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MARTÍN ESPADA

 

Martín Espada

Called "the Latino poet of his generation" and "the Pablo Neruda of North American authors,” Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published seventeen books in all as a poet, editor, essayist and translator, including two collections of poems last year: Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas (Smokestack, 2008), released in England, and La Tumba de Buenaventura Roig (Terranova, 2008), a bilingual edition published in Puerto Rico. The Republic of Poetry, a collection of poems published by Norton in 2006, received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His poems have appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, The Nation and The Best American Poetry. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is now a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches creative writing and the work of Pablo Neruda.

 

 

_____

 

The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi

A Traveling Salesman in the Gardens of Paradise

His Hands Have Learned What Cannot Be Taught

 

_____

 

 

The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi

                                    Santiago, Chile

 

 

Beyond the gate where the convoys spilled their cargo

of blindfolded prisoners, and the cells too narrow to lie down,

and the rooms where electricity convulsed the body

strapped across the grill until the bones would break, 

and the parking lot where interrogators rolled pickup trucks

over the legs of subversives who would not talk,

and the tower where the condemned listened through the wall

for the song of another inmate on the morning of execution,

there is a swimming pool at Villa Grimaldi.

 

Here the guards and officers would gather families

for barbeques. The interrogator coached his son:

Kick your feet. Turn your head to breathe. 

The torturer’s hands braced the belly of his daughter,

learning to float, flailing at her lesson.

 

Here the splash of children, eyes red

from too much chlorine, would rise to reach

the inmates in the tower. The secret police

paraded women from the cells at poolside,

saying to them: Dance for me. Here the host

served chocolate cookies and Coke on ice

to the prisoner who let the names of comrades

bleed down his chin, and the lungs of the prisoner

who refused to speak a word ballooned

with water, face down at the end of a rope.

 

When a dissident pulled by the hair from a vat

of urine and feces cried out for God, and the cry

pelted the leaves, the swimmers plunged below the surface,

touching the bottom of a soundless blue world.

From the ladder at the edge of the pool they could watch

the prisoners marching blindfolded across the landscape,

one hand on the shoulder of the next, on their way

to the afternoon meal and back again. The neighbors

hung bedsheets on the windows to keep the ghosts away.

 

There is a swimming pool at the heart of Villa Grimaldi,

white steps, white tiles, where human beings

would dive and paddle till what was human in them

had dissolved forever, vanished like the prisoners

thrown from helicopters into the ocean by the secret police,

their bellies slit so the bodies could not float.

 

 

 

__________

 

 

 

 

A Traveling Salesman in the Gardens of Paradise

 

 

Jardines del Paraíso: The Gardens of Paradise,

or so we’d say, staring into our coffee, whenever

we translated the name of the public housing projects

where my grandmother smoked on the porch,

watching the trade in dollars and drugs

swiftly move from hand to hand

in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.

 

One night a visitor called her name

through the shutters of the window,

going door to door with something to sell:

a car battery in his hands, offered with the pride

of a diver showing off a treasure chest

salvaged from the bottom of the sea.

 

He was a traveling salesman in the Gardens of Paradise.

I was a traveling salesman once, selling encyclopedias

door to door, buying only the cheapest leads

from people who wrote: I want to win a free encyclopedia.

Don’t send me a salesman. Door after door slapped shut.

I quit one day, when the cops spotted me reading maps

spread across the steering wheel, and held me for hours

in the parking lot, suspected of stealing my own car.

The little cop wore sunglasses in the rain, asking repeatedly

if I was wanted by the police. I don’t know, I said. Do you want me?

 

Let him in, I proclaimed that night in the Gardens of Paradise.

We broke the reverie of arroz con pollo steaming on the fork.

Cousin Gisela greeted the salesman with his offering,

then had a vision pure and brilliant as the halo of Jesus on the wall:

her car in the parking lot with the hood propped up

and the battery missing. Did you get that from my car?

asked Gisela, like a teacher aggravated by the latest theft

of cookies from her desk. You put that back right now.

With apologies and a bow, he did.

 

He was a tecato, Gisela said, another junkie with a face

from the neighborhood. The next day my grandmother,

who believed that even junkies have a place in Paradise,

called to the same tecato through the window,

handed him her last five dollars,

and sent him to the store for cigarettes.

 

There would be buying and selling

that night in the Gardens of Paradise,

and witnesses who would never testify

chain-smoking on the porch.

 

 

 

__________

 

 

 

 

His Hands Have Learned What Cannot Be Taught

 

 

My wife has had another seizure,

the kind where she seems to be dead,

her eyes open and unseeing,

like jellyfish dangling

in the ocean at midnight.

 

My son, not yet seventeen,

leans across the table

and shuts her eyelids

with the V of his fingers.

 

When she wakes,

she will not know why she dropped her coffee.

She will not know his name, or mine, at first.

She will not know that he closed her eyes.

I will know that his hands have learned

what cannot be taught, that now

I can leave the table.

 

 

©2009 Martín Espada

 

 

Author Links

 

Espada Home Page

Poems and bio at Poets.org

Essays and interviews at Modern American Poetry

Video of Espada reading 'Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100'

 

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