oppression

Heather Zadra: On "Imagine the Angels of Bread"

Martin Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread" is a fascinating combination of the vengeful and the visionary, of anger and compassion, and of reality and dream. The speaker imagines a worldwide release from oppression, depicting an escape, among other injustices, from inhumane work conditions, tenant evictions, and politically motivated murders. The poem proceeds by way of a series of near-apocalyptic revolutionary reversals, by inverting long-standing injustices as Espada, on the one hand, imagines those in power themselves suffering for the first time--"squatters evict landlords"--or, conversely, dreams of liberating the poor and the victims of discrimination.

"Imagine the Angels of Bread" is divided roughly into three phases that transition with each stanza break, and that correspond to the speaker's internal motivations, culminating in the appearance of the Angels of Bread. The first expresses rage and some level of retribution; the second, a freeing of the oppressed and the existence of hope, and the third, a call to action in accomplishing the "imagined" of the poem's title. The final lines recognize the reality of the present time, even as they look toward a future in which change must define what "this year" will bring.

In an interview with Espada, Steven Ratiner points to the poet's ability to challenge "the official history" in his work, to define new heroes in that history and, in Espada's words, to let anger "be a recurrent feeling in the poems as long as you vary the tone." Certainly all of these components make up, to some degree, "Imagine the Angels of Bread." The first stanza is perhaps the most explicitly angry in its redistributed punishment of those who have long inflicted the same wounds on their victims:

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[.]

The voice of the poem is assisted in its project even by the repressive objects it names: "police revolvers, / stove-hot, blister the fingers / of raging cops, and nightsticks splinter / in their palms." Explicit violence is contained in that the instruments typically used to cause death and wounding do not simply turn on their owners, but become impotent in their hands. Similarly, the last image of the stanza suggests not a retributive justice, but an anger put to positive means, rather than resorting to the same horror enacted on innocent bodies, as "darkskinned men / lynched a century ago / return to sip coffee quietly / with the apologizing descendents / of their executioners." Here, the very act of apology, while never sufficient to atone for the deaths of those wrongly accused, does provide for some link to a future that, while perhaps not yet achievable in the here and now (the significance of "this is the year," unbounded by a specific time, enables the future and allows for indulgences in the spiritually miraculous and fantastic throughout the poem), envisions unity and some peace.

The second stanza leaves behind direct oppressors, as anger becomes more concretely reshaped into hope. That the body (or many bodies) are fragmented in this stanza--into hands, eyes, an ear, heads--suggests their current status as mere instruments of work, dissociated from personhood or individuality. At the same time, these are vehicles for interpreting sensations, for comprehending and knowing the beauty of a released nature, "the earth that sprouts the vine," "the rooster-loud hillside," "the coffee plantation country" that, freed from death, might flourish unworked, unsoiled. Both the natural and the manmade are invested with the potential for redemption, even if, at this time, they can be "imagine"d only in negatives, in what actually happens in the here and now.

The third stanza, then, urges on the vision described in the poem thus far; the persistent "if"s stack upon one another, increasing the urgency and potency of language and, necessarily, of action. For the answer to each of these "if"s is, of course, "yes, yes, YES!", and one can almost imagine the speaker on a platform, reminding his listeners of past triumphs over horrific slaughter, abuse, and ownership, while ehorting them to realize the potential that THIS is the year, the time, when action will result in full success. The final lines of the poem encompass both the truths with which we are currently faced ("humiliated mouth[s], teeth like desecrated headstones"), and the redemption possible through a secular resurrection, a rising up not of Christ, but of the people. That the body remains fragmented, but that it is now a "mouth" that is imaged signifies the place where change begins (initiated by the mouth, the words of the speaker-poet, agent of change); these mouths will not fill with bread, but with "angels" themselves. Thus, somewhat as Tim Dean notes in his MAPS essay on Mark Doty's "Homo Will Not Inherit," the marginalized and their cause becomes santified, holy. "This is the year" that history will be written for the future, and death will be overcome by the transcendent.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Ryan Cull: On "Federico's Ghost"

Martin Espada has sought to write a "poetry of advocacy" for "those who do not get the chance to speak." In describing such a poetic project that inherently suggests an inseparable intertwining of his aesthetics and politics, Espada has explained that

I see not only history but personal experience as . . . dynamic rather than. . . sta[tic]. There is a dynamic between oppression and resistance, between victimizer and victim. There is not only struggle but triumph. And seeing that dynamic, that tension, that conflict, that's where I try to go for my poems, that place where those elements meet and combust. For me the essence of expressing our dignity, our defiance, our resiliency, our potential for solidarity is in the family.

Espada's 1990 poem, "Federico's Ghost," is an excellent example of a work that explores the political potential of this kind of familial context, as the innocent idealism of a child initiates the revolutionary action of an oppressed people.

The entitled Federico is a "skinny boy" who, like many others of his community, works the tomato fields in an effort to help his family earn a meager living. Whole families, from these school-age boys and girls to the "old women," inhabit these "camps" that are adjacent to the fields of furrows. One can probably assume that the stereotypical vicious circle is in place: children must work because miserably low wagesare only barely overcome by the collective labor of the entire family. But by working, the children, in effect, make themselves unprepared to do anything but continue this existence into the next generation.

Federico, however, is too young to embrace such fatalism, and he chooses to stand "apart," both in his location and in his expression. And it is here, "in his own green row," that he and his "obscene finger" hold his ground as a cropduster plane sprays (and re-sprays) a poisonous pesticide, despite the fact that the fruitpicking had not concluded. There is a certain irony in this moment of violence. Though the cropduster certainly is emblematic of the "growers" all too sovereign power over the lives of these people, the pilot himself is just another employee who is likely not that far out of the working class himself. It is "dusk." Neither the fruitpickers nor the cropduster have finished their day's work, and each are in the other's way. All of which makes the pilot's stupidly vicious act and Federico's defiance even more pathetic. Rather than fighting such working conditions together, they fight each other. And Federico becomes a casualty.

But, as Espada's poem makes clear, this is not where the "story" ends. This, in fact, is just the beginning. By sacrificing himself to martyrdom, Federico becomes stronger in death than he perhaps ever could have been in life. In effect, he is reborn in the emergent political consciousness of the fruitpickers, who eventually recognize who their real enemy is and collectively begin destroying the crop of tomatoes that they had been tending. The grower's "muttering" about "vandal children" and "communists" is ineffectual. Their "threatening to call Immigration" is, of course, not taken seriously, for where else could they get such cheap labor. And their "promising every Sunday off," though perhaps notable as a first concession, does not address any of the fruitpicker's real concerns. So the "smashing of tomatoes" persists.

The final stanza explains why. In a few short days, Federico has been transformed from a murdered "skinny boy" into an empowering myth:

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed in the dark, and the old women in the camp said it was Federico, laboring after sundown to cool the burns on his arms flinging tomatoes at the cropduster that hummed like a mosquito lost in his ear, and kept his soul awake.

The delicious irony of these last lines is that the "old women" are able to claim that Federico in fact is doing now what the growers surely always had wanted. He is continuing to labor even "after sundown." This increased productivity, however, is in the service of showing how to reverse the power relations in the tomato fields. And its effects are almost immediate. Formerly a symbol of the fruitpicker's powerlessness before the grower's omnipotence, the crop-duster is now a mere "mosquito" that reminds them of past acts of injustice. Though these people may still have to work "between the furrows," Federico's presence, in spite of his tragic death, will be an empowering force, never far away.

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull.