Reviewed by MIKE SONKSEN
Poet and professor Martin Espada’s latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, takes its title from a line in a Walt Whitman poem. Published by Norton, the 34 poems in this collection carry on the Whitmanian tradition of paying tribute to the everyday American and those who are usually in the shadows. Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and his register deftly oscillates between calls for social justice, cataloging 21st Century America and coping with the death of his father.
Divided into five sections, the book is dominated by elegies, transcendent images and subtle humor simultaneously. The titles of the five sections also reveal his poetic aims: Part 1 is “Vivas to Those Who have Failed”; Part 2 is “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World”; Part 3 is “Here I Am”; Part 4 is “A Million Ants Swarming Through His Body”; and Part 5, “El Moriviví.” Part 5 is the cycle of poems dedicated to his father. The titles of the poems themselves also demonstrate his compassion and depth of emotion. Examples include, “The Insects in the Soup,” “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way,” “Flowers and Bullets,” “The Socialist in the Crowd,” and “There But Not There.”
In his poem, “The Socialist in the Crowd,” he describes a kind soul who catches a foul ball at Fenway Park in Boston at a Red Sox game and gives it to a boy seated near her. The first line of the poem sets the tone: “A baseball sailing into the crowd makes monsters of us all.” Near the end of the first stanza Espada laments: “There are fistfights. There are lawsuits. There are baseballs/that escape in the tangle of bodies, skipping back onto the field.” The socialist in the poem of course is the kind woman who after catching a foul ball decides to give the ball to the boy next to her. Espada himself writes, “Bad socialist that I am, I would have kept it.”
Many of Espada’s poems use formal techniques like the cycle of five sonnets about the Patterson Silk Strike and early 20th Century immigrant laborers who called for the eight-hour workday. The sonnets from Espada’s pen though are contemporary and formal simultaneously. The structure works well with his phrasing.
Espada’s poetic aesthetic is equally elegant and compassionate. This is most clearly expressed in a series of poems about his father who passed in 2014. The final ten poems honor his father, Frank Espada, a community organizer, civil rights activist and documentary photographer. In the first of the 10 poem sequence, Espada writes: “I am the archaeologist. I sift the shards of you: cufflinks, passport photos,/ a button from the March on Washington with a black hand shaking/ a white hand, letters in Spanish, your birth certificate from a town high/in the mountains. I cup your silence, and the silence melts like ice in a cup.” The poem is aptly titled, “Haunt Me,” and his descriptions of artifacts from his father’s life give concrete and tangible images that he skillfully imbues with emotion to paint a complete picture of his father. His descriptions of these objects reveal how he is haunted by the memory of his father through each photo, document and each miscellaneous item. The book itself is dedicated to his father and a close-up photo of Frank Espada smoking haunts the cover of the book.
The final poem of the book and final piece of the ten poem cycle about his father is “El Moriviví.” The first three lines of the poem read: “The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves/of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light./ The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again.” The image of the moriviví fronds opening and closing are an apt metaphor for the illustrious 84 years his father lived. The three and a half page poem recounts his father’s many years as an activist, the stories he shared with his son, his travels from New York to Mississippi, speaking at rallies with Malcolm X and nights he spent in jail after a lifetime of practicing civil disobedience. The poem celebrates his father’s near invincibility: “My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest/Puerto Rican in New York.” Espada grew up hearing his mother tell him, “Your father is out dodging bullets.” Espada’s closing words of the poem finish this sentiment: “my father/was a moriviví. I died, I lived. He died. He lived. He dies, He lives.” Considering the legacy of his father, it is easy to see how Espada became the poet he is. The shadow of his father’s activism and work in social justice explain why Espada writes poems about worker’s rights and the forgotten voices of our time.
The elegiac spirit is also in the book for two other pieces. “The Man in the Duck Suit,” is dedicated to his old friend Todd Godwin. They made films together on Super 8 back in the 1980s including a title called, In Cold Duck. Behind the obvious humor in the piece is a fond reminiscence of his old friend. One of the most striking poems in the whole collection is, “Ghazal For A Tall Boy From New Hampshire.” This piece is dedicated to James Foley, the journalist beheaded by ISIS in August, 2014. Foley was Espada’s student near the Millennium at Amherst in the MFA program and his ghazal is a powerful poem paying tribute to Foley and capturing the tragedy of what fate had in store for the young journalist. The first two lines set the tone: “The reporters called and asked me: Did you know him?/ I was his teacher, I said many times that day. Yes, I knew him.” The 20 line poem describes what a selfless teacher, writer and man Foley was and also captures his final days before he was executed. The final eight lines are especially potent and heartbreaking:
We know his words turn to rain in the rain forest of the poem.
We cannot say what words are his, even though we knew him.
His face on the front page sold the newspapers in the checkout line.
His executioners and his president spoke of him as if they knew him.
The reporter with the camera asked me if I saw the video his killers
wanted us to see. I muttered through a cage of teeth: No. I knew him.
Once he was a tall boy from New Hampshire, standing in my doorway.
He spoke Spanish. He wanted to teach. I knew him. I never knew him.
Espada masterfully utilizes the ghazal form in this tribute to Foley. The refrain, “I knew him,” hammered the poem home and the final four words of the piece are especially tragic and tie it all together. Considering Foley’s eventual fate, the piece celebrates Foley but also laments the transitory life we all live. Espada spends the first 19 lines of the poem telling us all about James Foley, his teaching, his compassion, how he spoke Spanish but in the end reminds us, “I never knew him.” This leads to the question: do we ever really know anyone? Espada reinforces life’s fragility and urges us to treasure the people in our lives whether it is our family, our coworkers or one of our students.
Espada’s poetics merge technique, emotion and social justice in a cohesive aesthetic rarely seen. His poetry is not compromised by his politics and his politics are not compromised by his discerning diction and syntax. These 34 poems are fully formed and crafted from an experienced hand. His tributes to James Foley, his father, the gracious baseball fan and every subject he turns his lens to all ring equally true in his potent register. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a fierce collection paying powerful tribute to subjects Espada shows us that really lived.