R.G. Foster on

Martin Espada's

The Meaning of the Shovel

(Smokestack Books, 2014)

Espada's Spade

Espada cover
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Espada cover
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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