The Republic of Poetry by Martin Espada
Martin Espada's The Republic of Poetry is a short but focused book, twenty-six poems in three sections presented like an argument: premise, method, conclusion. The premise is simply that poetry has power; power to animate and inspire, with political consequences. Plato knew this -- in his Republic, the famously anti-democratic philosopher painted poets as rabble-rousers, and disparaged poetry’s sucker-punch to the heart as a seductive and dangerous substitute for rational argument. But he also worried that the poets popular in his day, Homer foremost among them, set a bad example with their stories of too-human gods misbehaving. Finally, he worried that poets lacked authority, and that their works were pale imitations of reality. In this collection, Espada reasserts poetry’s power and sets out to refute the other charges.
Dictators have also recognized poetry’s power, and Espada’s first section presents Chile as his “Republic of Poetry,” drawing on a pilgrimage in 2004 for Pablo Neruda’s centennial to tell the story of Neruda and other Chilean poets before, during, and after Pinochet’s rule. It’s his use of poets as a lens that makes this opening section more than a story of Chile’s struggles; moreover, Espada suggests in the opening eponymic poem that poetry has an unusual importance for Chileans. He references Neruda’s recipe odes and the 2001 poetry-leaflet-bombing of the national palace (where Allende died in the coup) as evidence, but strangely describes people’s reactions in clichés like “blinded by weeping” and “scream for joy.” The poem ends with the image of the poet being forced to declaim by a border guard at the airport; you can imagine her saying, “Oh yeah, you a poet? Prove it -- recite something.” Or maybe it’s “Oh, I love poetry. Would you please recite something for me?” Even the border guards are into it.
Serious poems follow, on serious subjects. The tone is terse, unflinching, but calm, sustained by fierce images and quick metaphor. Espada describes people “dangled from the masts, beaten by knuckles and rain/into scarecrows the seagulls would pluck.” Balcony rails are twisted by bombs “like licorice.” A poet tortured by electroshock like lightning knows “what the sky will not confess even to the gods/who switch the electricity on, off, then on again.” And this all in the second poem. The grim poems stay grim; if they are leavened at all, it’s usually at the very end, like in the sequence “Something Escapes the Bonfire,” a chronicle of murdered poet and singer Victor Jara. We see him sing at Allende’s rallies; after the coup, we see him in the same stadium, famously singled out for torture and execution; we see his wife Joan’s wistful meeting with Espada at the same place in 2004; and finally we’re left with the image of two young dancers dancing to his recordings (which were preserved by Joan, who smuggled them out of the country). There’s a documentary feel to many of these poems, which accounts for the calm, plain tone; as Plato criticized poetry’s rhythms for their potential to mislead, Espada might be trying to steer clear of such accusations.
When he doesn’t have a pre-determined story to tell, Espada’s language and line loosen up, and with it, his imagination. This is where the book gets its buoyancy. Three of these poems in the first section bear Neruda’s obvious influence: In “Not paint and wood,” Espada meets a ship-figurehead from Neruda’s house in bar, where the muse made flesh pleads for liveliness: “'He likes for me to be still,/' she grinned. 'I don’t like to be still.'” There’s a Nerudean food-sonnet in praise of a crab pie, and a revised take on Neruda’s beloved conger eel.
One of the most surprising poems in the book, “City of Glass,” manages to straddle the line between documentation and imagination. It’s inspired by the military’s ransacking of Neruda’s house after his death, shortly after the coup, but Espada gives himself the freedom to reach much further. There’s the musical opening stanza:
The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles,
ships in bottles, zoo of bottles,
rooster, horse, monkey, fish,
heartbeat of clocks tapping against crystal,
windows illuminated by the white Andes,
observatory of glass over Santiago.
And the jarring conclusion of the (rare, for this collection) sustained metaphor:
In Chile, a river of glass bubbled, cooled,
hardened, and rose in sheets, only to crash and rise again.
One day, years later, the soldiers wheeled around
to find themselves in a city of glass.
The general’s tongue burned with slivers
invisible to the eye. The general’s tongue
was the color of cranberry glass.
Here words are like glass: enchanting and clear, but brittle and capable of coming back to cut.
If the first section is a case-study of poetry’s ability to inspire and console, the second section is a kind of rallying cry. There are five odes to poets Espada admires (Jeff Male, Julia de Burgos, Dennis Brutus, Yusuf Komunyakaa, and Robert Creeley), all of whom could be considered activists both in their poetry and lives. In “The Poet’s Coat,” which begins the section and gives it its name, Espada describes the kindness of Vietnam-vet and poet Jeff Male who gave him a coat, with typical quick metaphors: “with every salvo of arrows/in the rain your coat became the armor of samurai./…/your coat banished the conqueror back into the sea.” He says, “I want to write a poem like this coat /…/a poem useful as a coat to a coughing man.” But poems useful to whom? The coat was a gift from poet to poet, and these are mostly memorial gestures, the poet reaching out to other poets as exemplars and friends. Espada describes Creeley as saying “poets must bring the news to the next town,” and there’s an implication from Espada’s focus that they’ve earned this authority through their struggles and suffering. The section is rounded out by two poems explicitly meant to instruct, the satirical “Rules for Captain Ahab’s Provincetown Poetry Workshop” (write about the whale, or else) and “Advice for Young Poets” (don’t pretend to be what you’re not, at least not poorly, but the poem’s much funnier than that).
