Poet Martín Espada’s latest work: Unsparing eyes on struggle, courage

  • Martín Espada’s new poetry collection, “Floaters,” looks at the struggles of immigrants, personal and family history, and the importance of preserving stories. Image courtesy Martín Espada

  • Martín Espada’s new poetry collection, “Floaters,” looks at the struggles of immigrants, personal and family history, and the importance of preserving stories. Image courtesy Martín Espada

Staff Writer 
Monday, March 01, 2021

The title poem of Martín Espada’s new collection, “Floaters,” (W.W Norton & Co.) takes its name, as the poet explains, from the term that some U.S. Border Patrol agents use to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to the U.S.

It’s a blunt opening statement from a writer who’s determined to tackle the anti-immigrant vitriol in the country head-on — but who’s equally determined to find stories of courage, resiliency and love.

With prose poems and the occasional free-verse poem, “Floaters” begins with a particular focus on the years of the Trump administration and its hard-line policies against immigration, from a profile of an internment camp in Texas where migrant children kick soccer balls, to the story of a vicious attack two Boston brothers, Scott and Steven Leader, launched in 2015 against a homeless Mexican man they came across on their way home from a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

One of the brothers told police “Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.” But the victim, Guillermo Rodríguez, was in fact a permanent U.S. resident.

Talk about blunt: “Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet” begins with the stark lines “They woke him by pissing in his face. He opened his mouth / to scream in Spanish, so his mouth became a urinal at the ballpark…. He was a Mexican in a sleeping bag outside the JFK station on a night / in August, so they called him a wetback and emptied their bladders in his hair.”

Espada, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won numerous awards, including a $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2018 for lifetime achievement. He’s long been an advocate for the dispossessed and the working class, drawing in part on his own experience as a tenant lawyer in the Boston area.

“Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin  Bridge,” which opens the new collection, recalls that time, as a Puerto Rican tenant lawyer has a tense conversation with a white cab driver.

“What the hell are you doing here? said the driver of the cab to me in my suit / and tie. You gotta be careful in this neighborhood. There’s a lot of Josés / around here…. He could / hear the sawing of my breath as I leaned into his ear, past the bulletproof / barricade somehow missing, and said “I’m a José…. I’m Puerto Rican.”

The title poem was inspired by a photograph that in June 2019 became an international symbol of horror: the bodies of two Salvadoran migrants, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter, Angie Valeria, lying face-down in the Rio Grande after they tried to swim the river. “Maybe he called out her name as he swept her up from the river; / maybe the river drowned out his voice as the water swept them away.”

It’s a passionate plea to remember the names of the father and daughter and to fight the callousness of Border Patrol agents who, as part of a Facebook group, joked about the deaths of migrants and posted sexist and anti-Latino memes, according to multiple news reports.

But the new collection also offers reflections from Espada’s childhood in Brooklyn, New York, and of his father, who grew up in Puerto Rico. There’s a humorous ode as well about how his mother, on her first date with his father — they were on their way to the movies — had a blob of wet spinach land on her head from God knows where: “Maybe Popeye staged a mutiny.”

That story is now part of his inheritance, Espada writes: “Every day, my eyes scan the heavens, waiting for the soggy tarantula / of spinach to plummet from the sky and splatter my thinning hair.”

There are love poems, too, and the collection’s concluding title, “Letter to My Father,” is both a tribute to the late Frank Espada — a community organizer and documentary photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project — and a bitter lament about the devastation and ensuing neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 .

“Floaters” looks back as well on the long, fraught history of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., recalling in “I Now Pronounce You Dead” how two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed in Boston in 1927 for crimes many believed they did not commit.

In the poem, the prison warden, following the execution, is unnerved and “sits in the cafeteria, his hand shaking as if shocked, rice flying off / his fork, so that he cannot eat no matter how the hunger feeds on him.”

One nice addition to the volume: Espada includes notes on the background of each poem, adding to what Publisher’s Weekly calls an “impressive collection” that is “unique for the way it captures the world-weary voice of a poet and political activist who doesn’t simply call for change, but offers a sense of the long, difficult struggle toward justice.” 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.