Poems and Introductions by Martín Espada
1. En la calle San Sebastián (1:48): This poem is a tribute to the music of Puerto Rico, especially the music brought by the slaves from Africa with their religion. The form comes from Lorca’s “Son de negros en Cuba.” There is a simple Spanish refrain in the poem: “En la calle San Sebastián”—on Saint Sebastian Street.
2. Now the Dead will Dance the Mambo (3:37): A few years ago I visited Ireland, where I stayed at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. I was struck by the remarkable similarities between Ireland and Puerto Rico, especially in terms of the political struggle against colonialism in the 20 th century. The point of departure for the poem, however, is the death of the great Tito Puente, which I learned about listening to the radio on Achill Island.
3. My Name is Espada (2:42): My name in Spanish literally means “sword.” This refers, of course, to the conquistadors from Spain, but for me the word also refers to those who resisted the Spanish: the African slaves and the indigenous Taínos. In Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the blood of the conqueror and the blood of the conquered run in the same veins.
4. Coca-Cola and Coco Frío (1:25): This is based on my first visit to Puerto Rico as a child. The poem also has something to say about one of the major by-products of colonialism: A colonized mind. I think of it as my cultural-imperialism-on-vacation-poem.
5. The Owl and the Lightning (1:35): I am originally from the tropical paradise of Brooklyn, New York. Here is a Brooklyn poem, a discourse on urban wildlife and the existence of God.
6. The Sign in My Father’s Hands (1:54): My political awakening began at the age of seven, when my father was arrested and jailed for demonstrating at the 1964 New York World’s Fair against Schaefer Beer and its discriminatory hiring practices.
7. My Cockroach Lover (1:02 Recorded Live*): Every Puerto Rican poet has to have a cockroach poem. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, certain people thought that the Puerto Ricans brought the cockroaches with them, as if we were carrying jars of live roaches onto the plane in San Juan and shaking them out in the streets of New York. Go, my children, you’re free!
8. For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Where My Cousin Esteban was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks (1:40): This is a curse poem, dedicated to those Mexican restaurants owned by Anglos where the hostess is Anglo, the bartender is Anglo, the wait staff is Anglo, the manager is Anglo, and all the Mexicans are behind the kitchen door, along with the Salvadorans, the Puerto Ricans and anyone else doing the cooking. I guess the idea is to provide non-threatening Mexican food—Spanish not spoken here.
9. Rednecks (1:51): I learned about love at a gas station in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
11. Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper (1:15): This is a poem about having one foot in each of two worlds. It’s also about never taking anyone’s labor for granted.
12. Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings (0:22): This is based on an actual exchange that took place in a Boston courtroom. The poem is bilingual; if you don’t speak Spanish, all you need to know to understand the poem is that there is a mistranslation in the middle, which makes perfect sense since, for Latinos, the legal system is mostly a series of mistranslations anyway.
13. Mi Vida (1:14): I worked as a tenant lawyer for a number of years, particularly as Supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The poem captures the feeling—the emotional landscape—of doing legal services work against sometimes overwhelming odds.
14. Thieves of Light (3:30): Here is another lawyer poem. This one deals with my favorite case. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
15. Tires Stacked in the Hallways of Civilization (0:49): Yet another lawyer poem, set in a Chelsea courtroom. I call this my cat poem; one day I hope to see it on a cat calendar.
17. The Prisoners of Saint Lawrence (1:30): I gave a reading at a prison near the Canadian border of upstate New York, and was startled to discover that my audience was entirely Latino. This experience inspired what may be the first and only prison villanelle. I chose the form, with its repetition, because I wanted to echo the cycles in these lives: the cycles of recidivism; the cycles of drug abuse; the cycles of prison life; the cycles of the constant snow; and the political and economic cycles that put them there in the first place.
18. The Poet in the Box (3:03 Recorded Live*): I did another reading at a juvenile detention center in the Boston area, where I encountered a young inmate named Brandon, who turned out to be one of the most dedicated poets I have ever met, considering what he was willing to sacrifice for his art.
19. The Poet’s Coat (2:30): This is an elegy for a good poet-friend, and Vietnam veteran, who died suddenly last year. I still wear that coat.
20. The Fugitive Poets of Fenway Park (2:58): Namely, Pablo Neruda and Ted Williams. Neruda really was a fugitive in 1948, pursued by his own government in Chile. The part about Neruda turning up at Fenway Park may simply be a product of my Red Sox-infested imagination.
