Today’s Thoughtful Thursday features the poetry of Martin Espada (b. 1957), an award-winning Latino poet, essayist and author who has written extensively about the pursuit of social justice. Espada was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and is of Puerto Rican descent. His father Frank Espada was a community organizer and civil rights activist who was a strong role model for Martin. As Martin explained in a 2016 interview, “I grew up in an activist household. I grew up in my father’s household. Resistance was as natural as breathing. I was surprised when I went into the world and discovered that not everybody was raised the way I was. So, when it turned to the writing of poetry, quite naturally it turned to poetry about social justice. That’s how I was raised.” Espada has won numerous awards and honors for his poetry, including the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry in 2018. He is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
In “The Threads That Connect the Stars”, Espada reflects on his father and his son, and marvels at the generational linkages and differences. With “Imagine the Angels of Bread”, he presents a powerfully hopeful view of a world where social justice reigns. This is a particularly good poem to read in our current political climate, to remind us of a different and better perspective. Share the poems of Martin Espada with your sons and daughters. Enjoy.
Of the Threads that Connect the Stars
Did you ever see stars? asked my father with a cackle. He was not
speaking of the heavens, but the white flash in his head when a fist burst
between his eyes. In Brooklyn, this would cause men and boys to slap
the table with glee; this might be the only heavenly light we’d ever see.
I never saw stars. The sky in Brooklyn was a tide of smoke rolling over us
from the factory across the avenue, the mattresses burning in the junkyard,
the ruins where squatters would sleep, the riots of 1966 that kept me
locked in my room like a suspect. My father talked truce on the streets.
My son can see the stars through the tall barrel of a telescope.
He names the galaxies with the numbers and letters of astronomy.
I cannot see what he sees in the telescope, no matter how many eyes I shut.
I understand a smoking mattress better than the language of galaxies.
My father saw stars. My son sees stars. The earth rolls beneath
our feet. We lurch ahead, and one day we have walked this far.
Imagine the Angels of Bread
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side?
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery?
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth?
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant?
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year?
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year?
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.