Wednesday, August 29, 2007


The insurgence of words

Earlier this summer I read The Republic of Poetry by Martín Espada (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), his most recent book of poems. Usually I wait for books to come out in paperback; this one looked too good to wait, and I was right. One poem after another, beautiful, stonecut, volcanic, alive with wind.

In the first of the book's three sections are poems coming out of Espada's visit to Chile in 2004, for the 100th anniversary of Pablo Neruda's birth, which was marked by many public events and observances. Chile is one of many places in the world haunted by the ghosts of the imperial United States; Neruda's death in 1973, at the time of the military coup that was organized and supported by the U.S. government, is irrevocably linked with the political events of that time. (It was on September 11, 1973, that planes supplied by the U.S. bombed the official residence of the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende; Allende died in the bombing.)

From Martín Espada's poem "Not Here":
Today we walk through the courtyard
of the presidential palace.
The fountain speaks in the water's tongue;
the fountain of smoke is gone.
The bombers that boomed across this sky
left no fingerprints in the clouds
when they dropped their rockets,
twisting the rails of the balcony like licorice.
Today Allende is white marble outside the palace,
mute as a martyr, without a hand free to wave
from the balcony, without a voice to crackle
his last words in the radio air.
Espada's poems give the places and people he encounters a sharp-edged tactile reality. Again and again as I read the poems in The Republic of Poetry I felt transported to the place, the street, the room that where Espada was. One of the poems that moved me the most, that I've gone back and reread over and over, is "Rain Without Rain":
The celebration of a century since Neruda's birth
brings pilgrims by the thousands to his house,
fingering the rust off the locomotive in his garden,
shouting Whitman in Spanish over the sea,
loading their shoes with Isla Negra sand
amid the red banners along the beach,
men on horse back, a chorus of schoolgirls,
bamboo flutes from the south.

Yet there is rain without rain in the air.
In the horseshoe path of the poet's tomb
they walk, lips sewn up by the seamstress grief,
faces of the disappeared on signs strung
around their necks: Name. Date. Political Execution.
The faces of the missing in snapshots are pins
brilliant in the sky, long after their bodies
float away to another cosmos. [...]

[...]How the desaparecidos on this day
burst from the sand at Isla Negra,
how they are born from the black petals of the rocks,
how they wade from a sea far away
where their bones glow with the light of blind fish.

At the tomb, a woman silent all along
steps from the circle and says:
I want to sing. Neruda. Poem Twenty.
Then she climbs atop the tomb and sings:
Tonight I can write the saddest verses.
Amid the great public political weight of many of the poems in this book are poems that move more quietly, in a voice more playful, though with the same awe and elevation of the more explicitly political ones. Among the many amazing objects Neruda collected in his house (seashells, glass bottles, the locomotive mentioned in the poem above) are carved figureheads salvaged from the prows of ships. Several of them are pictured on the front of the book jacket. Espada writes of one seeing one of them at the house,
with great brown eyes
and hair in a whirl,
now hovering silently
above the poet's table.

That night at the bar
she appeared at my elbow,
the same eyes, the same hair,
not paint and wood but flesh.
He likes for me to be still,
she grinned. I don't like to be still.
I want to climb the steps
at Macchu Picchu.
I want to talk about poetry all night.
I want more wine.
(From the poem "Not Paint and Wood.")

The poems in the other sections of the book travel further around the world, to the vast and varied homes and windows and doors and sidewalks, the days and the years, the intimacy and the multitudes, that we build with our hands and footsteps every day. A poem about South African poet Dennis Brutus, a poem about Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, a poem about Espada's visit to a Brooklyn apartment building where he lived when he was young, a poem about taking his young son outside to see the fireworks in the sky that were causing frightening noises.

Every poem in The Republic of Poetry took me to a place that I recognized somewhere deep within myself, some place that I knew I had long needed to go to. The greatest poems create worlds that tell us the truth about this world in which we find ourselves. I want to speak to, speak with, Martín Espada. I want to tell him thank you. I'm still carrying the book with me everywhere, still rereading it, still brought again and again into the warmth and sorrow and great humanity of Espada's poems.
The war in Viet Nam snaked rivers of burning sampans
through your brain, but still your hands
filled with poems gleaming like fish.
The highways of Virginia sent Confederate ghost-patrols
to hang you in dreams, a Black man with too many books,
but still you tugged the collar of your coat around my neck.

Now you are dead, your heart throbbing too fast
for doctors at the veterans' hospital to keep the beat,
their pill bottles rattling, maracas in a mambo for the doomed. [...[

[...] Soon your ashes fly to the veterans' cemetery at Arlington,
where once a Confederate general
would have counted you among his mules and pigs.
This poet's coat is your last poem.
I want to write a poem like this coat,
with buttons and pockets and green cloth,
a poem useful as a coat to a coughing man.
Teach me.
(From the poem "The Poet's Coat," which Espada dedicates "for Jeff Male (1946-2003).")

I've always enjoyed his poetry. Thanks for this.
Lovely. Now I have another book on my to-buy list.
Your archives are a treasure trove of commentary on contemporary poetry-- not ordinary in the least because it is always informed by love and empathy. You inspire me by how you take poetry, including mine, into yourself, making it a part of you. Your illuminations are invaluable and I wish I had a small press so that we could collect and publish them...xxxj
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