R.G. Foster on

Martin Espada's
The Meaning of the Shovel
(Smokestack Books, 2014)

Espada's Spade

Espada cover
Espada cover

If the ruggedness of the title was not enough to induce in us an expectation, or apprehension, that our open hand is about to be shook by a hard, bitter paw, the collection’s opening stanza offers little in the way of assuagement:

This was the dictator’s land
before the revolution.
Now the dictator is exiled to necropolis,
his army brooding in camps on the border,
and the congregation of the landless
stipples the earth with a thousand shacks,
every weather-beaten carpenter
planting a fistful of nails.

A few poems in, Espada’s primary goal becomes clear; to acquaint the reader with the harshness of the Latin American experience. This is sought via a minimization of the role of the poet, to that of a narrator, or storyteller, leaving no trace of pyrotechnical exuberance; Espada wants our faces pressed firmly against this cold, street-lit, chain-link fence.

Another pickup truck morning,
and rednecks. Loitering
in our red uniforms, we watched
as a pickup rumbled through.
We expected: Fill it with no-lead, boy,
and gimme a cash ticket.
We expected the farmer with sideburns
and a pompadour.
We, with new diplomas framed
at home, never expected the woman.
Her face was a purple rubber mask
melting off her head, scars rippling down
where the fire seared her freak face,
leaving her a carnival where high school boys
paid a quarter to look, and look away.

from 'Rednecks'

Rendered in a striking, pared-down style, Espada’s depictions dare us to deny his honesty, as in 'Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer':

I was a lab coat and rubber gloves
hulking between the cages.
I sprayed down the batter of monkey-shit
coating the bars, fed infant formula in a bottle
to creatures with real fingers,
tested digital thermometers greased
in their asses, and carried boxes of monkeys
to the next experiment.

The exacting imagery reeks of the inevitability of violence, and despite the obvious brutality haunting the poem’s entirety, the promise is not made good until the final stanza:

So I understood
when a monkey leapt from the cage
and bit my thumb through the rubber glove,
leaving a dollop of blood that gleamed
like icing on a cookie.
And I understood when one day, the doctors gone,
a monkey outside the bell curve of the Fear Data
shrieked in revolt, charging
the red-eyed mechanical head
as all the lab coats cheered.

In true narrative fashion, this ultimate stanza contains the climax of the piece; the moment of rebellion - ‘shrieked in revolt, charging/the red-eyed mechanical head’, the mechanical head being, from what can be gathered earlier in the poem, the centrepiece of the laboratory; a machine ‘with blinking red bulbs for eyes/and a siren for a voice’ that ‘scared monkeys who spun in circles’. What we have here is an animal screaming a Camusian ‘No’ to the expected acceptance of the terror, and the reaction of those present? – ‘the lab coats cheered’; it is mere sport to them, we can see that the staff are suffering a severe disconnection from nature, they are brain-dead, soul-dead, or perhaps we should not be so hasty – are they not cheering because this abused and fractured creature is doing the very thing that they haven’t the courage to do? This last line contains the only display of emotion (from the ‘lab coats’) in the whole poem, and indeed they are, as the narrator so frankly puts it, simply ‘lab coats’; put-upon assistants toiling for a salary, and to no common good. Maybe in this way, then, the monkey is their hero.

The next poem, 'The Bouncer’s Confession', maintains the overtones of violence whilst adding a nuance of compassion:

Mostly, I stood watch at the door
and imagined their skulls
brimming with alcohol
like divers drowning in their own helmets.
Their heads would sag, shaking
to stay awake, elbows sliding out
across the bar.
I gathered their coats. I found their hats.
I rolled up their paper bags
full of sacred objects only I could see.
I interrogated them for an address,
a hometown. I called the cab;
I slung an arm across my shoulders
to walk them down the stairs.

The idea of a benevolent bouncer may well make some of us smirk, but we must understand this particular bar – this is not a scene of machismo and high spirits, as the first stanza makes clear:

I know about the Westerns
where stunt doubles belly-flop
through banisters rigged to collapse
or crash through chairs designed to splinter.
A few times the job was like that.
A bone fragment still floats
in my right ring finger
because the human skull
is harder than any fist.

