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.
I’VE KNOWN RIVERS: SPEAKING OF THE UNSPOKEN PLACES IN POETRY
Featured work from the forthcoming Spring Literary Festival, themed 'A Sense of Place'
To some poets, a lake is exactly that, a body of water, a place for bird-watching or contemplation of nature’s mysteries.
To Everett Hoagland, a lake is something more. He stands at the edge of Lake Champlain, and wonders, “who walked in, fell in, jumped in, went/ under to lake bed long ago.” He reports: “Something unseen splashed.” His poetic imagination takes him below the surface of the water, beyond whatever we see or want to see, to envision suffering humanity.
There are “unspoken” places all around us, places we never see, or see but do not see. There are hidden histories, haunted landscapes, forgotten graves, secret worlds surrounded by high walls, places of pilgrimage where pilgrimage is impossible. Sometimes, these places are “unspoken” because the unspeakable happened or continues to happen there; sometimes, because the human beings dwelling in the land of the unspeakable find a way to resist, and their example is dangerous.
Speaking of the unspoken places means speaking of the people who live and die in those places. These are people and places condemned to silence, and so they become the provinces of poetry. The poet must speak, or enable other voices to speak through the poems. Indeed, poets continue to speak of such places in terms of history and mythology, memory and redemption. They pose difficult questions: Who benefits from silence and forgetting? Who benefits from speaking and remembering? How do we make the invisible visible? How do we sing of the world buried beneath us? How do we soak up the ghosts through the soles of our feet?
On October 31, 1943, Pablo Neruda climbed on horseback through the Andes to the ruins of an Inca city called Macchu Picchu. Because of its remoteness, Macchu Picchu was never colonized by Spain; there is no Spanish architecture, or destruction of Inca architecture. Neruda translator and critic John Felstiner describes Macchu Picchu this way: “The city itself gives you a feeling of physical improbability. Perched on a saddle between two pinnacles two thousand feet above the Urubamba (River), its walls, towers, stairways and roofless houses seem to be clinging organically onto the grassy ridge … Wherever you go in the city you are moving up or down.” Yet, “As for the builders, no trace remains of their dwellings or those of the various artisans and farmers who supported such a community.”
Neruda wrote Heights of Macchu Picchu in September 1945, a long poem divided into twelve Cantos. As might be expected, he praises the power of the city and the mountains. However, in Canto X there is a radical turnabout. With the question, "Man, where was he?" Neruda confronts Macchu Picchu. He becomes aware of human suffering at this sacred place. In a tone of anguish, the poet asks: "Macchu Picchu, did you lift / stone upon stone on a groundwork of rags?" To build the city thousands of slaves must have labored for years to drag huge stones two thousand feet above the Urubamba without the use of the wheel. Neruda wrestles with the paradox that such magnificence is built upon such suffering. He demands of Macchu Picchu: "Give me back the slave you buried here!"
Most poets would write in praise of Macchu Picchu's splendor, and leave it at that. Instead, according to René de Costa, “The soul of the poet is united not with nature or with God, as in traditional mystic poetry, but with the continent and its past history.” This is a different kind of communion.
The poem takes one more turn in the twelfth and final Canto. Standing at the heights of Macchu Picchu, Neruda speaks to and for the dead:
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays—
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths.
The translation is by Nathaniel Tarn. As de Costa says, the poet "calls out to the continent's dead, asking them to speak through him ... Neruda will speak with a voice of Biblical authority for all the people of the Américas." In the epiphanic declaration, “I come to speak for your dead mouths,” the poet reveals the synthesis between craft and commitment, poetry and politics. This is why he writes, and why he lives. In Canto XII, Felstiner notes, Neruda wants the flesh and blood of the dead “transfused into him. Lives that were stifled in the mother of stone can rise to be born through him.”
Some places, like Macchu Picchu, are forgotten through negligence, while other places are forgotten with great deliberation. Poet Sterling Brown served as the “Negro editor” of the Federal Writers’ Project during the 1930s. According to Mark Sanders, Brown wrote 'Remembering Nat Turner' in “direct response to the disillusioning experience with the Federal Writers’ Project. Brown’s chief assignment at the Project was to oversee the recovery of African-American history … But Brown repeatedly encountered, from white and blacks, apathy and ignorance of history and its possibilities.”
