Martín Espada

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. Two more books are forthcoming: The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), a collection of poems, and The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive (Michigan, 2010), a collection of essays. 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. Another collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton, 1996), won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other books of poetry include Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas (Smokestack, 2008), Alabanza: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (Norton, 2000), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (Norton, 1993), and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (Curbstone, 1990). He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Robert Creeley Award, the Charity Randall Citation, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, the Premio Fronterizo, two NEA Fellowships, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His poems have appeared in the The New YorkerThe New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, The Nation and The Best American Poetry.  He has also published a collection of essays ,Zapata’s Disciple (South End, 1998); edited two anthologies, Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press (Curbstone, 1994) and El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (University of Massachusetts, 1997); and released an audiobook of poetry called Now the Dead will Dance the Mambo (Leapfrog, 2004). His work has been translated into ten languages; collections of poems have recently been published in Spain, Puerto Rico and Chile. 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.



My Name is Espada
Espada: the word for sword in Spain
wrought by fire and the hammer's chime,
name for the warrior reeling helmut-hooded
through the pandemonium of horses in mud,
or the face dreaming on a sarcophagus,
hands folded across the hilt of stone.
Espada: sword in el Caribe,
rapier tested sharp across the bellies of indios, steel tongue
lapping blood like a mastiff gorged on a runaway slave,
god gleaming brighter than the god nailed to the cross,
forged at the anvil with chains by the millions
tangled and red as the entrails of demons.
Espada: baptizing Taíno or Congolese,
name they stuttered in the barking language
of priests and overseers, slave's finger pressed to the blade
with the pulsing revelation that a Spaniard's throat
could seep blood like a fingertip, sabers for the uprising
smuggled in the hay, slave of the upraised saber
beheaded even as the servants and fieldhands
murmured he is not dead, he rides a white horse at night,
his sword is a torch, the master cannot sleep,
there is a dagger under the pillow.
Espada: cousin to the machete, peasant cutlass
splitting the cane like a peasant's backbone,
cousin to the kitchen knife skinning a plátano.
Swords at rest, the machetero or cook
studied their blisters as if planets
to glimpse the hands of their father the horseman,
map the hands of their mother the serf.
Espada: sword in Puerto Rico, family name of bricklayers
who swore their trowels fell as leaves from iron trees;
teachers who wrote poems in galloping calligraphy;
saintcarvers who whittled a slave's gaze and a conqueror's beard;
shoemaker spitting tuberculosis, madwoman
dangling a lantern to listen for the cough;
gambler in a straw hat inhabited by mathematical angels;
preacher who first heard the savior's voice
bleeding through the plaster of the jailhouse;
dreadlocked sculptor stunned by visions of birds,
sprouting wings from his forehead, earthen wings in the fire.
So the face dreaming on a sarcophagus,
the slave of the saber riding a white horse by night
breathe my name, tell me to taste my name: Espada.
from A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen

General Pinochet at the Bookstore

                        Santiago, Chile, July 2004


The general's limo parked at the corner of San Diego street
and his bodyguards escorted him to the bookstore
called La Oportunidad, so he could browse
for rare works of history.
There were no bloody fingerprints left on the pages.
No books turned to ash at his touch.
He did not track the soil of mass graves on his shoes,
nor did his eyes glow red with a demon's heat.
Worse: His hands were scrubbed, and his eyes were blue,
and the dementia that raged in his head like a demon,
making the general's trial impossible, had disappeared.
Desaparecido: like thousands dead but not dead,
as the crowd reminded the general,
gathered outside the bookstore to jeer
when he scurried away with his bodyguards,
so much smaller in person.

from The Republic of Poetry

The Republic of Poetry
                   For Chile
In the republic of poetry,
a train full of poets
rolls south in the rain
as plum trees rock
and horses kick the air,
and village bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with bowler hats,
followed by the president
of the republic,
shaking every hand.
In the republic of poetry,
monks print verses about the night
on boxes of monastery chocolate,
kitchens  in restaurants
use odes for recipes
from eel to artichoke,
and poets eat for free.
In the republic of poetry,
poets read to the baboons
at the zoo, and all the primates,
poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.
In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.
In the republic of poetry,
the guard at the airport
will not allow you to leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her
and she says Ah! Beautiful.

