It may or may not be correct to call Martin Espada “the Latino poet of his generation,” but it is certainly right to understand him as one of a handful of writers of the generation now around age sixtywho broke open the publishing world for the many exceptional Latino writers now helping to reshape American literature. In addition to the themes of identity and inclusion, he has always been a poet who celebrates work and working people.
In an age when writers usually identify themselves by telling us where they went to school, where they’ve published, and what awards they’ve won, Espada is a proud throwback to an earlier era. His biographical notes tell us that he has worked “as a bouncer, a primate caretaker, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, a gas station attendant and a tenant lawyer,” before they get around to telling us he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In fact his most recent collection of poems, The Meaning of the Shovel, is a collection of all his poems about work. Espada doesn’t sentimentalize work–he knows from hard experience that it is often mindless and that the conditions can be degrading–yet he always demands that the dignity of the worker be remembered and honored. He does this with forthright, unadorned lines that give shape to the poet’s anger and his emotion. For instance, his poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” begins by remembering one of the poet’s jobs: “At sixteen, I worked after high school hours / at a printing plant / that manufactured legal pads.” After describing the work, and the toll it took on the hands of the person doing it, he concludes: “Ten years later, in law school, / I knew that every legal pad / was glued with the sting of hidden cuts, / that every open lawbook / was a pair of hands / upturned and burning.” Perhaps that level of deep involvement with physical work–the kind that leaves impressions in the bones and scars on the hands–is missing from much of our recent creative work, which might help explain why there so often seems to be only a superficial sympathy in much of what we see or hear.
Espada has a short elegy for the founder of the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, that highlights the poet’s belief in the power of work and his association with the issues of Latino politics. It concludes with a remarkable statement on the transformative possibilities of both political action and labor.
for Cesar Chavez, 1927-1993
Because of that brown face,
smooth weather-beaten soil;
because of these eyes,
ringed by rain-hungry creek beds;
because of those peasant fingers
curling around a shovel so it became
a picket sign or a flag flying the black eagle of union;
because of that voice, speaking the work boycott
like a benediction, the word huelga
as if the name of a god with calluses:
The red in the wine stings our eyes
with a brightness,
the grape is a circle more like the world
and less like a silver dollar.
Martin Espada reads at UMMA on March 17.