Nat Turner was a Black preacher who led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, killing fifty-five whites at various plantations. Turner was caught and hanged with his fellow insurgents. (Turner was also decapitated, quartered and skinned.) 'Remembering Nat Turner' is ironically titled; in fact, it’s all about forgetting Nat Turner.
The Black sharecroppers in Cross Keys, where the rebellion began, have “only the faintest recollections:” “So he fought to be free. Well. You doan say.” An elderly white woman misremembers maliciously:
She cackled as she told how they riddled Nat with bullets
(Nat was tried and hanged at Cortland, ten miles away).
She wanted to know why folks would come miles
Just to ask about an old nigger fool.
Worse still is the truth she tells:
We had a sign post here with printing on it,
But it rotted in the hole, and thar it lays,
And the nigger tenants split the marker for kindling.
The Black tenants are not only ignorant of their own history; they build a fire out of it. Their immediate needs override any knowledge of themselves or the possibility of changing their own lives. They can’t learn their history from a sign they can’t read. As Sanders observes, “they destroy the artifacts that hold the key to both past and future.”
Meanwhile, the searchers depart, finding no trace of Nat Turner and his army, nowhere to lay their hands:
A watery moon was high in the cloud-filled heavens,
The same moon he dreaded a hundred years ago.
The tree they hanged Nat is long gone to ashes,
The trees he dodged behind have rotted in the swamps.
We remember the poster rotted through and falling,
The marker split for kindling a kitchen fire.
The split marker is a metaphor for the obliteration of history and memory, burning away, dissolving in ash and swamp. Yet, the very obliteration of Nat Turner argues for the importance of his reclamation by the poet. This is why poems like 'Remembering Nat Turner' are necessary: so that the truth of a place cannot be erased simply by changing the face of the landscape.
If Neruda was haunted by stone, and Brown was haunted by fire, there are other poets who are haunted by water. History and memory are not only buried in the earth; they are carried away by rivers. Nevertheless, there are voices rising from the current.
Claribel Alegría’s poem 'The Rivers' has a dreamlike, surreal quality, yet the recurrent image of the rivers carrying away the dead is not the product of magical realism. On May 14, 1980, there was a massacre at the Sumpul River in El Salvador, where the Salvadoran military slaughtered six hundred peasants trying to flee across the river into Honduras. This is never mentioned explicitly in the poem; instead, the Sumpul Massacre is the poet's point of departure. As translated by her husband, Bud Flakoll:
the rivers are coffins
cradling their dead
between their wide banks
the dead sail down
and the sea receives them
and they revive.
In the rivers "boiling with corpses" the poet has found a metaphor to depict the collective memory of El Salvador after years of brutal repression that left 70,000 dead in a country the size of Massachusetts. This accounts for the grief and compassion of the rivers; they “cradle” their dead. If the rivers are obliged to bear the dead in a mass funeral procession, they will become magnificent coffins, "crystalline flasks". But this is not an elegy per se. In a surprising turn, the rivers bring the dead to the sea, where "they revive". In the waters of communal memory there exists the possibility of redemption and healing. There is desecration, but there is also purification.
Carl Sandburg, himself a veteran of the Spanish American War, recalls the battlefields of the world in 'Grass':
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work.
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
These few words capture the endless cycles of war made possible by historical amnesia. The proof of this amnesia is evident in the litany of the poem itself. We all recognize the names “Gettysburg” and “Waterloo”. The other names are less familiar to our contemporary American ears. Verdun is a city in France, the site of a battle during the First World War that lasted for ten months. Total casualties: over 900,000. Ypres is a city in Belgium, the site of three battles during the Great War. Austerlitz is a town in the Czech Republic, the site of a major battle during the Napoleonic Wars. The poem then poses a question that resonates on multiple levels: “Where are we now?” The answer echoes back: Iraq.