21. Tato Hates the New York Yankees (2:30): This is the stuff of family legend--my father’s near-tryout with the New York Yankees in 1947.
22. My Father as a Guitar (0:56): Here is another perspective on my father, a contemplation of aging and mortality. I’m glad to report that he’s feeling better.
23. Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits (1:02): I rarely write persona poems. Here is a poem in the voice of an immigrant janitor I came to know, who worked at a church in that bastion of liberalism: Harvard Square, Cambridge.
24. Federico’s Ghost (1:57): In 1983, I did some outreach work for the Migrant Legal Action Program. They sent me into the fields and labor camps of Maryland and Delaware, where I saw and heard many extraordinary things, and wrote a series of farm worker poems.
25. Thanksgiving (4:10 Recorded Live*): This is a poem about the first time I had Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family. They come from a place called Rocky Hill, Connecticut, outside Hartford. Hartford now has a sizeable Puerto Rican population, which means, of course, that in the suburbs of Hartford the Puerto Rican is the Bogeyman. Imagine, then, the delight of my wife’s family when my wife brought the Bogeyman home for Thanksgiving dinner.
26. Her Toolbox (1:39): My wife Katherine worked in various capacities at a community center in the Dorchester section of Boston. One of my favorite anecdotes concerning my wife involves the time, in Dorchester, when she almost brained a total stranger with a hammer.
27. The Monsters at the Edge of the World (0:50): After Katherine’s stroke and brain hemorrhage a few years ago, we spent one night looking at her MRIs and wondering about everything the film left out.
29. White Birch (2:20): This is a birth poem. Our son was born on December 28, 1991. The difficult birth actually served to heal an old and traumatic injury, an apt metaphor for ending one history and beginning another.
30. DSS Dream (0:31): A few days after my son’s birth, I had the dream described in the poem. DSS, of course, is the Department of Social Services.
31. Because Clemente Means Merciful (2:42): When my son was six weeks old he contracted a virus called RSV, which causes pneumonia and sometimes heart failure in infants. He was hospitalized at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the struggle described here took place. His name may be translated from the Spanish as “merciful,” and the poem ends on that note.
32. Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks (3:23): The poem goes back more than a century to the Spanish-American War and the US invasion of Puerto Rico, when a young soldier named Carl Sandburg almost crossed paths with an ancestor of mine known as Don Luis, performer of Shakespeare and other miracles. My son now carries on the tradition.
33. Sheep Haiku (0:20): I dedicate this poem to anyone who has ever tried to rouse the flock.
34.Searching for La Revolución in the Streets of Tijuana (2:23): What started as a disoriented gastronomic tour of Tijuana for me and my poet-friend Leroy Quintana ended up as a search for something more.
35. Sleeping on the Bus (1:59): This is a poem about historical amnesia, a poem against forgetting, focusing on the civil rights movement and the Freedom Riders. The anonymous man arrested for not going to the back of the bus in Biloxi, Mississippi, is actually my father.
36. When Songs Become Water (2:00): In January 1991, I had several poems published in Diario Latino, an opposition newspaper in El Salvador. A month later, Diario Latino was burned to the ground. Slowly, the newspaper rebuilt itself, and on the first anniversary of the fire this poem appeared in the pages of Diario Latino. It’s a response to the fire and a tribute to the courage of the people who ran the newspaper, though it applies to people anywhere in the world whose voices rise above the flames.
37. Blues for the Soldiers Who Told You (2:14): Anyone who reads the poetry and fiction of Viet Nam veterans can see that they are the Cassandras of our time, unheeded prophets who warned us about the madness of the wars in Iraq and elsewhere.
38. Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100 (3:50): This is a 9/11 poem for the food service workers at the Windows on the World restaurant who lost their lives in the attack on the WTC. The word “alabanza” means praise in Spanish; this is a song of praise for those who were invisible in life and became even more invisible in death. The poem concludes with a plea to recognize the common humanity of all the victims, everywhere.
39. Imagine the Angels of Bread (2:30): This is a poem of the political imagination. Any progressive social change must be imagined first, and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression before it can move from imagination to reality.
Produced by Leapfrog Press AudioBooks / www.leapfrogpress.com / LFP005 / © Leapfrog Press, Inc.