His Father’s Disciple

Martín Espada, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016); 96 pages; ISBN 978-0393353952 (paperback)

• February 2018

Martín Espada’s father refused to sit at the back of the bus. It was December 1949, in Biloxi, Mississippi. Frank Espada was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican raised in New York; he did not accept Jim Crow laws. The judge sentenced him to a week in jail.[1]

Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is both a work of advocacy and a monument to a father. The personal and the political are confederated, rendered by a poet with a lens as scopious as Walt Whitman’s. (The book’s title comes from Section 18 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”)

The title poem sequence, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913,” deals with an unprecedented six-month strike that marked a pivotal moment in American labor history. Paterson, New Jersey, was an industrial powerhouse: the great falls of the Passaic River fueled mills and dye houses that produced almost half the nation’s silk. But when owners sought to double workload and cut jobs, 35,000 workers mobilized. They sought an eight-hour day and better conditions. The stoppage was initially expected to last weeks; it dragged on for months. In the end, 1,850 workers were jailed and 2 people died; none of the workers’ demands were met.

The location of the 1913 strike is of particular significance. Paterson has often been associated with the beginnings of the United States. William Carlos Williams’s famous book-length poem Paterson (1963) is set there (his sprawling sequence contains references to the protest), and the city makes an appearance in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and, more recently, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Espada sees a kind of victory in the strike’s failure and presents “Vivas” in the sense of salute.

The 1913 strike also embodied fault lines in American society. The silk workers were largely immigrants, and many supporters were critics of unbridled profiteering. Today, with the rise of Donald Trump, the Paterson strike acts as a potent symbol of the challenges facing the globalized economy. Looking back, Espada sees the strike as a hopeful, prescient moment from the past that might inspire the present: “Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river” (23). He seeks to remember the unremembered, the marginal rebels who manage to do big things:

He sat down without another word, sank back
into the fumes, name and face rubbed off
by oblivion’s thumb like a Roman coin
from the earth of his birthplace dug up
after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear. (19)

We get a sense of history repeating itself. The poem “The Right Foot of Juan De Oñate” deals with a brutal event during the Spanish settlement of the American West: the conquistador Oñate, in an act of vengeance for a deadly rebellion by the Acoma Pueblo, sentenced the perpetrators to a cruel punishment—a foot cut off. In 1998, a Native American group severed the right foot of a bronze statute that had been erected in Oñate’s honor. As with recent events at Charlottesville—which saw deadly racist attacks because of the proposed removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee—this action underlines how monuments are like poems: they are more about the present than the past.

Eventually, contemporary events take center stage. In “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World,” which addresses the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, we are asked to have hope in the way force is transformed into healing: “I was born of bullets, but now I sing / of a world where bullets melt into bells” (29). Espada writes movingly about his student Jim Foley, the journalist beheaded by ISIS in August 2014: in “Ghazal for a Tall Boy from New Hampshire,” Foley’s life is tied to the fabric of America. We learn of him working as “a teacher too, teaching in another mill town,” working with refugees. “In Spanish, they knew him,” Espada writes of Foley’s students. “With him they wrote a poem of waterfalls.” The poem closes with these lines: “Once he was a tall boy from New Hampshire, standing in my doorway. / He spoke Spanish. He wanted to teach. I knew him. I never knew him” (35).

Language threads history. As does the impossibility of true knowledge, the difficulty of knowing each other.

Amid the book’s hope there is a weariness. Espada’s poem about Trayvon Martin has a lengthy title—“Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island, the Morning after George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager”—followed by an epigraph from Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” Yet the poem itself is just one line: “Daily Special: vegetarian chili” (33). It protests against the expected poetic treatment of an outrage. The proceedings are cut short just as Trayvon’s life was snuffed.

Poem after poem asks, What is failure? Who gets to define “those who have failed”? The Paterson Silk Strike may have been a failure in the sense that workers did not achieve their demands, but the show of force became a cautionary omen empowering generations to come.

If there is one arena in which notions of failure and success sit uneasily, it is within art. How do we judge the success of a work of literature? By the extent of its readership? By its critical reception? By the author’s personal judgement? And at what stage are we ready to carry out these assessments? On publication? Or a decade after? A century?

Behind Espada’s subversion of notions of success and failure is a complex relationship with religion. The poet’s quest for justice, his veneration of ritualistic protest activity, and his deeply felt advocacy seem evangelical. In “The Goddamned Crucifix,” he paints a scene involving his father. This time, the firebrand Frank is not protesting racial inequality but is sick in hospital. Near death, the ill man’s one request is for the crucifix in the room to be removed:

                                                    so I lifted Jesus off the nail on the wall
and hid Him in the drawer next to the bed, stuffed
back down into the darkness before the resurrection.
Only then did the miracle come to pass: my father lived. (65)

This is a spiritual reward for a renunciation of the spiritual. And if we think further, What could be more paradoxical than the idea that the crucifixion was a triumph, as believers assert? Was the crucifixion not protest? The poet, protestor, and priest meet.

Along the way, we become prepared for the subversive cycle of death and resurrection that closes the book, in a poem dedicated to the poet’s father. “El Moriviví” is named for the plant that opens and closes to the touch:

The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded
the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film,
the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father
was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives. (87; italics in original)

 

Andre Bagoo is the author of Trick Vessels (Shearsman, 2012), BURN (Shearsman, 2015), and Pitch Lake (Peepal Tree, 2017). His poetry has appeared in the Boston Review, the Caribbean Review of Books, the Cincinnati Review, the St. Petersburg Review, and the Poetry Review. In 2017, he was awarded the Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize by the Caribbean Writer.

 


[1] Martín Espada, Zapata’s Disciple: Essays (Cambridge, MA: South End, 1998), 3.

 

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