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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

Meg Boerema Gillette On "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Deborah Pope's and Thomas B. Byars's readings of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" describe the poem as a contest between the individual and the social, between "imagination" and "gender roles and expectation" (Pope), between the "oppressed" and the "oppressor" (Byars). Reading the poem through oppositions, these critics search for the poem's resolution. The question for Pope and Byars seems to be, who wins? Imagination or gender roles? The oppressed or the oppressor? For Pope, the answer is an evasive, Rich fails to "recogniz[e] the fundamental implications of the division." For Byars, the answer is the unforgiving, "Rich's poem itself [is] ineffectual as rebellion, because the means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressors language." Ultimately, as these critics argue, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" fails to resolve the conflict between the individual and the social.

My reading of the poem, however, is that the poem resists those oppositions upon which Pope's and Byars' criticisms depend. I would argue that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" does not stage a contest between the individual and the social, but rather characterizes them by their interdependence. (The personal in this poem is deeply implicated in the political, and vice versa.) In the central symbols of the poem--the tapestry tigers and the Uncle's wedding band--the individual and social, the personal and the political meet. The tapestry tigers are not just individual artistic expressions; they are politically inflected, engaged in patriarchal chivalry myths (as Byars argues), and--as icons of colonialism (I would add)--suggestive of capitalist regimes of power (notice too they are sewn with an "ivory needle" (line 6)). The personal and the political again meet in the intimacy of "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7). By the physical intimacy of a wedding band and by the familial presence conferred by "*Uncle's* wedding band" (emphasis added), "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" personalizes the presence of patriarchal politics.

The poem's structure also draws the personal into the political and the political into the personal. The parallel syntactical structures of verses one and two suggest the relatedness of their content. Both follow the construction "Aunt Jennifer's," with verse two substituting "tigers prance across the screen" (line 1) with the similar sounding "fingers fluttering though her wool" (line 5). The use of color in the second lines of each verse--"topaz" and "green" (line 2) and "ivory" (line 6)-and the presence of men in the third lines-"the men beneath the tree" (line 3) and "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7) persist in the stanzas' parallelisms. These parallelisms draw associations between the images described. Owing to such parallelisms, the straining "fingers" of the second verse resonate with the energetic "tigers" of first verse. Reading the second stanza back to the first, the weight that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand" of its final line (line 8) lends sobriety to the "chivalric certainty" of the final line of the first stanza. Though verse one nominally describes artistic freedom, and verse two nominally describes patriarchal power, the structural affinities between the two verses resist the strict binarizing of rebellion and repression. The final verse of the  poem persists in this destabilization as here rebellion and repression meet in the simultaneity of the fearless tigers and the lifeless aunt:

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie  Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.  The tigers in the panel that she made  Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid. (lines 9-12)

To condemn "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger's" then, as Byars does, for its rebellion's indebtedness to patriarchal culture is, I would argue, to miss the point. What makes the poem interesting, I think, is the very interplay between rebellion and repression, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. To demand a resolution wherein individual expression wholly escapes the social/political, magically rising above patriarchal discourse, seems to me a least a little naive and largely dismissive of the poem's more sophisticated conceptualization of power.

Copyright © 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette

Thomas Gardner: On "Dream Song 5"

 

[Gardner quotes the second stanza.]

On a plane, passing over a statue of the virgin atop a mountain, Henry is so excited when the clouds clear and she seems to drop down a ray of light that he claims the plane’s turbulence as his own inner rocking and bucking. This feeling of union seems so powerful that when Henry apologizes to a lady he bumped in the turbulence he seems also to be talking to the virgin – who answers back! The third stanza, backpedaling, establishes a middle ground between the two – essentially, the middle ground that Henry will seek to inhabit throughout The Dream Songs:

[Gardner quotes the last stanza.]

Each pair of lines in this stanza shows Henry as both "free and determined": he is in "de netting" but sings; he is like Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer – limited by his heart and the crazy land but farming nonetheless; or he is a newborn, carrying an image of the dead with him even as he is told "De Day’s Yo’ Own." In each case, both action and limitation are inexorably linked.

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 37. Copyright 1989 University of Illinois Press.

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 37. Copyright 1989 University of Illinois Press.