This poem can be read as a response to Whitman’s question in 'Song of Myself': “What is the grass?” The voice of the grass here is so indifferent to the piles of bodies that it might as well be the voice of an uncaring God. There is no doubt, however, that the voice bears witness to a fundamental truth. Visit Gettysburg, and another truth of the poem reveals itself: the grass is beautiful. The grass covers all, and the place is once again idyllic, as if the generals choose their battlefields the same way most of us choose the perfect spot for a picnic. The grass becomes a metaphor for the seductiveness of forgetting.
Any survey of poems that speak of hidden or forgotten places must account for the poetry arising from incarceration. The empathy of Whitman for prisoners points the way: “Not a man walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed/ to him and walk by his side.” This poetry is especially relevant given the epidemic of incarceration in the United States today. The media tends to demonize those behind the walls – the comforting personification of criminality in a cage – but beyond the symbolism there is invisibility and silence. Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and a voice.
Nazim Hikmet spent seventeen years in prison for his political activity with the Communist Party in Turkey. In particular, he was charged with sedition when cadets at the naval academy were caught reading his poems. In May 1949, locked up in Bursa Prison, he wrote 'Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison'. The poem has an urgency that draws us in, but the poet also employs several strategies to keep us there. There is his sophisticated strategy of addressing the audience. As Ed Hirsch observes of this poem: "Consider yourself addressed if you're going to be spending time in prison for political reasons." For the rest of us, there is a feeling of eavesdropping. Instinctively, we lean closer to catch every word. There is another strategy at work: the poet springs at us from strange and surprising angles. There is no mention of the warden, guards, other inmates, bars on the windows, steel doors or the prison yard. Instead, this is a poem about the emotional landscape of the dissenter. The advice, by poem's end, is not only about surviving imprisonment, but about our own emotional landscapes, whatever they may be. Here's the end of the poem, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
To the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
ten or fifteen years inside
as long as the jewel
on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster!
Hirsch says of Hikmet and his emotions: "He knows, for example, one can't afford to give in to desolation. He is against brooding about enclosed spaces, even beautiful ones like gardens, but supports dreaming of wild open spaces, like seas and mountains. He understands too well the temptations of sadness, the dangers of indifference, the healing power of laughter ... So many modern and contemporary poets are terrified of deep feeling, of seeming undefended and 'sentimental' … Many write as if it were desirable to refine out the emotional registers of the lyric. We live in a cool age. But I invoke Hikmet precisely for his emotional excesses, for writing an oracular human-sized poetry, for his toughness and unblushing sentiment, for calling the heart a jewel that should never lose its luster.”
Etheridge Knight, wounded in the Korean War, was treated with morphine and became an addict. He was ultimately convicted of armed robbery and spent six years in prison, where he began to write. His most celebrated poem – possibly the most celebrated poem about prison life in this country – is called 'Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane'.
Hard Rock is a rebel and a hero to his fellow inmates. They recall his legendary exploits, such as the time he smacked a guard with his dinner tray, and “the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit/ a screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.” The authorities finally send Hard Rock to a mental hospital, and he returns lobotomized, “his eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.” The poet goes on:
And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly three minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do.
Of 'Hard Rock', Yusef Komunyakaa writes: "Knight knows that people in such a psychological clench need heroes of mythic proportions to fight their real and imaginary battles. Hard Rock is one that they, and Knight, have claimed. He has a history of standing up to adversaries and symbols of authority, a figure of folkloric stature ... This hero doesn't wear a white hat. He is crude, brute-looking, unsophisticated, but also noble. In order for him to belong to a group he must sacrifice himself; thus, he's misused by this fraternity of black victims. Also, one knows, like Hard Rock what the collective 'we' has been reduced to—that only savagery equals survival in such a hellhole. The situation has invented Hard Rock."
Etheridge Knight demonstrates the proposition that the people who inhabit the unspoken places are not only subjects, but poets themselves. They have moral and literary authority to speak. In fact, there is probably a higher percentage of poets per capita in the prison system than in the educational system. And they are serious. Poets who survive and emerge from the prison system will often say, with all solemnity, that poetry saved their lives, as melodramatic as that statement might seem in the academic world.