from The Republic of Poetry


A Reading and Talk

Martín Espada
University of Washington, May 29, 2007
First of all, thank you to everyone involved in the Reed/Osheroff lecture. I am honored to be here.
Tonight I will be reading my work, but also the work of others. These are poems that reflect on specific political struggles, particularly the Spanish Civil War, but also on the nature of political commitment in general.
The title of my reading and talk is indeed “The Poetry of the Good Fight.”  This title has a double meaning. “The Poetry of the Good Fight” refers to the poems and poets that emerge from political struggle, but it also refers to the ways in which political activism makes life poetic. There are politics in the poetry; there is also poetry in the politics.
Let’s begin with the second meaning: life as a poem. Walt Whitman said it best, in his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all that you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…”
Whitman loved to give advice. It’s good advice, though, and the essence of his advice is this: live by the principle of compassion, be an activist, and “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” You are your own greatest creation; your very life can be poetry. This is not an aesthetic statement; it is a political statement. No one better embodies these words of Whitman than my friend and compañero, Abe Osheroff. More about him later.
Poets have always embraced and articulated what I would call a “culture of conscience.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, best known for her love poetry, was in fact a political activist who spoke out on everything from the Sacco and Vanzetti case to the Spanish Civil War.
Here is her poem,

Consciousness Objector
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter
     on the barn floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans,
     many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell
     him which the way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black
     boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on
     his pay-roll….
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me shall you be overcome.
That poem was published in 1931. By 1936, the poets of the world had turned their attention to the Spanish Civil War. Foremost among them was Pablo Neruda.
Neruda was appointed as Chilean consul to Spain in 1934. He organized the community of poets in Madrid. His house, La Casa de las Flores (the House of the Flowers) became a gathering place. His closest friend was Federico García Lorca. He was also close to Rafael Alberti; Miguel Hernández, the poet-shepherd from Orihuela, was his protégé. Neruda became the editor of Caballo verde para la poesía (or Green Horse for Poetry). Others wanted a more political stance. Alberti demanded to know: "Why not a Red Horse?" Neruda responded that he was not political--just a diplomat. That was about to change.
In July 1936, General Francisco Franco led an army uprising from Morocco into Spain, aiming to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government and triggering the Spanish Civil War. Neruda knew something was wrong when Lorca went missing a month later. In his memoirs, Neruda recalled that he and Lorca had plans to attend a professional wrestling match in Madrid, to watch "the Abyssinian Strangler, the Masked Troglodyte, and the Sinister Orangutan,” but Lorca did not show up. As Neruda put it: "He had an appointment with another strangler. “ Neruda soon found out about the killing of his friend by a fascist firing squad outside Granada. Neruda’s house was bombed; other friends were killed, imprisoned or exiled.
Neruda announced, "the world has changed and my poetry has changed." He underwent a total artistic and political transformation.España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart) was unlike anything he had ever written. The book was published simultaneously in Spain and Chile in 1938.  Neruda recalls the birth of the Spanish edition in his memoirs: The book was printed at a monastery in Catalonia, since the monks had a printing press. The paper was manufactured at an abandoned paper mill, from rags, bandages, an enemy flag, and a Moorish tunic. The book was set in type and printed by soldiers of the Republican Army. No copies are known to exist; the last were apparently burned by the fascists after the war.
There is a landmark poem in this book called Explico algunos cosas (I Explain a Few Things), where the poet declares his conversion.  This is the translation by Donald Walsh (with a few changes):
I Explain a Few Things
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysical blanket of poppies?
And the rain that often struck
your words, filling them
with holes and birds?
I am going to tell you all that is happening to me.
I lived in a quarter
of Madrid, with bells,
with clocks, with trees.
From there you could see
the lean face of Spain
like an ocean of leather.
                             My house was called
the house of flowers, because it was bursting
everywhere with geraniums: it was
a fine house
with dogs and children.
                             Raúl, do you remember?
Do you remember, Rafael?
                             Federico, do you remember
under the ground,
do you remember my house with balconies where
June light smothered the flowers in your mouth?
                             Brother, brother!
was great shouting, salty goods,
heaps of throbbing bread,
markets of my Argüelles quarter with its statue
like a pale inkwell among the haddock:
the olive oil reached the ladles,
a deep throbbing
of feet and hands filled the streets,
meters, liters, sharp
essence of life,
                   fish piled up,
pattern of roofs with cold sun where
the weathervane grows weary,
frenzied fine ivory of potatoes,
tomatoes, more tomatoes, all the way to the sea.
And one morning it was all burning,
and one morning the fires
came out of the earth
devouring people,
