APRIL 4, 2017
THE EPONYMOUS OPENING SEQUENCE of Martín Espada’s most recent collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, is a paean to the countless brutalized bodies that overflow the white spaces of history. “Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike,” a teenage mill girl, stalks the picket lines and “[chases] a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word for shame.” An innocent bystander is shot by a careless police officer: “His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.” An Italian cloth dyer raises his red raw hand to mock “the red flag of anarchy” that yellow journalists swore would come — a premonition of frantic Fox News hosts who would rant and squeal about Obama’s socialism a century later.
The 1913 Paterson Silk Strike, which rallied 25,000 workers, would fail. But these workers’ sacrifices, along with the demands and efforts of others like them, would come to underwrite social structures like the minimum wage, safety regulations, child labor laws, and especially the eight-hour work day, which have allowed Americans to live meaningful, prosperous lives for nearly a century.
“Vivas to those who have failed,” Espada writes, borrowing from Whitman, “for they become the river.” It’s not a false note — but in the weeks and months after the 2016 presidential election, sentiments of hope feel unrealistic. While liberals, progressives, and radicals fractured and fought among themselves, other hidden streams gathered into a torrent. The forces of white nationalism have their own barricades, their own honored dead, their own violent history and moral arc. History offers little solace: dictators so often die in their beds of old age. W. H. Auden’s bleak vision of political and moral failure better evokes the desperation and the shame that so many people feel on the cusp of Trump’s America:
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
After the “Vivas,” Espada too shifts his emphasis from historical optimism to historical context. Subsequent poems are darker, in which “the descendants of slaves / still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them.” The terrors of the past echo in the contemporary world, a world where journalist Jim Foley, a former student of Espada, is beheaded on camera by members of ISIL. “Ghazal for a Tall Boy from New Hampshire” burns with sorrow and rage over Foley’s murder, and for the way people would attempt to use the story of his life as a form of financial and cultural currency:
His face on the front page sold newspapers in the checkout line.
His executioners and his president spoke of him as if they knew him.
The reporter with the camera asked me if I saw the video his killers
wanted us to see. I muttered through a cage of teeth: No. I knew him.
There are manifold ironies in these lines. Espada resents the media’s use of Foley’s image, which echoes and reinforces the goals of his murderers. But this disdain is itself embedded in a depiction that uses Foley’s memory for purposes that are no less political — embedded in a ghazal, in fact, the choice of form almost too knowing. But these are precisely the traps Espada wants to explore through the poem: commodification, representation, human value, mourning, politics. Unlike “Vivas,” this is a poem of moral conflict without a clear moral resolution, which may be its most compelling facet.
After the almost abstract figures of the silk strike, the collection becomes increasingly personal, and arrives finally at a series of elegies for Frank Espada, the poet’s father and the subject of Martín’s debut collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. A community organizer and civil rights leader, Frank Espada would also distinguish himself as an accomplished photographer. In New York and then San Francisco, he trained his eye on halfway houses, rent strikes, addicts, gang members, and activists, before receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to document the Puerto Rican diaspora.
In an interview with PBS Newshour, Martín described the goal of his father’s art: “To see dignity in those faces where others did not see dignity, to recognize that our struggle as a community was and continues to be a struggle between dignity and indignity, between humanity and dehumanization. That’s what you can do if you’re a photographer or a poet.” The elder Espada had a knack for capturing humanity within a larger historical moment, in situ — individual expressions within a crowd. He clearly passed this poetic eye down to his son.
In Martín’s elegies, Frank Espada is described in superhuman terms, a winking hyperbole of familial myths and childish awe. Espada is “the tallest Puerto Rican in New York,” who was also “the only atheist in a Catholic neighborhood,” a talented baller and a nigh-mystical pitcher who traveled to the United States mainland on the doomed San Jacinto steamship, which was sunk by a German U-boat on its return voyage. The poem “The Sinking of the San Jacinto” contains one of the more beautiful passages of the book, a benediction for our final passage:
May you navigate through the night without
the compass devoured by the salt of the sea.
May you rise up in the luminescent bay,
stirring the microscopic creatures in the water
back to life so their light startles your eyes.
May the water glow blue as the hyacinth in your hands.
In the closing poem, “El Moriviví,” named for a photosensitive flowering vine whose name translates to “I died, I lived,” Martín Espada enumerates his father’s many improbable — possibly apocryphal — triumphs over the forces of racial bigotry and random death. “Vivas to he who has won,” it could be titled:
My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die,
then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail,
shook his head and walked away without a web of scars
or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway,
toppled onto the tracks and somehow missed the third rail.
He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store,
pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters
demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale
as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air.
Juxtaposed to the long opening sequence, Espada’s elegies for his father invert the typical glorification of the past at the expense of the living. For the strikers, social and political forces aligned against them, “nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups.” Whereas Martín’s flesh-and-blood father defied white supremacy in Mississippi, held down a corner during the Brooklyn riots, and spoke at civil rights rallies. The dead have failed but the living succeed, time and again.
The arc of Vivas for Those Who Have Failed traces an ahistorical, almost utopian democratic moral, reversing the focus on capital-g Great Men that’s found in historians from Tacitus through Thomas Carlyle to Robert Caro. History’s real secret is its utter mundanity, as the late Howard Zinn emphasized. “Strikers without shoes lose strikes,” Martín notes. It’s not “strikers without Harvard degrees” or “strikers without a grasp of global economics.” More often than not, some working stiffs, who never do another “notable” thing in their life, stand up and reset the course of events. They march across a bridge or occupy a city park. These civil rights heroes go home to cramped apartments for dinner, bedtime stories, anxious spouses.
Common people must make uncommon choices, however small, to bend the arc of the universe. Has the United States ever needed to hear this message more than it does today?