The characters in this bar, presumably all working class, bear no resemblance to those common men of the Wild West, those who burned each night with every conceivable emotion in the film-set saloons. The happenings this bouncer oversees are those of downtrodden, pathetic men, forcing themselves into oblivion. The bouncer, then, is more like a caretaker, or caregiver, and his confession, we suspect, may be that he isn’t particular satisfied with it:

This time, I dragged a corkscrewed body
slowly down the stairs, hugged to my ribs,
his books in my other hand,
only to see the impatient taxi
pulling away. I yelled at acceleration smoke,
then fumbled the body with the books
back up the stairs, and called the cab again.

No movie barrooms. No tall stranger
shot the body spread-eagled across the broken table.
No hero, with a hero’s uppercut, knocked them out,
not even me. I carried them out.

Throughout the volume Espada displays an acute awareness of societal limitations, and a person’s ability to overcome them. For example, in 'A Travelling Salesman in the Gardens of Paradise':

Jardines del Paraíso: The Gardens of Paradise,
or so we’d say, staring into our coffee, whenever
we translated the name of the public housing projects
where my grandmother smoked on the porch,
watching the trade in dollars and drugs
swiftly move from hand to hand
in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.

The grandmother, observing criminal activity, seems to have attained an unshakeable state of serenity – this may come as a surprise to those of us familiar with an old lady’s propensity for nattering, but here we are faced with a woman who has apparently overcome the burdens of judgement.

One night a visitor called her name
through the shutters of the window,
going door to door with something to sell:
a car battery in his hands, offered with the pride
of a diver showing off a treasure chest
salvaged from the bottom of the sea.

The last three lines of this stanza introduce a touch of wryness to the subject, is the taking of a car battery really an achievement of human endeavour? The reader may feel the metaphor employed here is but a contrived transposition of an adventurer’s pride onto the face of a lowly thief, but, in Jardines del Paraiso, generosity of compassion is necessary;

He was a tecato, Gisela said, another junkie with a face
from the neighbourhood. The next day my grandmother,
who believed that even junkies have a place in Paradise,
called to the same tecato through the window,
handed him her last five dollars,
and sent him to the store for cigarettes.

There is a certain divineness to the behaviour of the poet’s grandmother, this five dollars is not charity, but a measure of curiosity; we may compare her actions to a quote, often attributed to the 17th Century poet John Wilmot; ‘All experiments of interest in life must come at the expense of oneself’.

As we read further through the volume, we notice how Espada seems to enjoy startling his audience with imagery, his stories are patterned with a sensuousness, an earthiness that makes the images feel almost tangible:

Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
Then the glue would sting,
hands oozing
till both palms burned
at the punch clock.

from 'Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper'

They bang the radiators
like cold hollow marimbas;
they cry out
to unseen creatures
skittering across their feet
in darkness;
they fold hands over plates
to protect food
from ceilings black with roaches.

from 'City of Coughing and Dead Radiators'

The refugee’s run
across the desert borderlands
carved wings of fright
into his forehead,
growing more crooked
with every eviction notice

from 'Mi Vida: Wings of Fright'

It is this robustness of language that is noticeably absent in 'Offerings to an Ulcerated God', instead we are presented here with a series of carefully uninspired lines - more prose than anything else, we feel, replicating superbly the sterility of courtroom proceedings:

Mrs. López refuses to pay rent,
and we want her out,
the landlord’s lawyer said,
tugging at his law school ring.
The judge called for an interpreter,
but all the interpreters were gone,
trafficking in Spanish
at the criminal session
on the second floor.

Note the monosyllabic line endings of the first four lines, stopped with commas and producing an officious, foreboding cadence.

A volunteer stood up in the gallery.
Mrs. López showed the interpreter
a poker hand of snapshots,
the rat curled in a glue trap
next to the refrigerator,
the water frozen in the toilet,
a door without a doorknob
(No rent for this. I know the law
and I want to speak,
she whispered to the interpreter).

We do not meet Mrs. Lopez’ husband, and despite her confidence, we fear for her; one half of a poor couple against a lawyer ‘tugging at his law school ring’, - the latter marriage is reciprocal, for the lawyer and the law are inseparable.

Tell her she has to pay
and she has ten days to get out,
the judge commanded, rose
so the rest of the courtroom rose,
and left the bench. Suddenly
the courtroom clattered
with the end of business:
the clerk of the court
gathered her files
and the bailiff went to lunch.

