In his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet”, Robert Pinsky talks about the responsibility of the poet to witness. It is by witnessing that the poet notices and brings into the fold what has been deemed unpoetic, that which has not been made poetic by the tradition.
Espada is a poet of witness who finds the unusual and undocumented, even in the most publicly documented events. This is true of “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”, his widely anthologized poem on the 9/11 attacks; this is true of “Floaters”, the title poem on the plight of immigrants to the US, from his National Book Award-winning poetry collection; and, this is true of “Officer Mark Dial, Who Shot Eddie Irizarry, Will Be Fired for Insubordination”, a poem included here in print and audio. Espada’s poems manage to create a splash in the pond, to stand out, in the ways in which it trains its attention on perpetrators of violence and holds them accountable while portraying the sufferers of violence in their everyday humanness.
— Aswin Vijayan
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Guadalupe’s First-Year Law School Tumbao
The first-year law students heard the percussion of the bench booming
all the way down the hall, around the corner, as they scurried to torts
and contracts, property and civil procedure. Tumbao, cried Guadalupe,
my signal to hammer the bench between my knees like a conga drum,
my hands in the L shape he taught me, the beats in each hand he taught me.
Guadalupe’s hands struck the bench twice as hard, three times as fast,
swatting the wood as if to swat flies rising up from cracks in the floor
where the criminal law professor buried a body for the final exam.
We were the Puerto Ricans in the first-year class, Ray Barretto and his salsa
orchestra playing Qué viva la música in my head like I played the eight-track
tape in my car, L of my arm out the window, hand tapping the roof. The law
students streamed around us, a few bobbing their heads in time with the beat,
others hearing the cacophony of the city that kept them awake or would blast
from cars that raced through red lights to make their hearts palpitate, still
others stuffing their ears with the cotton balls of torts, contracts, property,
civil procedure. Once, the future governor of New Hampshire smiled at us.
We were the Puerto Ricans in first-year law school. We bantered in Spanish,
drowsy in civil pro, dreading the professor’s Socratic mutilation of our names,
roadkill and flies. We cursed in Spanish too, flipping through Civil Procedure:
Cases & Problems as the other students oscillated their hands in the air like
sixth-graders greedy for an A. We bellowed ¿Cómo esta’ bróder?, the greeting
in code unbreakable at the dean’s reception or meetings of student council.
We slap-boxed in the stairwell of the library, sweating through dress shirts,
the smack of hands flushing our faces red as the red of our faces in class.
The other students crept past us on the way to the stacks, a few telling us
to stop, wondering if we would ride together in the squad car or the ambulance.
Guadalupe taught me his tumbao: the beats that lived in the L of my hands,
how to spin the tumbler on the safe in my head so the combination clicked
and words in Spanish rolled like silver dollars off my tongue, the way to fold
my jacket, inside out to keep from wrinkling, a way of walking down the hall.
I was a student of torts, property, contracts, civil procedure and tumbao.
Dominic nodded in time to the tumbao booming off the bench, always
grinning like a pumpkin gutted at Halloween, seeds scraped out of his head.
He would nod in civil procedure too, startled by his name, unable to translate
the rules of court, as if God the sixth-grader scooped out his brains. God stole
the Puerto Rican brains too. We all cursed the code we would never break.
I sat in the back of the lecture hall, small in the eye of the professor hunting us.
Today was Guadalupe’s day to speak, and as he spoke my heart bounced,
a handball on a handball court. I sat behind Dom, busy in his notebook
as another student hovered over the words. I saw: The Puerto Ricans go
here for free. So do all the Blacks. It’s affirmative action, the same as welfare.
We pay their way, work hard, and the school lets the whole jungle in the door.
Dom tossed the fisted page from his notebook into the bin on his way out.
I unfolded the words, smoothing the wrinkles like a man ironing his shirt,
then handed it to Guadalupe, who handed it to all the hands accused of theft.
We were first-year law students. Tumbao, Guadalupe could have called to me,
my signal to swat the flies from Dom’s head, a pumpkin left alone to crumble,
his grin crazed by the sight of all the monsters surrounding him to steal
the candy in the bowl on his stoop, to snap off chunks of his orange skull.
He denied it, so we presented the evidence, the words in his own hand.
How his face melted in a sheen of sweat, mouth drooping, wrong again.
Tumbao: the word is the child of tumbar, to knock down. The next day,
we drummed Guadalupe’s tumbao into the bench, hands hard in the letter L,
the first letter in the word law. Dom stood with us, the grin gone, listening.
Officer Mark Dial, Who Shot Eddie Irizarry, Will Be Fired for Insubordination
. —headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 23, 2023
The white balloons rise in the 100 block of East Willard Street.
Some of the white balloons float the word Justicia into the sky.
The officers in the white cruiser saw Eddie hop the curb and would send
a bouquet of words into the sky above the 100 block of East Willard Street,
words bumping as they spiraled through the clouds: driving erratically,
they said, lunged with a knife, they said, multiple commands and shots fired.
At the ER, doctors bathed Eddie in white light to pronounce him dead.
