Poet Martín Espada.
My friend Everett Hoagland, proud and skilled Black poet who has lived and worked much of his life in mostly white environments was kind enough to share the work of another writer of importance and discernment. Hoagland has been the poet laureate of New Bedford, Massachusetts and is a long-time member of the First Unitarian Church there. When Everett recommends a poet I sit up and take notice
Martín Espada is a 62 year old poet, academic, and activist who was born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents. His father was a leader in the Puerto Rican community and the civil rights movement. Espada received a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a doctorate of law from Northeastern University in Boston. For many years, he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program.
In 1982, Espada published his first book of political poems, The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero, featuring photography by his father. Since then he has written thirteen more highly praised volumes in English and in Spanish, most recently Vivas to Those Who Have Failed which was published in 2016 by W.W. Norton.
His work has gleaned honors including the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in 1986; the PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship in Poetry, 1989; Paterson Poetry Prize, 1991; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, 1992; National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, 1997; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, 1997; Pushcart Prize, 1999, Independent Publisher Book Award, 1999; Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, 2001; American Library Association Notable Book, 2004; John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 2006; Pulitzer Prize Finalist, 2007; Library Journal Best Poetry Books, 2007; National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, 2008; Massachusetts Book Award, 2012; International Latino Book Award, 2012; Busboys and Poets Award, 2014; Academy of American Poets Fellowship, 2018; and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 2018 among others.
He is currently a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches poetry.
Espada spoke at a July 12 Lights for Liberty vigil to end detention camps at the Unitarian Universalist First Church in Salem, Massachusetts. The two poems he shared there and some explanatory notes are featured in the current issue of the venerable Progressive.
Espada's Lights for Liberty poems are in the current July/August issue of The Progressive.
Espada explained his first verse:
Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, with the pronouncement that Mexicans crossing the border brought with them a range of criminal tendencies from drug smuggling to rape. That August, two brothers, Scott and Steve Leader, took him at his word, attacking a homeless Mexican immigrant as he slept outside the JFK subway stop on the Red Line.
This poem is about that hate crime. It’s also about Donald Trump’s idea of hell: empathy. There were many more healing hands than hurting hands placed on the victim’s body that night. Now, since this is a poem about a hate crime, there is some language and imagery you might find ugly. The poem is called:
Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. —Donald Trump, June 16, 2015
They woke him up by pissing in his face. He opened his mouth
to scream in Spanish, so his mouth became a urinal at the ballpark.
Scott and Steve: the Leader brothers, celebrating a night at Fenway,
where the Sox beat the Indians and a rookie named Rodríguez spun
the seams on his changeup to hypnotize the Tribe. Later that night,
Steve urinated on the door of his cell, and Scott told the cops why
they did it: Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.
He was a Mexican in a sleeping bag outside JFK station on a night
in August, so they called him a wetback and emptied their bladders
in his hair. In court, the lawyers spoke his name: Guillermo Rodríguez
immigrant with papers, crop-picker in the fields, trader of bottles
and cans collected in his cart. Two strangers squashed the cartilage
in his nose like a can drained of beer. In dreams, he would remember
the shoes digging into his ribcage, the pole raked repeatedly across
his cheekbones and upraised knuckles, the high-five over his body.
Donald Trump was right, said Scott. And Trump said: The people
that are following me are very passionate. His hands fluttered
as he spoke, a demagogue’s hands, no blood under the fingernails,
no whiff of urine to scrub away. He would orchestrate the chant
of Build That Wall at rally after rally, bellowing till the blood rushed
to his face, red as a demagogue in the grip of masturbatory dreams:
a tribute to the new conquistador, the Wall raised up by Mexican hands,
Mexican hair and fingernails bristling in the brick, Mexican blood
swirling in the cement like raspberry syrup on a vanilla sundae.
On the Cinco de Mayo, he leered over a taco bowl at Trump Tower.
Not for him the fiery lake of the false prophet, reddening
his ruddy face. Not for him the devils of Puritan imagination,
shrieking in a foreign tongue and climbing in the window
like the immigrant demons he conjures for the crowd.
Not even for him ten thousand years of the Leader brothers.
streaming a fountain of piss in his face as he sputters forever.
For him, Hell is a country where the man in a hard hat
paving the road to JFK station sees Guillermo and dials 911;
Hell is a country where EMTs kneel to wrap a blanket around
the shivering shoulders of Guillermo and wipe his face clean;
Hell is a country where the nurse at the emergency room
hangs a morphine drip for Guillermo, so he can go back to sleep.