‘Suddenly/the courtroom clattered/with the end of business’ – how unmelodious, this flurry of short vowels evokes the clinical formality with which the case has been dispatched. It is hard not to notice, too, the flippancy of the stanza’s final three lines - ‘the clerk of the court/gathered her files/and the bailiff went to lunch’; the rhythm is akin to that of a nursery rhyme.

Mrs. López stood before the bench,
still holding up her fan of snapshots
like an offering this ulcerated god
refused to taste,
while the interpreter
felt the burning
bubble in his throat
as he slowly turned to face her.

And, consistent with the tenor of a nursery rhyme, it ends with a touch of humour; Mrs. Lopez, in a bracing display of audacity, stands up to the bench to express her side of the story. This reviewer doesn’t think it trite to assume the bubble in the throat of the interpreter is shared.

Espada’s engagement with the human spirit is undeniable, much of the work in this collection is infused with a recognition of valour, or at least, the possibility of valour, probably the most thorough example of this would be 'Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks':

In 1898, with the infantry from Illinois,
the boy who would become the poet Sandburg
rowed his captain’s Saint Bernard ashore
at Guánica, and watched as the captain
lobbed cubes of steak at the canine snout.
The troops speared mangos with bayonets
like many suns thudding with shredded yellow flesh
to earth. General Miles, who chained Geronimo
for the photograph in sepia of the last renegade,
promised Puerto Rico the blessings of enlightened civilization.
Private Sandburg marched, peeking at a book
nested in his palm for the words of Shakespeare.

Not quite as stylistically Hemingwayesque as previous pieces, this poem is more elusive, and generously woven with arresting imagistic textures (‘many suns thudding with shredded yellow flesh’), we may find ourselves smiling at a General who believes he can deliver ‘enlightenment’ with a thrust of his bayonet.

Dazed in blue wool and sunstroke, they stumbled up the mountain
to Utuado, learned the war was over, and stumbled away.
Sandburg never met great-great-grand uncle Don Luis,
who wore a linen suit that would not wrinkle,
read with baritone clarity scenes from Hamlet
house to house for meals of rice and beans,
the Danish prince and his soliloquy– ser o no ser –
saluted by rum, the ghost of Hamlet’s father wandering
through the ceremonial ball-courts of the Taíno.

Well, so much for the crusade. With the vocal mellifluence of Richard Burton now urging us onward, we are introduced to Don Luis:

In Caguas or Cayey Don Luis
was the reader at the cigar factory,
newspapers in the morning,
Cervantes or Marx in the afternoon,
rocking with the whirl of an unseen sword
when Quijote roared his challenge to giants,
weaving the tendrils of his beard when he spoke
of labour and capital, as the tabaqueros
rolled leaves of tobacco to smolder in distant mouths.

The line ‘rocking with the whirl of an unseen sword’ is rhythmically stunning, and, coupled with the next line, brings to mind the near-Classical heroism depicted in Ezra Pound’s 'Sestina: Altaforte' (‘Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!/ And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,’) but this time without the bloodlust; Luis’ passion is in enlivening the masses, which, we discover two stanzas later, came to nothing:

Another century, and still the warships scavenge
Puerto Rico’s beaches with wet snouts. For practice,
Navy guns hail shells coated with uranium over Vieques
like a boy spinning his first curveball;
to the fisherman on the shore, the lung is a net
and the tumor is a creature with his own face, gasping.

However the final stanza delivers more than the expected consolation;

This family has no will, no house, no farm, no island.
But today the great-great-great-grand nephew of Don Luis,
not yet ten, named for a jailed poet and fathered by another poet,
in a church of the Puritan colony called Massachusetts,
wobbles on a crate and grabs the podium
to read his poem about El Yunque waterfalls
and Achill basking sharks, and shouts:
I love this.

The poem, then, is a celebration of lineage, and while it is unclear to us whether or not the young Sandburg is aware of his ancestry, it is not truly that important; we feel perhaps knowledge of the failure of Don Luis’ noble endeavours would do nothing to hinder the young man; life must be celebrated regardless.

One of this reviewer’s favourite pieces in the collection is the slightly surreal and exquisitely cadent 'Hard-Handed Men of Athens'.

