Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Martín Espada is of Puerto Rican ancestry. Before his English professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Espada worked as a salesman, a clerk, a bouncer, and a tenant lawyer. He is the author of several poetry collections, includingThe Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero (1982), ...
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Born in Brooklyn, New York, Martín Espada is of Puerto Rican ancestry. Before his English professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Espada worked as a salesman, a clerk, a bouncer, and a tenant lawyer. He is the author of several poetry collections, includingThe Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero (1982), Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (1987), Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990),City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996). Espada is also the author of an acclaimed collection of essays: Zapata’s Disciple (1998). Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands won both the PEN/Revson Fellowship and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Imagine the Angels of Bread won an American Book Award for poetry. Whether as attorney, poet, or English professor, he again and again proves vocal about Latino social issues and injustices wherever they may appear. Through his poetry, Espada exposes the dark side of the immigrant experience in the United States. He details the plight of those who must adjust to a new world—an Anglo-American world. Having to overcome bigotry, poverty, and violence, the characters that populate his poems show great courage in their attempts to persevere against the brutality done to them. In addition to speaking up for an entire minority community, Espada also touches on the more personal tragedies that can beat down an individual in his or her daily life. While there are pitfalls for the poet who takes it upon himself to bear witness to injustice in his poetry, for Espada there is no other choice but to give names to the victims of the United States. As a poet, he does not fall into the trap of being bombastic and self-righteous to the detriment of his art. He wants both justice and art to inhabit his poems. The real tragedy, as Espada sees it, would be for him to remain silent—to not tell the truth as completely as he can.
In A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, Espada continues to speak with urgency concerning the lives of those who are less fortunate. The collection is divided into three sections: “A Tarantula in the Bananas,” “A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen,” and “A Library of Lions.” The collection is dedicated to Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Never one to shy away from sensitive political issues, the poet clearly views life itself as a political statement. As Espada witnesses too frequently, the working-class individual, the minority person, or the recent immigrant always seems to be shortchanged or worse. Having felt the cold hand of Anglo-American contempt himself, Espada resolved never to be less than an advocate for the cause of freedom and human dignity.
The first section includes ten poems that speak to the plight of Puerto Ricans and focus especially on the Espada family. The opening poem, “My Name Is Espada,” boldly states that the name Espada is “the word for sword in Spain.” In the fourth stanza, the reference becomes personal:
Espada: sword in Puerto Rico, family name of bricklayers
who swore their towels fell as leaves from iron trees;
teachers who wrote poems in galloping calligraphy;
saintcarvers who whittled a slave’s gaze and a conqueror’s beard;
shoemaker spitting tuberculosis, madwoman
dangling a lantern to listen for a cough;
gambler in a straw hat inhabited by mathematical angels;
preacher who first heard the savior’s voice
bleeding through the plaster of the jailhouse;
dreadlocked sculptor stunned by visions of birds,
sprouting wings from his forehead, earthen wings in the fire.
The poem details the history of a name, the poet’s name, a name that has survived for decades against all odds. In times of doubt or in times when it looks like the whole world is standing on the neck of the neglected—a Latino, an Espada—it is incumbent on the poet and other family members of conscience to find strength, resolve, and a weapon of justice in the family name, the name Espada.
The poet proves passionate about the unique position that Puerto Ricans find themselves in an Anglo-American world. From his perspective, Puerto Ricans are “the Palestinians of Latin America.” The migrant story always remains fresh for Espada, whether it is his own family’s story or that of the many millions of other Puerto Ricans, Latinos, or faceless immigrants. In the second poem of the collection, “Preciosa Like a Last Cup of Coffee,” Espada pays tribute to his grandmother Luisa Roig. The Spanish word preciosa can mean beautiful, precious, or valuable. There is real value and beauty in a person’s life, in that person’s memories, and in what gives comfort to that person when he or she is dying. In “For Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks,” the poet lashes out at the injustice done to his cousin. He ends the poem with the lines:
may you hallucinate dreadlocks
braided in thick vines around your ankles;
and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.
Espada is not without a sense of humor. It can be, though, a very biting humor. The first section ends with the short poem “What Francisco Luis Espada Learned at Age Five, Standing on the Dock.” What Francisco learned at the age of five was that “Sometimes/ there’s a/ tarantula/ in the/ bananas.” It is imperative for an Espada to always stay alert, never let down his guard, and be wary of things that seem too good to be true. This is a hard lesson that not everyone comes to learn, but not learning this lesson for the Puerto Rican, the Hispanic, the new immigrant, or any other person of color could become a matter of life or death.