There is yet another perspective: those who work behind the walls have their point of view. Theodore Deppe served as a psychiatric nurse working with disturbed adolescents at a hospital in Willimantic, Connecticut. This poem is simply called, 'Admission, Children's Unit'.
She said her son set fire to his own room,
she’d found him fanning it with a comic, and what
should she have done? Her red hair
was pulled back in a braid, she tugged at its flames,
and what she’d done, it turns out, was hold her son
so her boyfriend could burn him with cigarettes.
The details didn’t, of course, come out at first,
but I sensed them. The boy’s refusal to take off his shirt.
His letting me, finally, lift it to his shoulders
and examine the six wounds, raised, ashy, second
or third degree, arranged in a cross.
I’d like to say all this happened when I first started
to work as a nurse, before I’d learned not to judge
the parents, but this was last week, the mother was crying,
I thought of handing her a box of tissues, and didn’t.
Sullen and wordless, the boy got up, brought his mother
the scented, blue Kleenex from my desk,
pressed his head into her side. Bunching
the bottom of her sweatshirt in both hands,
he anchored himself to her. Glared at me.
It took four of us to pry him from his mother’s arms.
There is a current of controlled anger that runs through the poem, channeled and directed rather than spilling over and breaking through. Thus, the poem mirrors the controlled anger of the poet at the very moment that this encounter occurred. The poem succeeds, not simply because of the shocking tale it tells, but because the poem pivots like a skier down a slope, building momentum and leaving our expectations sprawled in its wake. First comes the revelation of the burns in the shape of a cross; then the refusal of the nurse (that is, the poet) to hand over a box of tissues, in a small gesture of hostility; then the son bringing his mother the tissues, signaling his loyalty; then the final, devastating struggle. The victim does not want help, despises his protector, and fiercely loves a person who may ultimately kill him.
The poem raises a basic question: Why was it written? Unlike Neruda, Hughes, Sandburg or Hikmet, Ted Deppe is not famous. He has published two slim collections of poetry with small presses in New England. He does not have a following. His audience is tiny. When he wrote this poem, he had no expectations that it would be published or read at all, or that the poem could possibly change the boy's situation for the better. Why does a psychiatric nurse write a poem?
'Admission, Children's Unit' represents the idea that we speak of the unspoken places because we have to, regardless of consequences, that we are driven to create a record of human suffering without the luxury of measuring our impact on the world, which cannot be quantified. We write such poems because there is an ethical, even physical compulsion to write them.
There are, to be sure, consequences for the failure to speak of the unspoken places. Witness the public discourse in this country on the legitimacy of torture. The poet Roque Dalton had something to say from the other side of that particular wall.
Dalton, according to Eduardo Galeano, “twice escaped death up against the wall” in El Salvador: “Once he was saved because the government fell; the second time because the wall itself fell, thanks to an opportune earthquake. He also escaped from the torturers, who left him in bad shape but alive, and from the police, who chased him with blazing guns.” Finally, he was assassinated in 1975 by an extreme faction on his own side. As Galeano puts it: “This bullet, the only one that could find Roque, had to come from right beside him.” Dalton would have appreciated the irony. His poem about the unspeakable is called, 'The Certainty', translated by Jack Hirschman.
Two torturers play a guessing game with their prisoner: “If you guess which one of us/ has a glass eye, you’ll be spared torture.” The prisoner gets it right – “His. His right eye is glass” – and the amazed guards want to know:
“But how did you guess?
All your buddies missed because the eye is American,
that is, perfect.” “Very simple,” said the prisoner,
feeling he was going to faint again, “it was the only eye that
looked at me without hatred.”
Of course they continued torturing him.
One “certainty” of this poem is that the poet never stops being a poet, even when writing about torture. Roque Dalton speaks in metaphor. The glass eye is a representation of U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador. The eye is apparently "perfect", and indeed the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy invokes democratic principles as well as the desire for peace. But the eye is glass, a gleaming fraud. Ultimately, the eye is blind. The United States once funded the Salvadoran military at a rate of more than one and a half million dollars per day, yet the taxpayers and the bureaucrats never saw the torture chamber.
