UMass Amherst

Poets And Poetry Of New England
Martin Espada: Selected Poems

"The Legal Aid Lawyer Has an Epiphany"
Chelsea, Massachusetts

When I bounced off the bus for work
at Legal Aid this morning
I found the spiky halo of a hole
in the front window of the office,
as if some drunk had rammed
the thorn-crowned head of Jesus
through the glass.
I say Jesus because I followed
the red handprints on the brick
and there he was next door
a bust in the window
of the botanica,
blood in his hair,
his eyes a bewildered blue
cast heavenward, hoping
for an airlift away from here.
The sign on the door
offered a manicure
with every palm reading.

"Because Clemente means Merciful"
for Clemente Gilbert-Espada
February 1992

At three AM, we watched
the emergency room doctor
press a thumb against your cheekbone
to bleach your eye with light.
The spinal fluid was clear, drained
from the hole in your back,
but the X-ray film
grew a stain on the lung,
explained the seizing cough,
the wailing heat of fever:
pneumonia at the age
of six weeks, a bedside vigil.
Your mother slept beside you
the stitches of birth still burning.

When I asked, "Will he be OK?"
no one could answer: "Yes."
I closed my eyes and dreamed
my father dead, naked on a steel table
as I turned away. In the dream,
when I looked again,
my father had become my son.

So the hospital kept us: the oxygen mask,
a frayed wire taped to your toe
for reading the blood,
the medication forgotten from shift to shift,
a doctor bickering with radiology over the film,
the bald girl with a cancerous rib removed,
the pediatrician who never called, the yawning intern,
the hospital roommate's father
from Guatemala, ignored by the doctors
as if he had picked their morning coffee,
the checkmarks and initials at five AM,
the pages of forms
flipping like a deck of cards,
recordkeeping for the records office,
the lawyers and the morgue.

One day, while the laundry
in the basement hissed white sheets,
and slices of paper documented dwindling breath,
you spat mucus, gulped air, and lived.
We listened to the bassoon of your lungs,
the cadenza of the next century, resonate.
The Guatemalan-father
did not need a stethoscope to hear
the breathing, and he grinned.
I grinned too, and because Clemente
means merciful, stood beside the Guatemalteco,
repeating in Spanish everything
that was not said to him.

I know someday you'll stand beside
the Guatemalan fathers,
speak in the tongue
of all the shunned faces,
breathe in a music…
we have never heard, and live
by the meaning of your name.


--for Cesar Chavez
1927 – 1993

Because of that brown face,
Smooth weather beaten soil;
Ringed by rain-hungry creekbeds;
Because of those peasant fingers
Curling around a shovel so it became
A picket sign or a flag flying the black eagle of the union;
Because of that voice, speaking the word boycott
Like a benediction, the word Huelga
As if the name of a god with calluses:

The red in the wine stings our eyes
With its brightness,
The grape is a circle more like the world
And less like a silver dollar.

"Tires Stacked in the Hallways of Civilization"
Chelsea, Massachusetts

"Yes, Your Honor, there are rodents,"
said the landlord to the judge,
"but I let the tenant have a cat. Besides,
he stacks his tires in the hallway."

The tenant confessed
in stuttering English:
"Yes, Your Honor,
I am from El Salvador,
and I put my tires
in the hallway."

The judge puffed up
his robes like a black bird
shaking off rain:
"Tires out of the hallway!
You don't live in a jungle
anymore. This
is a civilized country."

So the defendant was ordered
to remove his tires
from the hallways of civilization,
and allowed to keep the cat.

"DSS Dream"

I dreamed
the Department of Social Services
came to the door and said:
"We understand
you have a baby,
a goat, and a pig living here
in a two-room apartment.
This is illegal.
We have to take the baby away,
unless you eat the goat."

"The pig's OK?" I asked.
"The pig's OK." they said.


"When the Leather is a Whip"

At night
with my wife
sitting on the bed
I turned from her
to unbuckle
my belt
so she won't see
her father
his belt.

"Imagine the Angels of Bread"

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned
men lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing,
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.


"When Songs Become Water"
        for Diaro Latino
El Salvador, 1991

Where dubbed commercials
sell the tobacco and alcohol
of a far winter metropolis,
where the lungs of night
cough artillery shots
into the ears of sleep,
where strikers with howls
stiff on their faces
and warnings pinned to their shirts
are harvested from garbage heaps,
where olive uniforms keep watch
over the plaza
from a nest of rifle eyes and sandbags,
where the government party
campaigns chanting through loudspeakers
that this country
will be the common grave of the reds,
there the newsprint of mutiny
is as medicine
on the fingertips,
and the beat of the press printing mutiny
is like the pounding of tortillas in the hands.

When the beat of the press
is like the pounding of tortillas,
and the newsprint is medicine on the fingertips,
come the men with faces
wiped away by the hood,
who smother the mouth of witness night,
shaking the gasoline can across the floor,
then scattering in a dark orange eruption
of windows,
leaving the paper to wrinkle gray in the heat.

Where the faces wiped away by the hood
are known by the breath of gasoline
on their clothes,
and paper wrinkles gray as the skin
of incarcerated talkers,
another Army helicopter plunges from the sky
with blades burning
like the wings of a gargoyle,
the tortilla and medicine words
are smuggled in shawls,
the newspapers are hoarded
like bundles of letters from the missing,
the poems become songs
and the songs become water
streaming through the arteries
of the earth, where others at the well
will cool the sweat in their hair
and begin to think.