The second section includes thirteen wonderfully heartbreaking and haunting poems. While there is less in-your-face rage in this section, the poet’s more subtle approach to telling his human stories is nonetheless as blistering as any of the poems in the entire collection. The title poem introduces the reader to a man who leans “on the third-floor fire escape” and smokes a cigarette while down below a fire rages. He is “a Mayan astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen/ watching galaxies spiral in the fingerprints of smoke.” For “Pitching the Potatoes,” Espada remembers how his father was a pitcher for a semiprofessional baseball team. When Espada’s younger brother declares that he does not want to eat the mashed potatoes served to him, this father who had been a semiprofessional pitcher throws the plate of mashed potatoes “over my brother’s bristling crewcut head.” While famous for his curveball, he did not employ it to throw this plate. Espada’s mother prays and, eventually, sponges off the wall. The last stanza of the poem brings the reader into the present. While his mother still prays and is “patient with God,” his brother has become a vegetarian and his father believes that “the Giants have no pitching.” Espada confesses that when he sleeps he ducks “beneath a plate of mashed potatoes” that orbits his head “like a fake flying saucer/ suspended by wire,” and this whole scene is a “snapshot from thirty years ago.”
This section also includes two poems dedicated to his wife, Katherine. In “Ode to Your Earrings,” the poet describes a rich imaginary world that grows out of the significance of the earrings. The poem opens with the exotic line: “There are parrots of the Amazon peeking from your hair.” This line stands on its own. The first full stanza of the poem boldly states: “On your earlobes twin Taíno goddesses of the river/ squat, their eyes in slits, and dream/ the cloud of underwater birth.” In the next stanza, Katherine’s ears are described as being the “shoreline/ of an ocean after the hurricane”—the “seahorses of Thailand curl their tails,/ brushing your neck.” The stanza continues with the introduction of “purple wooden fish,” “fish of clay,” and “silver dolphins.” All these creatures have taken refuge in Katherine. In the fifth stanza, there is a list of sounds that are heard in Katherine’s ears, including a “Zuni flute,” “dolphin chatter,” “a prayer,” and the chant of “goddesses and birds.” The chant is no less than the “recipe for the creation of planets.” The poem ends with Katherine waking the poet in order to tell him what she hears.
As tender and exotic as this poem for Katherine is, the other poem dedicated to her, “I Apologize for Giving You Poison Ivy by Smacking You in the Eye with the Crayfish at the End of My Fishing Line,” is amusing almost to point of being silly and yet extremely poignant. Espada is sorry for such things as not being able to fish and not understanding what poison ivy can do to someone’s skin. He does not know about these things because of where he was born. Because he was a Puerto Rican born in the Bronx, Espada is clueless about fishing, poison ivy, and crayfish. He apologizes for everything, especially for “tangling my fishing line in the poison ivy” and for the “hooked crayfish, oiled with poison ivy,/ that flew over my shoulder like a cockroach with wings/ and smacked you in the eye.” Katherine’s eye swells and Espada knows that he must do penance. He resolves to “return to the lake at midnight” and “shout this poem repeatedly/ til sunrise, or until the police/ club me with their flashlights.” This six-stanza poem adeptly uses humor to draw in the reader on one level and also open up the poem to be a powerful description of a clash of cultural experiences.
The nine poems that make up the third section are the most directly political of the collection. The most controversial poem of the group, “Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent,” concerns Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former member of the Black Panthers who is on death row for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer that he says he did not commit. Thousands of concerned citizens, including Espada, questioned whether Abu-Jamal should be in prison. Espada was commissioned by National Public Radio’s (NPR) program All Things Considered to write a poem concerning a current topical issue. NPR decided against airing this particular poem because, as Espada sees the situation, it spoke out in support of Abu-Jamal. The poet’s hard political edge is more evident in this section. The plight of American political prisoners takes center stage. Without a touch of sentiment, Espada expresses his disapproval of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in “The Eleventh Reason.” The poet wishes to make the reader uncomfortable, to make the United States take a second look at itself.
These poems are more than mere harangues, more than mere posturing. Espada never loses sight of the fact that a serious subject does not make a poem. A successful poem is made by the strength of its words, its images, and its form. Espada clearly understands the need to wed the subject with these essential poetic requirements. This is nowhere more evident than in the last poem of the collection, “The River Will Not Testify.” The poem speaks about human dignity and how hard it is to hold as it describes the slaughter of Native Americans by Puritans in the seventeenth century.
There is a helpful glossary of Spanish words and expressions used by Espada at the end of the collection. While some readers of A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen may prefer the more personal poems found in the first two sections, Espada, overall, exhibits a powerful range of poems in the collection. He is the Mayan astronomer. He is the gifted individual who takes on the responsibility of shedding light on those who are less fortunate and of letting the attentive reader view this largely obscured part of the American landscape. As with other poets of conscience such as Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Ai, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martín Espada tells the all-too-human stories of the downtrodden with boldness and strength of conviction.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1074.
Library Journal 125 (March 1, 2000): 96.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 7, 2000): 69.