The last section, “The Weather-Beaten Face,” collects poems of knowledge gained through experience, beginning with a sequence of anti-war poems. “Return” cleverly parallels the Iraq and Vietnam wars via Espada’s return to a housing project he lived in forty years ago, where, in both periods, he “listen[s] to every door: There is a war on television.” There’s an annoying flaw in “Return” which is typical of his willingness to abandon his images as soon as they’re born. He writes:
Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me.
Blood rushed through a crack in my scalp;
blood foamed in both hands; blood ruined my shoes.
(We’re later told that a can had bounced off his head.) Is the second line really necessary? Doesn’t it just make the first one redundant?
“Blues for the Soldiers Who Told You” also invokes the Vietnam war, despairing of people’s unwillingness to hear what the soldiers “who drench themselves in liquor/like monks pouring gasoline on their heads” have to say: “You will not hear this, even after the war is over/and the troops drown in a monsoon of desert flowers/tossed by the crowd, blooming in their mouths/to stop their tongues with the sweetness of it.” Beautiful, bitter words; the activist project seems, momentarily, futile, but Espada doesn’t hold this pose. The last anti-war poem is dedicated to Camilo Mejía, the Iraq vet who refused a second tour of duty and became the first returning conscientious objector of the war. It’s called “The God of the Weather-Beaten Face,” that is, of suffering humanity, who’s contrasted to the gruesome gods of war:
the god of gold opened his handkerchief
for the god of oil to wipe his dripping chin
the god who punishes sin with boils scratched his boils
It’s a modern, though indirect, response to Plato’s objection that poets set a bad example by portraying the gods (or politicians) behaving badly: Why give them a free pass? Poets can hold them up to ridicule if need be; poetry can be critical rather than exemplary. We also see here, as elsewhere, that repetition is one of Espada’s favorite devices.
The last four poems are maybe the freest and most sensitive. There’s a New Year’s 2003 walk with his son, “Between the Rockets and the Songs,” where fireworks foreshadow the looming war. There’s the funny and menacing allegory “To the Albino Burmese Python Living in the Next Room” who seductively eats rats. “Why my Bones Hate the Ice” recounts an accident which has surprising consequences for the imagination. Taking this one step further, the last poem, “The Caves of Camuy,” offers consolation to his wife after a hysterectomy. The poet Clemente Soto Vélez appears to her in a dream and tells her to paint the Puerto-Rican caves of Camuy, artistic creation as an alternative to gestation:
Paint the blue crabs escaping your footsteps.
Paint the trilobites waking up hungry after millions of years.
Paint the bats fleeing the flashlight with panicky wings.
This sequence of short, vivid lines is the perfect form for the instruction. Espada concludes with a final musical paraphrase:
Gather good brushes and good paper,
and the creatures in the caves will stir:
singers in the circle of the first maracas,
conquerors and geologists flinging their helmets,
crabs, bats, trilobites, parakeets, poets with white hair spilling,
your sons and daughters pouring from the mouth of the world.
There’s a tension between documentation and imagination running through the entire collection that finally explodes here. It’s a debate about the role of the poet, and by extension, other artists. This has nothing to do with whether or not to write political poetry; Espada has, rightly, pointed out in interviews that to dismiss politics as a subject for poetry is as arbitrary as dismissing trees. But the political poems here are not exhortative poems; instead, they’re poems of witness and record which try to make history vivid with metaphorical asides while their thrust remains documentary and linear. Maybe they are too clear and direct. Though sometimes there’s a story you just want to tell, as a poetic strategy, the leaps of “City of Glass” might be more effective.
For all his advocacy of activism, Espada’s poetry isn’t naive; he describes Neruda on his deathbed telling soldiers who come to harass him, “There is only one danger for you here: Poetry” -- and they leave, recognizing him as no threat while he’s unable to organize. “Blues for the soldiers who told you” also points to the limits of speech. For all his focus on poets, ordinary people like Carlos Mejía are the ones who have to act. Artists might lead but they might not want to -- witness Victor Jara’s fate. (Who listens to poets anyway? Today, at least in the US, pop stars or comedians like Jon Stewart get more attention than Poets Against the War.) There is also Plato’s worrisome problem of authority: imagination needs no authority, but activism might. The human experience contained in these poems helps to establish it.
But these may be quibbles. At a memorial reading for Robert Creeley in Boston, I heard Espada boom out the following resonant lines, some of Creeley’s last (which Espada quotes from in “You got a song man”):
One bell wouldn’t ring loud enough
So they beat the bell to hell, Max,
with an axe, show it who’s boss,
boss. Me, I dreamt I dwelt in
someplace one could relax
but I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
You got a song man, sing it.
You got a bell man, ring it.
We all have our doubts, but anything, they argue, is better than a complacent silence.
The Republic of Poetry by Martin Espada
W. W. Norton