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with rings and duchesses,
bandits with black-robed friars blessing
came through the air to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of children
ran simply, like children’s blood.
Jackals that the jackal would spurn,
stones that the dry thistle would bite spitting,
vipers that vipers would abominate!
Facing you I have seen the blood
of Spain rise up
to drown you in a single wave
of pride and knives!
look at my dead house,
look at Spain broken;
but from each dead house comes burning metal
instead of flowers,
but from each hollow of Spain
Spain comes forth,
but from each dead child comes a gun with eyes,
but from each crime are born bullets
that will one day seek out in you
the site of the heart.
You will ask: why does your poetry
not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of your native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
After the war, Neruda continued in his involvement with the Republican cause. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled from Spain in 1939, many facing imprisonment or execution. Thousands found themselves in French internment camps. Neruda helped buy a ship called the Winnipeg, and organized the evacuation of three thousand Spanish refugees from France to Chile. Neruda called the Winnipeg “my greatest poem.” Listen to the echoes of Whitman here. Neruda considered this political action more poetic than any poem he ever committed to paper.
Neruda’s protégé, Miguel Hernández, whom he affectionately called “potato-face,” fought on the Republican side during the war. He also read his poems at the front, and passed them out on postcards to the troops. He attempted to escape Spain after the war, but was arrested and incarcerated. Hernández died of tuberculosis in prison at the age of 32.  This is a short poem he wrote behind the walls. I’ll read it both in Spanish and English, with the translation by Donald Share:
La vejez en los pueblos.
El corazón sin dueño.
El amor sin objeto.
La hierba, el polvo, el cuervo.
¿Y la juventud?
En el ataúd.
El árbol solo y seco.
La mujer como un leno
de viudez sobre el lecho.
El odio sin remedio.
¿Y la juventud?
En el ataúd.
Old age in the villages.
The heart with no master.
Love with no object.
Grass, dust, crow.
And children?
In the coffin.
The tree alone and dry.
Woman like a log
of widowhood lying on the bed.
Incurable hatred.
And children?
In the coffin.
This is the poetry of the Good Fight in both senses of the term. The poet writes from the experience of a profound political struggle; the poet makes of his life—and death—a poem.
César Vallejo of Perú was living in Spain when the monarchy fell and the Republic was declared in 1931. Despite poverty and illness—he wrote, “I will die in Paris on a rainy day,” and he did, in 1938—he wrote some of the most powerful poems of the Spanish Civil War. His collection, España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Chalice From Me) was published posthumously in 1939. The following poem, written in Vallejo’s dreamlike, surrealist idiom, is called “Masa” or “Masses.”  The translation is my own.
After the battle,
when the fighter was dead, a man came toward him
and said: “Don’t die! I love you so much!”
But oh! The dead man just kept dying.
Two more approached him, repeating:
“Don’t leave us! Have courage! Come back to life!”
But oh! The dead man just kept dying.
Twenty, a hundred, a thousand, five hundred thousand went to him,
clamoring: “So much love, powerless against death!”
But oh! The dead man just kept dying.
Millions surrounded him
with a common plea: “Stay, brother!”
But oh! The dead man just kept dying.
Then all the people of the earth
surrounded him; the dead man looked at them sadly, overwhelmed;
sat up slowly,
embraced the first man; began to walk…
The common assumption, even on the left, is that such political poetry is commonplace in Latin America and virtually extinct in this country. In fact, the United States has a long traditional of political poetry, beginning with Whitman and continuing to the present day.
Most of the political poets who flourished in the 1930 and 40s were censored and obliterated from the collective memory by McCarthyism, which was, of course, not only a political but a cultural counter-revolution. Edwin Rolfe was one such poet. Rolfe was the best of the so-called “proletarian poets” in the 1930s;  he would come to be known as “the Poet Laureate of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” While his earlier work was well-received, Rolfe was blacklisted after the Second World War and published his collection of Spanish Civil War poems, First Love, to thunderous silence in 1951. He remained a lost poet for forty years, till his rediscovery by scholar Cary Nelson, who edited and published Rolfe’s Collected Poems in 1993.
Rolfe’s best-known poem, “First Love,” glances back at the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of World War II. (Rolfe was drafted into that war.) Here it is:
First Love
Again I am summoned to the eternal field
green with the blood still fresh at the root of flowers,
green through the dust-rimmed memory of faces
that moved among the trees there for the last time
before the final shock, the glazed eye, the hasty mound.
But why are my thoughts in another country?
Why do I always return to the sunken road through corroded hills,
with the Moorish castle’ shadow casting ruins over my shoulder
and the black-smocked girl approaching, her hands laden with grapes?
I am eager to enter it, eager to end it.
Perhaps this one will be the last one.
And men afterward will study our arms in museums
and nod their heads, and frown, and name the inadequate dates
and stumble with infant tongues over the strange place-names.
But my heart is forever captive of that other war
that taught me first the meaning of peace and of comradeship,
and always I think of my friend who amid the apparition of bombs
saw on the lyric lake the single perfect swan.