"My Native Costume"

When you come to visit,
said a teacher
from the suburban school
don't forget to wear
your native costume.

But I'm a lawyer,
I said.
My native costume
is a pinstriped suit.

You know, the teacher said,
a Puerto Rican costume.

Like a guayabera?
the Shirt? I said.
But it's February.

The children want to see
a native costume,
the teacher said.

So I went to the suburban school,
embroidered guayabera
short sleeved shirt
over a turtleneck
and said, Look kids,
cultural adaptation.


"Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Jude Collins"

Judge: Does the prisoner understand his right?
Interpreter: Entiende usted sus derechos?
Prisoner: Pa'l carajo!
Interpreter: Yes.

"Courthouse Graffiti for Two Voices"

Jimmy C
Greatest Car Thief
Chelsea '88
Then what
Are you doing


"Governor Wilson of California Talks in His Sleep"

The only
We like
Are the ones
On Star Trek,
they all


"The Prisoners of Saint Lawrence"
Riverview Correctional Facility
Ogdensburg, New York, 1993

Snow astonishing their hammered faces,
the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, Island men,
remember in Spanish the island places.

The Saint Lawrence River churns white into Canada, races
past barbed walls. Immigrants from a dark sea find oceanic
snow astonishing. Their hammered faces

harden in city jails and courthouses, indigent cases
telling translators, public defenders what they
remember in Spanish. The island places,

banana leaf and nervous chickens, graces
gone in this amnesia of snow, stinging cocaine
snow, astonishing their hammered faces,

There is snow in the silence of the visiting room, spaces
like snow in the paper of their poems and letters, that
remember in Spanish the island places.

So the law speaks of cocaine, grams and traces,
as the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, island men,
snow astonishing their hammered faces,
remember in Spanish the island places.


"Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper"

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
Yellow paper
stacked seven feet high
and leaning
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
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 punchclock.

Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open lawbook
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.

"My Cockroach Lover"

The summer I slept
on JC's couch,
there were roaches
between the bristles
of my toothbrush,
roaches pouring
from the speakers
of the stereo.
A light flipped on
in the kitchen at night
revealed a Republican
national Convention
of roaches,
an Indianapolis 500
of roaches.

One night I dreamed
a giant roach
leaned over me,
brushing my face
with kind antennae
and whispering, "I love you."
I awoke slapping myself
and watched the darkness
for hours, because I realized
this was a dream
and so that meant
the cockroach
did not really love me.


"Coca-Cola and Coco Frio"

On his first visit to Puerto Rico,
island of family folklore,
the fat boy wandered
from table to table
with his mouth open.
At every table, some great-aunt
would steer him with cool spotted hands
to a glass of Coca-Cola.
One even sang to him, in all the English
she could remember, a Coca-Cola jingle
from the forties. He drank obediently, though
he was bored with this potion, familiar
from soda fountains in Brooklyn.

Then, at a roadside stand off the beach, the fat boy
opened his mouth to coco frio, a coconut
chilled, then scalped by a machete
so that a straw would inhale the clear milk.
The boy tilted the green shell overhead
and drooled coconut milk down his chin;
suddenly, Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola
or Brooklyn, and neither was he.

For years afterward, the boy marveled at an island
where the people drank Coca-Cola
and sang jingles from World War II
in a language they did not speak,
while so many coconuts in the trees
sagged heavy with milk swollen
and unsuckled.


"Her Toolbox"
for Katherine Gilbert-Espada
Boston, Massachusetts

The city was new, so new
that she once bought
a set of knives
from the trunk of a car
and saw them rust
after the first rinsing.
She gathered with the tourists
at the marketplace of city souvenirs.
Still, she was a carpenter
for the community center
on Dorchester Avenue,
where men with baseball bats
chased the new immigrants
and even the liberals
rolled up their windows
at a red light.

The car on Dorchester Avenue
trailed behind her one night
as she walked to the subway.
The man talked to her
while he steered, kept taunting
when the car lurched
onto the sidewalk,
trapping her in a triangle
of brick and fender.
He knew her chest was throbbing:
that was the reason he throbbed too,
stepping from the car.

But the carpenter unlocked her toolbox
and raised a hammer up
as if a nail protruded
from between his eyebrows,
ready to spike his balsawood forehead.
Oh, the hands like startled pigeons
flying across his face
as he backpedaled to the car
and rolled his window shut.

After the rusting discount knives,
the costly city souvenirs,
the men who gripped the bat
or the steering wheel
to keep from trembling,
she swung her toolbox walking
down Dorchester Avenue.

"The Broken Window of Rosa Ramos"
        Cheslea, Massachusetts, 1991

Rosa Ramos could spread her palm
at the faucet for hours
without cold water ever hissing hot,
while the mice darted
like runaway convicts,
from a hole in the kitchen floor.

The landlord was a spy,
clicking his key in the door unheard,
to haunt the living room,
peeking for the thrill of young skin,
a pasty dead-faced man still hungry.

Her husband was dead,
She knew this
from El Vocero Newspaper,
the picture of his grinning face
sprayed with the black sauce of blood,
a bullet-feast.

Rosa shows his driver's license,
a widow's identification,
with the laminated plastic
cracking across his eyes,
so that he watches her
through a broken window.

She leaves the office
rehearsing with the lawyer
new words in English
for the landlord:
"Get out. Get out. Get out."