Eddie’s aunt Zoraida knew her Eddie, the reggaetón in his headphones,
the wheelies on dirt bikes, the cars that would roar back to life whenever
he dipped his oil-black hands into their entrails, the pocketknife to strip wires.
She remembered the boy from Ponce, Puerto Rico, cowled like a monk
in his black hoodie, never a jail cell, never a ticket, never a word in English.
Zoraida and the cousins canvassed the 100 block of East Willard Street,
pushing doorbells, searching for a doorbell video, watching it on a loop:
Eddie is parallel parking, careful not to squash the orange cone under the tire.
The cruiser glides alongside, no siren, no lights. Officer Dial shouts hands
in the air and drop the knife in the language of detours Eddie could never read,
circles like a skater on the ice of August around Eddie’s car, popping six shots,
shattering the ice of the window rolled up on the driver’s side, cracking the ice
of the windshield. The horn bleats, a goat terrified of the sacrificial knife,
and Dial yells to stop the horn, as if Eddie’s soul is stuck in the traffic to heaven.
The cops drag him out by two arms and a leg, and the horn’s heart stops beating.
They dig in the seat for the three-inch pocketknife he pressed against his knee.
The police chief in her white uniform announces that Officer Mark Dial,
who shot Eddie Irizarry, will be fired for insubordination, now that he
is silent as the horn in Eddie’s car, now that he is silent as Eddie. The words
jail and murder do not drift from her mouth to tap the ceiling at the press
conference. The department will backtrack to investigate the lunging
tongue, how the fable of the knife slipped from their throats into the air.
Eddie’s coffin is gray, rising on the shoulders of pallbearers in white T-shirts
that say Justice for Junito, like Junior, Eddie the father left to gaze at the black
hands he would bequeath to his son, who learned from him all the spells
to spark the hearts of engines, the smoke fading away like ice in August.
The newspaper reports that ABC’s Next Bachelor is a Tennis Instructor
from Montgomery County. At the vigil in the 100 block of East Willard Street,
the white balloons rise. Some balloons float the word Justicia into the sky.
My Mother Sings an Encore
Mothers sing to their children, and so my mother would sing to us.
Hearing a cue only she could hear, seeing a spotlight only she could see,
she would stride into the room, fan her hands in the air, and sing.
Once, late at night, I heard the screech of a creature dragged away into
the darkness by another creature. I heard the voice of my mother singing.
When my mother sings, I told my friends, the moose come down from Canada.
My mother sang the Mills Brothers: You Always Hurt the One You Love.
My mother sang the songs from Oklahoma, The Surrey with the Fringe
on Top clattering down the potholed streets of Brooklyn like the junkman.
My mother sang the theme songs of TV shows, Daniel Boone, a big man.
My mother sang the jingle of the Mets, who lost a hundred games a year
as grounders skipped between their legs: Step right up and greet the Mets.
When she sang the word hurt, she would fold both hands over her heart.
When she sang the word big, she swung her arms high to show how big.
Always, she would stop the show with an announcement: I can’t sing.
Her audience said nothing. We stared lizard-eyed at the TV or scrutinized
baseball cards as if they told the secrets of the tarot. We picked at our scabs.
Later, my mother would return, called back onstage by an unseen MC. Again,
she would sing, windmilling her arms. Again, she would confess: I can’t sing.
We would not drop a coin into her singer’s cup. We would not absolve her.
My mother hit her mark, that X of black tape on the floor of the stage, knowing
that every row in the theater would rise but the first row, the only row that
counted, the row roped off for family, and still she sang an encore every night.
Love Song of Frankenstein’s Insomniac Monster
I spend every night with my stack of DVDs, watching Karloff try to play me.
The bedroom door creaks at 2 AM, and I tiptoe, but I tiptoe like a monster,
lurching across the hardwood floor. Your eyes pop open, awake but asleep.
The bed groans with me when I roll onto the mattress, my feet splaying
off the edge, one man’s ankles screwed into another man’s shinbones.
Yet, you spoon me, as I drift away to the burnt windmill of dreams: the Bride
of Frankenstein, white streaks electrifying her hair, reeling around the baron’s
laboratory, shrieking and hissing in my face after I whimper to her: Friend?
And me, the fiend murdering half the countryside, they say, grabbing the lever
to crumble the castle, bricks raining on our heads. Every night, I kick in my sleep,
knees bouncing in the sheets like toddlers dressed as ghosts for Halloween.
I wake up, startled by my own knees, a monster afraid of the brain sewn into
my skull, sweeping my dead convict’s hand across the bed, searching for you.
You are gone. I clomp down the stairs. I see you curled asleep on the couch
and murmur: Friend? I stumble over another man’s feet, my face looming
in closeup. You reach for me, oh bolted, screwed, sewn-up, fiendish me.
The street cannot be domesticated. Justice cannot be entirely codified. The law students in Martín Espada’s lead poem remind themselves of this truth through horseplay and drumming. One of the catalysts for their sense of identity, energy, and courage was Guadalupe, and the idea of Guadalupe was captured, we felt, in Martin French’s drummer. Yellow for hope, black for justice.
Author | MARTÍN ESPADA
Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest book of poems is called Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award and a Massachusetts Book Award, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003) and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, a Letras Boricuas Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Website: http://www.martinespada.net/