The poem has the quality of a perverse fable, with a political moral. The guards pose a riddle; the prisoner answers correctly, and loses anyway. Perhaps Dalton's moral is this: Don't play the game with this regime. Name "hatred" for what it is. Dalton adopts a different survival strategy than Nazim Hikmet; he stays human through stubborn defiance.
A glimpse into the jail cell where torture takes place is relatively rare; rarer still is the glimpse into the doorway of the fine house where torture has been sanctioned. In 'The Colonel', a poem about her experience in El Salvador, Carolyn Forché brings us through that doorway. This poem is a prime example of what Forché calls "the poetry of witness", influenced by the Latin American tradition of the "testimonio." Here Forché is acting as a poet-spy—and she gets caught, escalating the tension of the scene.
The poem begins with a statement of urgency: "What you have heard is true." Forché then establishes a sense of place in two ways. We see images of privilege, as expected: "rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell." But we also see images of the barriers protecting privilege: "Broken bottles were embedded in the walls to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs." The poem lifts the reader safely over those broken bottles. The poet becomes our guide to a secret place, where the euphemistic language of power asserts itself in such phrases as "how difficult it had become to govern," the rationalization for whatever happens in that other secret place, the jail cell of Roque Dalton.
But the guide is powerless when her host, the colonel, decides to demonstrate his ultimate authority at the dinner table:
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.
The sack of ears has metaphorical power – a startling representation of silence imposed by brutality – but they are also real ears. This turn in the poem is followed by one more dramatic development: the colonel, obviously a dangerous man, knows who the poet is and where her sympathies lie: "As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves." The implication here is that she or her "people" could be imperiled. The colonel's final declaration – "Something for your poetry, no?" – could be read as a dare, or as a statement that his power and privilege insulate him from punishment or reprisal. It doesn't matter what she writes. Of course, the colonel was wrong. The poem gained a good deal of attention in the United States and helped to raise awareness about repression in El Salvador. (The colonel himself is dead now.)
There are many Latino writers and activists who insist that the border between México and the United States is a nation unto itself, with its own culture and history. If so, then this is truly an unspoken place, a shadow country. In 1987, the United States government attempted to prevent Demetria Martínez from speaking of this unspoken place.
Martínez, a Chicana poet, novelist and journalist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was active in the sanctuary movement during the 1980s, providing political asylum for refugees from Central America. In her capacity as a writer, she traveled in the company of two pregnant Salvadoran women as they crossed the border into the U.S. She wrote a poem about the encounter called 'Nativity: For Two Salvadoran Women, 1986-1987'. In 1987, Martínez was indicted for allegedly smuggling "illegal aliens" across the border. She faced twenty five years in prison and more than a million dollars in fines. The poem was introduced as evidence against her, to show that she indeed traveled with the refugees, though the existence of the poem supported her contention that she was acting as a writer. She was acquitted on First Amendment grounds in 1988. However, her treatment may help to explain why so many unspoken places remain unspoken.
Martínez wrote 'Nativity' to protest the criminalization of the immigrant, to argue that the phrase "illegal immigrant" is an oxymoron in a nation of immigrants. In return, her dissent was criminalized, since the best way to circumvent the First Amendment and punish dissent is to call the dissenter a criminal and charge her with a crime.
The journalistic sensibility of the poem is clear. The elements of who, what, and where are present in the opening lines:
Your eyes, large as Canada, welcome
We meet in a Juárez train station
where you sat hours,
your offspring blooming in you
like cactus fruit,
dresses stained where breasts leak,
panties in purses tagged
“Hecho en El Salvador,”
your belts like equators,
mark north from south,
borders I cannot cross,
for I am an American reporter,
pen and notebook, the tools
of my tribe, distance us …
The poem transcends journalism as it mythologizes this place and people. The title itself mythologizes: 'Nativity'. The children are due in December; the birth of these children represents hope for a people to survive; they will be born in the "manger" of this society.
