366.
Library Journal 128, no. 9 (May 15, 2003): 94.
The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2003, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 20 (May 19, 2003): 68-69.