The bombs are real bombs, and the swan is a a real swan; yet this is also a metaphorical swan, representing the poet’s vision of universal justice, inseparable from his love for Spain. Rolfe uses the word “love” very deliberately. For him, being a fighter for justice, a member of the Lincoln Brigade, was an act of love, as lyrical as any romantic ideal. Here is Whitman’s “great poem” made flesh.
Genevieve Taggard was another radical poet of the 1930s consigned to obscurity. She left us a moving tribute to the Lincoln Brigade, originally published in the March 1941 issue of  The Volunteer for Liberty:
To the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Say of them
They knew no Spanish
At first, and nothing of the arts of war
At first:
 how to shoot, how to attack, how to retreat
How to kill, how to meet killing
At first,
Say they kept the air blue
Grousing and griping,
Arid words and harsh faces. Say
They were young;
The haggard in a trench, the dead on the olive slope
All young. And the thin, the ill and the shattered,
Sightless, in hospitals, all young.
Say of them they were young, there was much they did not know,
They were human. Say it all; it is true. Now say
When the eminent, the great, the easy, the old,
And the men on the make
Were busy bickering and selling,
Betraying, conniving, transacting, splitting hairs,
Writing bad articles, signing bad papers,
Passing bad bills, 
Bribing, blackmailing,
Whimpering, meaching, garroting, -- they
Knew and acted
  understood and died.
Or if they did not die came home to peace
That is not peace. Say of them
They are no longer young, they never learned
The arts, the stealth of peace, this peace, the tricks of fear;
And what they knew, they know.
And what they dared, they dare.
 Fifty-seven years after Genevieve Taggard published this poem in The Volunteer for Liberty, I too published a poem in the journal of the Lincoln Brigade, now called simply The Volunteer. It was a poem about Abe Osheroff.
I met Abe in the spring of 1998, when he spoke at Mount Holyoke College in conjunction with the “Shouts From the Wall” traveling exhibit of Spanish Civil War posters. There I heard him tell the story of how he arrived in Spain to join the Good Fight.
The Carpenter Swam to Spain
          for Abe Osheroff and the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
The ship hushed the waves to sleep at midnight:
Ciudad de Barcelona, Ciudad de Barcelona.
In the name of the aristocrat strolling through his garden
Franco's tanks crawled like a plague of smoldering beetles;
in the name of the bishop and his cathedrals
the firing squads sang a stuttering mass with smoke in their throats;
in the name of the exiled king and blueshirts on the march
bombers with swastika fins sowed an inferno
in village marketplaces and the ribs of the dead.
At Guernica an ancient woman in black stumbled
across a corpse and clawed her hair;
at Víznar, where the spring bubbles, a poet in white shoes
coughed the bullets' blood onto his white shirt,
gypsy sobbing in the cave of his mouth.
Ciudad de Barcelona: The ship plowed the ocean,
and the ocean was a wheatfield thinking of bread.
And the faces at the portholes thinking: Spain.
In España, the carpenters and miners kneeled with rifles
behind a barricade of killed horses,
the peasant boys cradled grenades like pomegranates
to fling against the plague of tanks, the hive of helmets.
Elsewhere on the earth, thousands more laid hammers
in toolboxes, holstered drills, promised letters home,
and crowded onto ships for Spain:
volunteers for the Republic, congregation of berets,
fedoras and fist-salutes for the camera, cigarettes and union songs.
The handle of the hammer became the stock of the rifle.
The ship called Ciudad de Barcelona steamed
across the thumping tide, hull bearded with foam,
the body of Spain slumbering on the horizon.
Another carpenter read the newspapers
by the tunnel-light of the subway in Brooklyn.
Abe Osheroff sailed for Spain. Because Franco's mustache
was stiff as a paintbrush with his cousins' blood;
because Hitler's iron maw would be a bulldozer,
heaving a downpour of cadavers into common graves.
The ship of volunteers was Ciudad de Barcelona,
Abe the carpenter among them, and for them
the word Barcelona tingled like the aftertaste of a kiss.
Two miles from shore, they saw the prop plane hover
as if a spectre from the last war,
the pilot's hand jab untranslated warning.
Then the thud, a heart kicking in spasm,
the breastbone of the ship punctured
by a torpedo from Mussolini's submarine.
In seven minutes, the ship called Ciudad de Barcelona
tilted and slid into the gushing sea,
at every porthole a face trapped,
mouth round and silent like the porthole.
Eighty mouths round in the high note of silence.
Schultz, captain of the Brooklyn College swim team,
pinned below deck and drowned,
his champion's breaststroke flailing.
Other hands that could swim burst through the wave-walls
and reached for the hands that could not. The boats
of a fishing village crystallized from the foam,
a fleet of saints with salt glistening in their beards,
blankets and rum on the shore.
Abe swam two miles to Spain,
made trowels of his hands
to cleave the thickening water.
His fingers learned the rifle's trigger
as they knew the hammer's claw.
At Fuentes de Ebro, armageddon
babbled and wailed above the trenches;
when he bled there, an ocean of shipwreck
surged through his body. Today, his white beard
is a garland of clouds and sea-foam,
and he remembers Schultz, the swimmer.
Now, for Abe, I tap these words
like a telegraph operator
with news of survivors:
Ciudad de Barcelona, Ciudad de Barcelona.
Anyone who would swim two miles to shore from a torpedoed ship so he could fight against fascism in Spain has lived a life more poetic than the most lyrical poem.  Whitman said it:  “your very flesh shall be a great poem… in every motion and joint of your body…” The poet could have been describing this moment in 1937, or this life after seven decades of activism.