The poet-reporter watches a car taking the two Salvadoran women to their destiny, “a canoe hanging over the windshield/ like the beak of an eagle,/ babies turning in your wombs,/ summoned to Bélen to be born.” The last line of the poem relies on the double meaning of "Belén" in Spanish: both "Bethlehem" and "chaos." The children are summoned to a mythological destiny, but also to a chaotic and dangerous world. The line echoes Yeats: "slouching towards Bethlehem to be born."
These immigrants cross the border into unspoken places: the fields and labor camps of this country. From this world, where illiteracy is the rule, came Chicano poet Gary Soto. A former farmworker in the San Joaquín Valley, Soto published The Elements of San Joaquín in 1977. It was as if Tom Joad had written The Grapes of Wrath. 'A Red Palm', a later poem, establishes its central metaphors of dehumanization in the first two stanzas:
You’re in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.
That’s hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
The person becomes the place, and the place becomes the person. The "weeds/ fall with a sigh," until "you yourself are breathing that way," "a sigh that will follow you into town." Later that night, "you walk with a sigh of cotton plants." The farmworker is both chopping and chopped. He dissolves into the cotton, no more human than the crop and the dirt, which "smiles under each fingernail," as human as he is. "The sun is a red blister" in the palm; by the end of the poem, the "red sun" is "the sore light you see when you first stir in bed," an image which implies that the farmworker and the sun will rise together for another day in the fields. The comparison of the blister and the sun is significant. In farmworker literature, the sun is a malevolent presence, not a harbinger of hope or a bringer of life.
The red palm is a brand, an identifying mark, reminiscent of the stigmata. All the farmworker owns is the labor of his hands. That labor buys rest from labor, but the respite is painfully brief. The lights are on: "That costs money, yellow light/ in the kitchen. That's thirty steps,/ You say to your hands." The hands twitch. There may be rest, but there is no peace.
Diana García was born in a migrant labor camp: Camp CPC, owned by the California Packing Corporation in the San Joaquín Valley. Like Etheridge Knight, García demonstrates the presence of poets in the unspoken places. She writes a visceral poetry, from the perspective of one who escaped. There is a flicker of imagination in the emulation of a beloved movie star—the seed of poetry, perhaps.
When living was a labor camp called Montgomery
You joined the family each summer to sort dried figs.
From Santa María to Gilroy, Brawley to Stockton, you settled
in rows of red cabins hidden behind the orchards.
You recall how the red cabin stain came off on your fingers,
a stain you pressed to your cheeks so you looked like
Dolores del Río, the famous Mexican actress.
You catch the stench of rotting figs, of too-full outhouses.
The nose closes off. You feel how hot it was to sleep, two
to a mattress, the only other room a kitchen.
You thought your arms thickened long ago lugging trays of figs.
You thought you had peasant ankles. You thought you could die
and no one would know your smell.
We return, full circle, to water.
Langston Hughes published 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' at the age of nineteen. Biographer Arnold Rampersad says that the poem came to Hughes as he was riding a train that crossed the Mississippi over a long bridge. In the poet's words: "I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in bondage. Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think of other rivers in our past – the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa – and the thought came back to me: 'I've known rivers,' and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket ..." Fifteen minutes later, one of the key poems of the African-American tradition was born:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes, like Neruda and Sandburg, was a disciple of Whitman, reflected here by the sweeping scope of his vision. But the vision belongs to Hughes—he, too, sings America. Rampersad says: "The death wish, benign but suffusing, of its images of rivers older than human blood, of souls grown deep as these rivers, gives way steadily to an altering, ennobling vision whose final effect gleams in the evocation of the Mississippi's 'muddy bosom' turning at last 'all golden in the sunset.' Personal anguish has been alchemized by the poet into a gracious meditation on race, whose despised ('muddy') culture and history, irradiated by the poet's vision, changes within the poem from mud into gold."
Ultimately, this is a poem about all rivers, all submerged histories, all unspoken places, and the poets who alchemize the mud into gold.
©2009 Martín Espada
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