At the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, we play Pyramus and Thisbe.
The aristocrats laugh at us, real actors on loan from the highbrow
Shakespearean company in the valley, and we snarl back at them.
I am the Wall. I am inspired. I lift Pyramus and Thisbe into the air
and slam them together for their kiss. The beam across my shoulders
cracks. The crack alarms the carnivorous vegans on picnic blankets
watching the show. Some think the crack is my leg breaking. Some think
the crack is a gunshot. Suddenly it’s Ford’s Theatre and I’m Lincoln.
Or maybe I’m John Wilkes Booth. The jagged beam presses into my neck,
against the artery in my neck, like the fangs of a vampire hungry for ham.
One stumble and A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in a bloodbath.

Boasting only a rudimentary familiarity with Shakespeare’s play, I refrain from any impulse to decode the references. The poem does, however, offer the initiated a veritable feast of symbols and allusions on which to nibble with fascination. The piece also ends in what I find to be among the most memorable tropes in the collection:

We are the hard-handed men of Athens. This dog is our dog.

'Federico’s Ghost' is a snappy parabolic tale of rebellion in a fruit-picking camp:

The story is
that whole families of fruit-pickers
still crept between the furrows
of the field at dusk,
when for reasons of whiskey or whatever
the crop-duster plane sprayed anyway,
floating a pesticide drizzle
over the pickers
who thrashed like dark birds
in a glistening white net,
except for Federico,
a skinny boy who stood apart
in his own green row,
and, knowing the pilot
would not understand in Spanish
that he was the son of a whore,
instead jerked his arm
and thrust an obscene finger.

Immediately Espada allows us to realize the inherent virility of Federico (‘stood apart in his own green row’), the arbitrary callousness of the pilot (‘for reasons of whiskey or whatever’) and the inevitable victimhood of the workers (‘thrashed like dark birds in a glistening white night’); the stage is set, then, for heroic action:

The pilot understood.
He circled the plane and sprayed again,
watching a fine gauze of poison
drift over the brown bodies
that cowered and scurried on the ground,
and aiming for Federico,
leaving the skin beneath his shirt
wet and blistered,
but still pumping his finger at the sky

There is something almost mystical about the line ‘The pilot understood’ – we feel it is here that battle is realized and commenced, with both parties instinctually knowing the rules of combat. And is there a more archetypal image of the rebel than that delivered in the stanza’s last line: ‘still pumping his finger at the sky’? After Federico dies (from the wounds sustained in the incident, we suspect, though the cause of death is unstated) there occurs a number of circumstances involving the smashing of tomatoes at night, resulting initially in anger from the employers (‘threatening to call Immigration’), and then bargaining (‘then promising every Sunday off/ if only the smashing of tomatoes would stop’). The vandalism, however, continues, and, perhaps unavoidably, begins giving rise to tales, courtesy of ‘the old women in camp’ – those venerable coiners of legend, who:

said it was Federico,
labouring after sundown
to cool the burns on his arms,
flinging tomatoes
at the crop-duster
that hummed like a mosquito
lost in his ear,
and kept his soul awake.

This is one of the pieces in the collection that this writer feels captures most acutely Espada’s vision; a young individual realizing their purpose, even if it must be in death; in this case, the rebel-hero will not bend, and the reader grasps from the last couple of lines that his purpose, despite being realized, can never, and will never, be fulfilled.

It is with his rebels that I feel Espada most identifies, for it could be said that his ‘mission’, or part of it, is to oppose poetic formality, by way of shrinking the poet’s manipulation of his subject, thereby giving the reader the straight, undiluted story. One of the most telling examples of this is a line from the poem 'Leo Blue’s and the Tiger Rose':

This is a row of dark-skinned men

It looks and sounds like a photo caption, but a photo does what a poem can’t, and thus the craftsman does well to seek out other methods; is the straight story really ever enough? This critic suspects that, like our aforementioned Federico, Espada’s purpose, with all its breadth and intensity, may never be truly fulfilled, though his endeavours will undoubtedly continue to engage and enlighten us.

The volume ends with a solemn but rousing song for the unsung: 'Alabanza: In Praise of Local 10', a composition dedicated to ‘the 43 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 Centre’. I shall finish by including the last two stanzas here.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

R.G. Foster © 2014