Abe Osheroff dates his political activism back to 1930, with the anti-eviction movement in the Brooklyn of his youth. He became part of a radical tradition that flourished in the twentieth-  century: socialist, communist, anarchist, reds all. This next poem pays homage to that tradition. It refers to Sacco and Vanzetti, the fight for the independence of Puerto Rico, the Spanish Civil War, and Wobbly labor organizers, insisting on remembrance. It’s called “All the People Who are Now Red Trees.”
All the People Who are Now Red Trees
When I see the red maple,
I think of a shoemaker
and a fish peddler
red as the leaves,
electrocuted by the state
of Massachusetts.
When I see the red maple,
I think of flamboyán's red flower,
two poets like flamboyán
chained at the wrist
for visions of San Juan Bay
without Navy gunboats.
When I see the flamboyán,
I think of my grandmother
and her name, Catalán for red,
a war in Spain
and nameless laborers
marching with broken rifles.
When I see my grandmother
and her name, Catalán for red,
I think of union organizers
in graves without headstones,
feeding the roots
of red trees.
When I stand on a mountain
I can see the red trees of a century,
I think red leaves are the hands
of condemned anarchists, red flowers
the eyes and mouths of poets in chains,
red wreaths in the treetops to remember,
I see them raising branches
like broken rifles, all the people
who are now red trees.
Abe Osheroff’s commitment to the Good Fight did not end with the Spanish Civil War. There were other Good Fights. Abe had a hand in the civil rights movement, using his skills as a carpenter to build housing for the Black community during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. His car was firebombed by the Klan. Abe kept on hammering.
In 1949, my father, Frank Espada, was stationed at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. He took a Trailways bus through the South on his way home to New York, where he would spend Christmas furlough with his family. The bus stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi, and there, in December 1949, my father was arrested for not going to the back of the bus. He was sentenced to a week in jail, and figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Like Abe, he joined the civil rights movement.
The next poem tells that story. It’s the story of all the anonymous, unsung activists of the civil rights movement---jailed, beaten, fired, even killed—who are never mentioned by name in the newspapers or the history books.  Ultimately, this is a poem against historical amnesia.
Sleeping on the Bus
How we drift in the twilight of bus stations,
how we shrink in overcoats as we sit,
how we wait for the loudspeaker
to tell us when the bus is leaving,
how we bang on soda machines
for lost silver, how bewildered we are
at the vision of our own faces
in white-lit bathroom mirrors.
How we forget the bus stations of Alabama,
Birmingham to Montgomery,
how the Freedom Riders were abandoned
to the beckoning mob, how afterwards
their faces were tender and lopsided as spoiled fruit,
fingers searching the mouth for lost teeth,
and how the riders, descendants
of Africa and Europe both, kept riding
even as the mob with pleading hands wept fiercely
for the ancient laws of segregation.
How we forget Biloxi, Mississippi, a decade before,
where no witnesses spoke to cameras,
how a brown man in military uniform
was pulled from the bus by police
when he sneered at the custom of the back seat,
how the magistrate proclaimed a week in jail
and went back to bed with a shot of whiskey,
how the brownskinned soldier could not sleep
as he listened for the prowling of his jailers,
the muttering and cardplaying of the hangmen
they might become.
His name is not in the index;
he did not tell his family for years.
How he told me, and still I forget.
How we doze upright on buses,
how the night overtakes us
in the babble of headphones,
how the singing and clapping
of another generation
fade like distant radio
as we ride, forehead
heavy on the window,
how we sleep, how we sleep.
I belong to the next generation of activists. I was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn in 1957, not far from Abe’s old neighborhood,.  By 1964, at the age of seven, I had become aware of my father’s political activism. It began when he disappeared. This poem is called, “The Sign in My Father’s Hands.”
The Sign in My Father’s Hands
for Frank Espada
