Martín Espada’s newest collection of poetry, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, fuses elegy to activism with the barbaric yawp of a Boricua Whitman whose utmost imperative is to celebrate “the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.” The heroic figure of Frank Espada, the poet’s recently deceased father—a community organizer and civil rights activist—provides the animating spirit informing his son’s survey of our democratic vistas, past and present. In poem after poem, Martín Espada’s stentorian voice seeks to praise and to remember, and, in so doing, to “heal the cracks in the bell of the world.” This timely collection includes poems about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the beheading by ISIS of the journalist, Jim Foley, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder. Once again, Espada brings to the republic of poetry, along with the angels and curve balls of his Brooklyn childhood and the straw fedoras and red plumage of his grandfather’s Puerto Rico, the stalwart commitment to social justice that has been the hallmark of his poetic career.
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed begins with the title poem, a five sonnet sequence on the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. The poem evokes both Walt Whitman whose “Song of Myself” contains the title phrase, and William Carlos Williams who also wrote a poem about the 1913 strike. The sonnet sequence begins with an unnamed worker raising his dyed-red hand in protest, continues by detailing the actions of anarchist strikers such as Carlo Tresca and Modestino Valentino, the reportage of John Reed, and the exploits of iconic IWW figures, such as Big Bill Haywood and Hannah Silverman. The poem concludes by invoking the actions, twenty years after the strike, of a labor organizer, named Arturo Mazziotti, whose struggle recapitulates the earlier struggle and anticipates the successes of future generations. The last poem in the sequence ends: “Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet./ Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.” By implication, Trayvon Martin, Jim Foley, the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, and so many more have become part of the river, as ever-present and unseen as Frank Espada, not simply passed, but passing through us all.
Espada’s Vivas achieves an added poignancy in light of the highly publicized shootings, murders, and terrorist attacks at home and abroad in 2016. In the poem, “How Could We have Lived or Died This Way,” Espada echoes Whitman’s twin dictum of insurrection and loyalty by couching this recent violence in historical terms that America’s most expansive bard would undoubtedly and vehemently bemoan. Espada ends the poem with the following two stanzas:
I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking, words
buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.
I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.
Reading Martín Espada here, as everywhere in his body of work, we come a little closer to a future where the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave-catchers have intermingled to the point that they have become indistinguishable, where everyday insurrections of equity ensure our fidelity to ordinary justice, and where we no longer awaken with the blood of the dead sweating from every pore. The threads that connect our stars are like the words that connect Espada to his father, and like the countless silken ties of affection that connect each of us to one another across this earth even when we cannot see the truth of our essential interdependence.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he was the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and the Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry.