Tuesday, April 7, 2020
April 7, 2020: Poets We Should All Read: Martín Espada
[April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’ll highlight a handful of poets, past and present, we should all be reading. Including some suggestions from fellow AmericanPoetryStudiers—add yours for a celebratory, crowd-sourced weekend poetry post, please!]
A few complementary ways in which the Puerto Rican American poet portrays his heritage.
In this post I highlighted Martín Espada’s amazing poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” (1993), which engages with issues of class, labor, and communal and individual identity as well as any brief literary text ever has. If Espada has had one central thematic focus across his long and influential career, it would have to be the intersections of those issues, and the political and social perspectives that they can produce; see, to name only a few examples, “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913,” and “Federico’s Ghost.” As that last poem illustrates, certainly Hispanic American experiences and identities come into many of Espada’s political works—but in a way that usually, intentionally cuts across any specific national or cultural categories or heritages. That is, whether one is from Puerto Rico or any other Latin American community (we don’t learn Federico’s original nationality, even though the threat to “call immigration” makes clear that he has come from elsewhere) is in these works much less significant than the type of work one performs and the social stratum in which one resides.
Like any great poet, however, and especially one who has published across multiple decades and collections, Espada is large and contains multitudes. Among them are many poems that do engage specifically with his Puerto Rican heritage; Espada was born in Brooklyn (in the year of West Side Story’s release!) to parents who had moved from Puerto Rico a few years before, and the island continued to play a prominent role in his childhood and family. That’s particularly clear in the dense and evocative “My Name is Espada,” which links Espada’s surname to the many linguistic, cultural, historical, and familial legacies it conjures for the poet; while some are not specific to Puerto Rico, most are profoundly tied to the island’s identity. And that poem’s intellectual and often dark portrayal of Puerto Rico is contrasted with and complemented by the descriptive and sensory “En la calle San Sebastián” (subtitled “Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico”), which captures the colors and images, beats and sounds, celebrations and legacies of a historic communal space in the Puerto Rican capital. Taken together, these two poems illustrate just how fully and complicatedly Puerto Rico has continued to resonate in Espada’s perspective, identity, and literary career.
Yet whatever Puerto Rico meant and still means to Espada, he was born and raised in Brooklyn—and in one of his funniest and perhaps most personal and revealing poems, “Coca-Cola and Coco Frío,” he reflects on precisely the question of what the island could and could not signify to a child of America (and vice versa). The poem depicts a “fat boy” making “his first visit to Puerto Rico, island of family folklore,” and finding there the presence of both a familiar American drink (Coca-Cola) and a shockingly unfamiliar island one (coco frío). On the one hand, the poem posits an ironic contrast, portraying a Puerto Rico that has adopted American products and traditions while (indeed, at the price of) forgetting their own. Yet at the same time, by keeping the poetic perspective entirely with this young boy, Espada undermines such easy dichotomies: yes, the boy feels, upon tasting coco frío for the first time, “suddenly, Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola/or Brooklyn, and neither was he”; but of course he is still Brooklyn (born and raised), as much as he is Puerto Rico too, raising the question of just how separate these seemingly distinct places and worlds truly are.
Next poet tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other poets you’d highlight?