Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn't Buy Anything

by Martin Espada

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

Martín Espada’s poem “Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn’t Buy Anything” is composed of forty-four lines of free verse. The lines are divided into stanzas of varying lengths, from only four lines in the final stanza to the longest, eleven lines, in stanza 2. The poem describes Tony’s maturation from elementary school to law school. Each verse encapsulates some feature of Tony’s development as he seeks his place in the world.

The opening five lines introduce a fatherless Puerto Rican boy trying to survive the “Long Island city projects.” He takes a job at a local bodega (grocery and liquor store) and learns how to be polite to the abuelas (grandmothers) who are regular patrons and how to grin at the customers in imitation of the shop owner Makengo, who knows how to charm his clientele. Each successive stanza recounts another point in Tony’s education. He receives a scholarship to law school away from New York but feels out of place. The academic environment of graduate school and the upwardly mobile condominium communities seem inhospitable to the young man. He searches for a sense of belonging and finds it in a Hispanic neighborhood on Tremont Street. Tony finds refuge in a Boston bodega where people speak Spanish and are as “island brown as him.”

The inclusion of Spanish words and phrases shows the blend of English and Spanish that comprise Tony’s world. The vocabulary of the poem is accessible, the language of common people, while the diction is suggestive and imagistic. The work possesses a contemporary sensibility with its references to New York, Boston, Long Island, and Tremont Street. The irony of the poem is that Tony has the ability and opportunity to escape the Long Island projects, but as an adult he returns to a similar neighborhood because that is where he feels at home. Espada suggests that true success for Tony means returning to his Hispanic roots, where the language and people are familiar—where he finds a sense of belonging that he does not find in academic or professional communities. He returns to the bodega, but he no longer needs to buy or sell anything.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

Espada has been described as an Imagist poet. The term “imagist” derived from a literary movement between 1909 and 1918 in which poets such as Ezra Pound and H. D. set forth a poetic style using a specific mode of image, diction, and rhyme. In her work Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), poet Amy Lowell asserted, among other things, that imagists use the language of common speech, but “employ the exact word—not the nearly exact.” They avoid clichés, create new rhythms, explore any subject, and “suggest rather than offer complete statements.” Espada’s “Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn’t Buy Anything” reflects elements derived from the Imagist movement.

The poet mixes Spanish and English terms easily in the colloquial speech of the narrator. There is the “puertorriqueño boy” who works for “Makengo the Cuban” at the bodega, in the second stanza. Tony finds the “primavera” (spring season) in Boston cold and uninviting, as described in stanza 3. Only stanza 4 contains no Spanish terms. Those lines describe Tony’s sense of alienation as he “walked without a map/ through the city,/ a landscape of hostile condominiums.” The turning point occurs in stanza 5, when Tony discovers the Boston projects and visits the local bodega:

he sat by the doorway satisfiedto watch la gente (peopleisland-brown as him)crowd in and out,hablando espanol.

Espada’s narrator uses the vernacular; the people Tony meets in the bodega are as “brown as him.” Nonstandard construction replaces the standard grammatical pronoun usage, which would be “as brown as he is.” Espada depicts the conglomerate language of the inner city; his portrait of Tony’s dilemma is subtle yet clear.

The verses are both rhythmic and conversational even though the poem contains no fixed metric pattern. The lines vary in length from three to thirteen syllables. The word “Tony” begins three of the stanzas, and the phrase “So Tony” begins the fourth. It is his story, and the rhythm of his name creates a strong trochaic pulse in the opening lines, with an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one. However, the driving accents of those lines are tempered by predominate iambic or anapestic feet in other lines such as “above the bodega” and “the cooking of his neighbors,” in which accented syllables are preceded by one or two unaccented syllables.

Alliteration also contributes to the rhythmic quality of the verse, illustrated in the lines “Tony’s father left the family,” “the dry-mop mambo,” and “walked without a map.” Stanzas 3-6 are moved along by the fluid s sound in the phrases “spoke Spanish,” “sidewalk-searcher,” and “success story.”

Paradox is employed throughout the work as well. In stanza 2, the young boy learns shop keeping from Makengo. He emulates the sly smile that Makengo gives his customers; however, when Makengo grins, he shows his “bad yellow teeth.” The portrait of Makengo’s expression provokes an image that is both charming and revolting. Tony’s success described in stanza 3 is also bittersweet. Tony leaves the projects “with a scholarship for law school,” but Boston is not home to him. Spring often denotes a season of rebirth or renewal, but Tony curses the “cold” Massachusetts spring. He becomes a “sidewalk-searcher lost” in the “darkness of white faces.” The Puerto Rican boy feels isolated, perhaps even alienated, when he leaves the Long Island projects even though a professional education can provide him with a lucrative future. The poem does not say that Tony finishes school and becomes a lawyer on his way to supposed material success, yet Espada asserts in the closing lines that “today Tony lives on Tremont Street,/ above the bodega.”

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