Two thousand miles away, someone leaves a trail of water bottles
in the desert for the border crossing of the next Guillermo.
We smuggle ourselves across the border of a demagogue’s dreams:
Confederate generals on horseback tumble one by one into
the fiery lake of false prophets; into the fiery lake crumbles
the demolished Wall. Thousands stand, sledgehammers in hand,
to await the bullhorns and handcuffs, await the trembling revolvers.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face interrogates the interrogator.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face is the face of Guillermo.
The mass incarceration of migrant children—by the thousands—is also a hate crime. Let’s call it what it is. And that brings me to a place called Tornillo. The Trump Administration opened the Tornillo internment center in Texas in June 2018 and closed it in January 2019. My good friend Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, as Director of Research and Advocacy at Hope Border Institute in El Paso, was a major organizer in the campaign to shut down Tornillo—and shut it down they did.
Camilo told me: “the one place the kids detained there told us they felt free was on the soccer field . . . It was the only place they could be connected in some kind of physical flow with the world beyond the barbed wire, by kicking as many soccer balls as high and as far as they could, beyond the fencing around them. Large numbers of these balls piled up quickly outside and at the edges of the facility.”
Latino youth play soccer.
Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over a Barbed Wire Fence
Tornillo…has become the symbol of what may be the largest U.S. mass detention of children not charged with crimes since the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. —Robert Moore, Texas Monthly
Praise Tornillo: word for screw in Spanish, word for jailer in English,
word for three thousand adolescent migrants incarcerated in camp.
Praise the three thousand soccer balls gift-wrapped at Christmas,
as if raindrops in the desert inflated and bounced through the door.
Praise the soccer games rotating with a whistle every twenty minutes
so three thousand adolescent migrants could take turns kicking a ball.
Praise the boys and girls who walked a thousand miles, blood caked
in their toes, yelling in Spanish and a dozen Mayan tongues on the field.
Praise the first teenager, brain ablaze like chili pepper Christmas lights,
to kick a soccer ball high over the chain link and barbed wire fence.
Praise the first teenager to scrawl a name and number on the face
of the ball, then boot it all the way to the dirt road on the other side.
Praise the smirk of teenagers at the jailers scooping up fugitive
soccer balls, jabbering about the ingratitude of teenagers at Christmas.
Praise the soccer ball sailing over the barbed wire fence, white
and black like the moon, yellow like the sun, blue like the world.
Praise the soccer ball flying to the moon, flying to the sun, flying to other
worlds, flying to Antigua Guatemala, where Starbucks buys coffee beans.
Praise the soccer ball bounding off the lawn at the White House,
thudding off the president’s head as he waves to absolutely no one.
Praise the piñata of the president’s head, jellybeans pouring from his ears,
enough to feed three thousand adolescents incarcerated at Tornillo.
Praise Tornillo: word in Spanish for adolescent migrant internment camp,
abandoned by jailers in the desert, liberated by a blizzard of soccer balls.
On a personal note, Espada second poem evoked one of the few specific stories that my father, W.M. Murfin, ever told me about his World War II experiences.
Italian POWs in Libya--glad to be out of the war.
He was the top sergeant of a U.S. Army Field Hospital attached to the British and ANZAC troops under Field Marshal Montgomery who chased Rommel and his Afrika Korps out of Egypt and across North Africa. In the deserts of Libya the hospital pitched its tents next to a prisoner of war camp for captured Italian troops. Most of the Italians had gladly surrendered and were happy to be out of the war. The Tommies in their khaki shorts and tin hats for the most part treated the prisoners well. They reserved their rage and vengeance for the Germans and Nazis.
Aside from some hastily erected gun towers, the camp had no walls or even barbed wire fence. There was no need—there was nowhere to escape to in the vast and terrible desert. Lines literally scratched in the ground were the only marks of the camp’s perimeter.
The Brits gave their prisoners some of their footballs to kick around to pass the time. The Italians quickly organized teams and were playing il calico—soccer—on the sands. One idle afternoon under the baking sun patients and staff from the hospital joined inmates and guards to watch a match.
During the back and forth action the ball got kicked out of bounds and across the camp’s line in the sand. Without thinking a player sprinted after it. When he crossed the line without even a shouted warning, a guard shot him dead.
Of all of the horror my Dad saw in the war in North Africa and then in three Pacific island landings this one senseless execution haunted him the most.