The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World's Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.
In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.
Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that "boycott"
is not a boy's haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.                                           
That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father's hands
for a sign of the miracle.
I grew up in a working-class activist household, with an ethos of resistance all around me. I also grew up in a household where art was inseparable from politics. My father, who worked as a draftsman for an electric contracting company when I was born, was also a photographer. He documented the conditions of the community, and went on to create the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photo-documentary and oral history of the Puerto Rican migration.
The proverbial torch had been passed. By 1982, I found myself in revolutionary Nicaragua, producing radio documentaries for WORT-FM back in Madison, Wisconsin. I ended up digging latrines. (A revolution is labor, after all.) Not by coincidence, three years later Abe Osheroff visited Nicaragua to build cooperative housing in that country.
I wrote the following poem:
The Meaning of the Shovel
                   Barrio René Cisneros
                   Managua, Nicaragua, June-July 1982
This was the dictator's land
before the revolution.
Now the dictator is exiled to necropolis,
his army brooding in camps on the border,
and the congregation of the landless
stipples the earth with a thousand shacks,
every weatherbeaten carpenter
planting a fistful of nails.
Here I dig latrines. I dig because last week
I saw a funeral in the streets of Managua,
the coffin swaddled in a red and black flag,
hoisted by a procession so silent
that even their feet seemed
to leave no sound on the gravel.
He was eighteen, with the border patrol,
when a sharpshooter from the dictator's army
took aim at the back of his head.
I dig because yesterday
I saw four walls of photographs:
the faces of volunteers
in high school uniforms
who taught campesinos to read,
bringing an alphabet
sandwiched in notebooks
to places where the mist never rises
from the trees. All dead,
by malaria or the greedy river
or the dictator's army
swarming the illiterate villages
like a sky full of corn-plundering birds.
I dig because today, in this barrio
without plumbing, I saw a woman
wearing a yellow dress
climb into a barrel of water
to wash herself and the dress
at the same time,
her cupped hands spilling.
I dig because today I stopped digging
to drink an orange soda. In a country
with no glass, the boy kept the treasured bottle
and poured the liquid into a plastic bag
full of ice, then poked a hole with a straw.
I dig because today my shovel
struck a clay bowl centuries old,
the art of ancient fingers
moist with this same earth,
perfect but for one crack in the lip.
I dig because I have hauled garbage
and pumped gas and cut paper
and sold encyclopedias door to door.
I dig, digging until the passport
in my back pocket saturates with dirt,
because here I work for nothing
and for everything.
In the documentary film about the Lincoln Brigade called “The Good Fight,” Abe Osheroff, with characteristic honesty, wonders aloud if the fight can ever be won.  “We fought the Good Fight,” he says. “And we lost.”
I have also heard him say that we do not fight the Good Fight because we know the fight will be won. We fight the Good Fight because it is the right thing to do, because our lives will be immeasurably richer for it.
The same holds true for the poetry of the Good Fight. We write these poems because we must, regardless of consequences. We are driven to create a record of human suffering—and resistance to suffering--without the luxury of measuring our impact on the world, which cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise quantified. We do not write such poems because we necessarily believe that our side will win, and that conditions will change; we write them because there is an ethical compulsion to do so.  Whitman, again, said it: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”
This final poem is about the Good Fight in its broadest sense.  It is a poem of the political imagination, an essential element of political action, and tonight I dedicate it to my friend and compañero, Abe Osheroff:
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.