Photograph by Katherine Gilbert-Espada
Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction by Martín Espada (Tempe, Ariz.: Bilingual Press, 1987)
Foreward to the First Edition, Robert Creeley
The common disposition toward poetry has been long schooled by determinations of privilege and similar academic investment. So taught, it colonizes in the strictest of senses, patronizing its hosts, exploiting the common ground of human feeling for isolating details of style or taste. So again in school we learned of its difficulties only, the oblique reference of its superior information, the presumptive authority of its diffident gestures. Thus qualified, poetry became a markedly foreign world, both alien and alienating, and we were rarely if ever its people. It would not speak to us and we were finally ignorant of its ironic language.
But the actual world, thankfully, is one in which a plurality of poetries exists—not simply this one, or any such one , but many. The poet William Carlos Williams puts it most compactly: "Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. . . ." Whitman had said that to have great poets, one needed great audiences—those who might hear intimately, intensely, the common voice in the singular person. The point is that this art can never leave the common body of its own communal life. It is not an I but "the wind that blows through me," as D. H. Lawrence has written.
Martín Espada is a poet of great communal power and he is also, with equal resource, the voice of intensive isolation. He says, for example, that he began to write as an adolescent because "nothing matched me." Small wonder that he felt so when one recognizes that after his family leaves the projects in Brooklyn—he is then about thirteen—their various locations (Valley Stream, Long Island, several towns in Maryland) are far removed from the communal habits of their Brooklyn neighborhood, whatever its limits had been. Racism becomes an insistent qualification and response insofar as these new communities are instance of "White Flight," i.e., a social migration of the period formed by those wishing to maintain a racial privilege. In these malignant camps of entrenched prejudice, Espada feels "less and less in touch."
So, expectably, Espada says that it is the resulting sense of dislocation that moves him to write, but he also proposes that this experience of being an outcast is literally the determinant in all Puerto Rican immigrant life. It's an old saying that a Puerto Rican spends more time in the air than on the ground. Harshly, complexly, "The Spanish of Our Out-Loud Dreams" makes clear with consummate tenderness the irrevocable transitions, seemingly without end:
. . . Last night you cried,
your black eyes shimmering darker
than the room
where we tried to sleep,
crying like your father cried
when you pulled away
from the hospital bed,
and for all the nights
we have wandered with stuffed bags,
not staying long enough
to learn the language . . .
As he said of this poem, it is the insistent theme of migration, "The Spanish, etc. The third verse is really what it's all about."
The book's title poem is, of course, the complement, the "islands," the places left, or that one is going to, or has come to, or is leaving. He says wryly, "We're always being evicted. The 'trumpets' are our resistance to that, through identity, or more actively."
He is by no means an old man—twenty-eight—and yet his life has been so many determining places. Like the University of Maryland, where courses in creative writing and modern poetry make clear that "whatever I'm writing, it's not this." He stops writing for three or four years, he says. He has no models at first. "I didn't know it had a name." Certainly not those offered—Yeats, Eliot, Crane, Stevens—if the active terms and reference of his experience are to be respected and used. Finally, when he's about twenty and living elsewhere, a friend, Luis Garden Acosta, gives him a copy of Latin American Revolutionary Poetry (edited by Roberto Márquez and printed bilingually) with Pedro Pietri's classic poem of Puerto Rican community, "Puerto Rican Obituary," facing Ernesto Cardenal's rehearsal of Somozan corruption, "Zero Hour." "And the spark was lit. . . ." The connection: "People can write about substantial subjects. . . ."
At this point the father, Frank Espada, is an intensive key, I think. One can see, in fact, the bridge his life makes as definition for his son's in the title poem but even more complexly in the poem on the grandfather's death, "El señor está muerto": "son's body huge with a father's life." In turn, it is the literal community and person of Frank Espada which so invests his own son's commitment. It is his father's family and relationships that preoccupy the son finally. His father is a gifted photographer with determined political address and some of his work appears as an active complement to the poems in Espada's first book, The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (1982). He makes the point that his poetry "is always about more than me" and that it insists on the outside , echoing emotionally, politically, and esthetically determinants in the father's own life. He speaks of the fact that his father's photographs were "always on the wall" despite there being long periods of inactivity, and that he sees himself as a "black and white" poet, for whom the principal agencies are foregrounding and shadow.
There is also the sense of advocacy —it is such a pervasive voice in this writing!—that Espada has in so many ways engaged. Thinking again of those "determining places": as a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, his interests are history (this is the major for the BA he holds, and it contributes curious data, as he says, such as the fact that Douglas MacArthur and Carl Sandburg both served in the US Army in Puerto Rico), radio journalism (a three-part documentary made in 1982 from material gathered in Nicaragua and broadcast on National Public Radio and elsewhere is an early national advice of circumstances there), and film—ultimately too expensive. And poetry. His first reading is at a bar in Madison where he also works as a bouncer.
But the job of most significance would seem the one he falls into by chance while working as a clerk in the state mental health system. The lawyer who had been responsible for representing the rights of patients leaves unexpectedly for a better job. So Martín Espada becomes the whole Advocacy Pool, simply because there is no one else so trained or at all interested. He had dropped out of college at this point, had just turned twenty—and must have been in some common crisis as to what his own life was finally to be. In any case, he "soon knew the statutes cold," as he put it, "Chapter 51.61: The Patient's Bill of Rights."
Again, advocacy is the crucial term—"speaking or writing in support (of something)" as the dictionary defines it. But the meaning is more active in Espada's own qualification: "persuasion, making the case, putting it in human terms, quoting directly from the people. . . ." He says of the poem "La tormenta" that it's a translation in part from the young boy ("A boy with wide ears / and one shirt, / he walked across Guatemala, / México and Arizona to get here . . . He wants to be called Tony / in the United States . . .") who was "quite mad. . . ." La muerte es una tormenta . "I couldn't say that, only he could say that. . . ."
As of this writing [April 1986] Martín Espada works as a lawyer for the META project in Cambridge, an organization involved with the legal context of civil rights for immigrants and with bilingual education laws in particular. He also teaches poetry to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at the Agassiz School in Cambridge, a very different world indeed. No doubt it is poetry itself he speaks in defense of—or simply makes real for the beleaguered young. That he's a lawyer too must amaze them—with a three piece suit! Perhaps he can save us all.
Whatever their circumstances poets make a world, piece by piece, as best they can. Those most able are most ample—like Pablo Neruda, a particular hero of Espada's. When the distances become inexorable, the language disjunct, the place and person lost in meager time and circumstance, when all that's left is what one can finally say of it (or anything), then painfully, particularly, poets remember, put back together the broken fragments of the dismembered community. It is the power and the glory of their art. It is also why there is not one singularizing poetry but rather a host of annealing and restoring poets, who are as related to the people as ever the people might be, in turn, to them. When one first hears the voice of Espada's poems, the determined dignity, the intense, quiet care, when the cadence of the language makes a movement having no didactic metric, rather a pace, an undulation, a way of intent walking, or feeling, then one recognizes the presence of this power, which no one owns but some may and can have, as does he. One wishes him safe journey.
ITHACA, NEW YORK