[This week my two Summer session courses—an FSU grad class on Ethnic American Lit and a MAVA class on the Literature of Work—conclude. So for this week’s series I’ll highlight and analyze some of the texts we read in both courses! Hope your summers are going well!]
On a challenging, controversial, and crucial poem about work and war.
I’ve written a couple of posts here about the wonderful poet (and fellow Massachusetts public educator) Martín Espada: this one on his work overall, and this one on his great poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper?” (1993). I taught “Who Burns” as part of my MAVA class, and found that it connected just as well with this cohort of students (vocational educators) as it has in my undergraduate and graduate classrooms. It’s a perfectly structured and evocatively written poem, so its engagingness is no surprise; but it also hits upon some universal questions: the relationship between our past and present selves, whether changes in our lives and identities make us different people and even perhaps take us away from our roots and heritage, how formative experiences and worlds can shape us even as we at the same time leave them behind, and more. Which is to say, “Who Burns” most definitely challenges us to think about some shared and significant issues, but it does so in a relatively unobjectionable way, without the possibility of inciting too much disagreement or debate.
The same cannot be said for another Espada poem I taught in this class: “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” (2003). From its opening dedication “for 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 Center,” Espada’s poem already suggests sensitive and potentially controversial subject matter. But in its final stanza, having moved through complex tributes to a number of those WTC workers (in both life and death), “Alabanza” becomes far more complicated and potentially controversial still: linking the destruction of the WTC Towers to the subsequent US bombings of Afghanistan, pairing the “two constellations of smoke” that “rose and drifted to each other” from these two nations and worlds. Given that trailers for the 2006 film United 93 were apparently greeted by audience cries of “Too soon!,” I can only imagine the responses Espada’s 2003 poem, and again that last stanza in particular, might have produced. Of course Afghanistan was just as full of innocent victims as the WTC, but to pair and intertwine the two settings so directly so soon after the September 11th attacks is at least a purposefully provocative poetic act.
But of course purposeful provocations often have profound points (I’m a poet and, well, I guess I kind of know it!), and I would argue that one of Espada’s is precisely the link between the less objectionable earlier stanzas and this far more controversial final one. “Alabanza” implicitly makes the case throughout those opening few stanzas that these 43 working-class, immigrant victims of the 9/11 attacks were less well-remembered than most of the other white-collar workers killed when the Towers fell, an exclusion—or at least an elision—that reflects broader narratives such as who represents America, what forms of work are more visible and valued, and how we tell the stories of tragedies and traumas. And shifting our collective narratives and understandings along those lines might, the last stanza more explicitly suggests, also shift the way we think about the world and war, about who is most affected by such global traumas, and about what role work and class might play in those kinds of unfolding histories. There are no easy answers to such questions, but Espada’s poem demands that we ask and consider them, and that’s an important (if certainly challenging) effect.
Next reading tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this text? Other readings on work you’d highlight?
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