Martín Espada grounds himself with the music of an island. That island is Puerto Rico, where his father is from and whose music and language can be found in much of Espada’s poems. The English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst opened his reading last Thursday in Griffin Hall with a poem entitled “En la Calle San Sebastián,” a rhythmic and flowing piece through which the music of San Sebastián Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, can be felt. As Espada read, the room filled with an energy and the images of restaurants, dancers and street musicians flowed through the audience’s minds. In starting with this poem, Espada set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Growing up, Espada had always heard from his father about a “paradise called Puerto Rico,” and his first impressions after visiting as a young boy are captured perfectly in “Coca-Cola and Coco Frío.” Emphasis lies in the island’s status as an American territory, not quite in charge of itself. From the people drinking Coca-Cola and not local “coco frío” to the “swollen and unsuckled” coconuts hanging from trees, Espada absorbed the influence of the United States on Puerto Rican culture and captured it in a poem that made us laugh but also made us really think.
Flowing from one poem to the next, the mood changed with the introduction of “Blessed Be The Truth-Tellers.” Written originally for a fundraiser for Jack, a dear friend who had become ill, the poem emphasized Jack’s strength in his beliefs and how he always stood up for them. At the reading of a favorite saying of Jack’s, “For they shall have all the ice cream they want,” the audience was able to truly see how Espada admired and cared for Jack, and with those melancholic sentiments, the room ran deep with emotion.
In keeping with the lightness of most of his poetry, Espada quickly switched the mood back to humorous, remarking that every Puerto Rican poet had to have a cockroach poem, and he was no exception. Evoking the sentiment of 1960s Harlem, “My Cockroach Lover” had the room laughing and smiling, imagining the cockroaches everywhere like the “Republican National Convention of roaches.”
Espada, ever in control of the audience’s mood, segued into his next poem with the line, “Speaking of cockroaches, Donald Trump…” In actuality, he was moving us into his more personal poetry, discussing the scapegoating of immigrants and the challenges that they face. “We must continue to insist on the humanity of the dehumanized,” Espada said with emphasis. The poems that followed this powerful statement included “The Sinking of the San Jacinto,” the story of his father’s immigration to New York, and “El Moriviví,” a eulogy for his recently deceased father, Frank Espada. The latter poem particularly struck me. Throughout the poem, Martín Espada continually employed the phrase “I died, I lived” to represent his father, and the stories of his father rising up from challenges and hardships over and over again truly resonated with everyone in the room.
Espada is not afraid to write and speak about today’s difficult issues, as evidenced by his poem “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way.” The work references, but not by name, eight cases of racial prejudice, comparing fugitives escaping the police to slaves escaping the whip and describing the descendants of slaves still fleeing from the descendants of slave owners. Powerful, poetic and provocative, this poem really hit on relevant societal issues. Everyone in the room took a few moments to think over what had just been read; the impact was immediate and clear on the faces of those in the room.
Espada’s final poem in the reading, “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” is widely performed and anthologized, but hearing Espada perform it himself is a particularly special experience. “Alabanza” is a 9/11 poem with a twist, shining light on the deaths in the 9/11 attacks of food service workers and those who were “invisible in life and more so in death,” Espada commented. With every repetition of the word “alabanza,” Espada would sing with a strong, loud voice as if emphasizing its definition of “praise.” By ending with this poem, Espada captivated his listeners and brought them into their own thoughts and their nation’s history.
Espada’s newest collection of poems, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, will be available in January of 2016.