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Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002
Soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations across the night sky of this city and cities to come. Norton, $24.95 cloth, ISBN 0-393-05192-7 Alabanza I say, even if God has no face. Praise” is the English translation of Alabanza, Martín Espada’s “Alabanza” finds Espada struggling to praise, even in the first career-spanning collection of poetry, encompassing six midst of the annihilation of the subject: Even if, as he says, books published over more than three decades and including a “God has no face,” praise remains the poet’s one meaningful selection of new poems, previously unpublished. Alabanza is a perfect title for this collection: Espada often uses the form of Elsewhere, Espada praises everything from tenants abused the ode to praise and give witness to the lives of the working by their lawyers to the Zapatista movement in Mexico. Often, class and the poor, so often forgotten or passed over by history.
however, the ode turns dark for him, as in his poem “The River He also uses the same form to explore the contours of his own Will Not Testify,” about the Connecticut River: The river cannot testify to what warrior’s musket Whatever his subject, for Espada to praise is a deeply polit- shot Captain Turner, the ball of lead thudding ical act: It may be the only appropriate means of witnessing the between shoulder blades, flipped from his horse lives of those on the margins without turning them into mere and dragged off by the water to sink in a halo of blood. clichés or markers for political rhetoric. His name christened the falls, the town, the granite monument Espada’s concerns with history and politics probably have a that says: destroyed three hundred Indians at this place. more complex origin, but an understanding of his biography and Although the river lacks a voice to speak for itself (unlike ideas provides some illumination on the subject. Brought up in those of “Local 100,” whose voices were extinguished), Espada Brooklyn, New York, by working-class Puerto Rican immigrants, can, as a poet, unearth its history. “One day a fisherman would Espada has worked as a tenant lawyer and is now a professor at unearth shinbones/of Indians by the falls, seven skeletons/and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has won numer- each one seven feet tall, he declared,” continues the above- ous prestigious awards, including the PEN/Revson Fellowship quoted stanza. Here Espada is in top form, both holding up his- and the Paterson Poetry Prize. In an interview with William tory for meditation and acting as witness. It’s a bone-jarring Barillas in the September/October 2003 issue of The Bloomsbury Review, Espada argued that “political poetry … accurately Even when writing of his wife or son, Espada both acts as fam- reflects the way poor or working-class people live, [it] reflects ily historian and praises their struggles. And though the “poem of the self” has become overused since the identity struggles of What is political, though, may surprise readers. For the 1990s, Espada brings incisive connections and the weight of instance, with the poem “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” history to his own meditations on life. Consider “Because Espada offers an ode to the lives of the 43 hotel and restaurant Clemente Means Merciful,” written by Espada for his son, in employees working at the Windows on the World restaurant praise of the child’s existence. He describes how his son, who lost their lives on September 11, 2001: Clemente, almost did not survive the days following birth: Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up, The spinal fluid was clear, drained like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient but the X-ray film grew a stain on the lung, Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of Ecuador, México, República Dominicana, The poem becomes more than a father’s agony over being Here Espada does what few news commentators on CNN or powerless about his son’s condition. Espada transforms it into elsewhere have done: praise the working-class and poor who a poem about being “merciful” (clemente): He connects his died when the World Trade Center collapsed. What did they son’s ill health (and his own anguish) to a Guatemalan father’s do that deserves praise? Nothing more than the ordinary hero- plight at being ignored by the doctors because he speaks only ism of the immigrant’s daily life: They showed up for work, they covered the shifts of sick coworkers, they worked to feed I know someday you’ll stand beside families in their home countries. But the poem is more than a simple summation of their activities that day. Espada writes that “after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows … /for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo/like a cook’s soul.” Why “soul”? Espada continues, Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us Rarely in a personal poem will a writer transcend his or her About the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face, own despair, but Espada does this—again and again. Reprinted from The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 24, #5. 2004, Cristian Salazar. All rights reserved. May not be copied, reproduced, transmitted in any fashion without the written consent of Cristian Salazar; [email protected]
Alabanza gives us an intimate view into the artistic evolu- tion of one of our most notable poets, showing how Espada has taken the form of the ode and transformed the idea of praise into a political act. But it is pathos and the ability to commu- nicate it in universal tones that are the greatest gifts of this REVIEWER: Cristian Salazar is a contributing editor to The
Bloomsbury Review, edits for MovieMaker Magazine, and eats by farming his writing skills out to various publications. He Reprinted from The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 24, #5. 2004, Cristian Salazar. All rights reserved. May not be copied, reproduced, transmitted in any fashion without the written consent of Cristian Salazar; [email protected]

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