by Martin Espada

ISBN 978-0-393-24903-3 Norton  $25.95 (Hardback)

 Reviewed by Alan Dent 

            How do we decide what is objectively important ? Does it matter ? These may be amongst the most crucial questions of our time, because we have decided to abandon the distinction between subjective and objective. There is, obviously, a political motivation behind this: if people lose their hold on what is objectively important, they are easier to manipulate, less likely to challenge assumptions. The diminishing sense of what is objectively important is, essentially, what in common parlance is called “dumbing down”; more accurately it is known as “the spread of stupefaction.” The distinction between what is subjectively and objectively important depends on the extent of importance: if you’re interested in chess it may be very important to you, but is it to people with no interest ? On the other hand, whether or not you’re interested in physics makes no difference to its importance; it’s what permits you to flick a switch and get light, use a mobile phone, drive a car or ride on a train. It’s important to all of us all the time and it always has been. Our ancestors had to make spears that balanced, were light enough for an average man to throw but heavy enough to kill prey. They had to start thinking like physicists. What is objectively important is what you have no choice about and that includes the capacity to choose.  

            We have no choice but to be linguistic. It is part of our biological inheritance. The capacity for language evolved as a means of thought as well as communication. It is hard to sustain the theory that it evolved principally for communication: as the linguists argue, “minimal structural distance” wouldn’t characterize a system whose priority was communication.  

            Language, like physics, is objectively important. It’s the means we use to work out most, if not all, of our ideas. Writers are experts in the use of language. This is not merely a matter of being able to produce nice-sounding phrases. Language is so intimately bound up with thought that the way we express ourselves is also the way we think. To say: 

                        “I’ve a good mind to top myself” 

is not the same as saying: 

                        “ To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

The precise form of language matters. Writers are people whose lives are focused on those precise forms.  

            Because language is principally a means of thought, writers are not merely aware of how well language sounds, how balanced a sentence can be, but how particular forms emerge from precise thought processes. Writers, however, like anyone else, can be prey to delusions. Is it possible to spot this in some of Pound’s work ? Is there a delusion about the mechanics of sex at work in Lawrence ? Is some of Joyce’s use of language on the verge of schizophrenic word-association ? Do some of Eliot’s lines carry the weight of his frustrations and prejudices ?  

            Few people are interested in physics, because it’s hard. Whatever engages with the given nature of reality is hard. Few people are interested in literature, for the same reason. It’s possible to sell A Brief History of Time as a coffee table book, but you’ll never make a best seller of the Special Theory. What would be the point in trying ? What’s the point in trying to make bestsellers of literature ? Of course, when a million people rush to buy Lady Chatterley, that’s to the good, even if they rush for the wrong reason; but most serious literature is never going to sell well. Shouldn’t “serious” here mean objectively important, just as we don’t take seriously as intellectuals the people who argue the earth is six thousand years old ? 

            Martin Espada is a serious writer whose work is objectively important. It’s important whether or not you like it or take an interest in it. It is humanity’s tragedy that while a book like this is available, millions of Americans prefer the thoughtless prejudices and ignorant demagoguery of Donald Trump, a man who can’t frame a sentence. We shouldn’t turn away from this tragedy. It is part of our condition: the wisest voices are almost always the least attended to.  

            Espada is important because of his use of language. In the first stanza of the first poem are these lines: 

                                                At the strike meeting, a dyers’ helper
                            from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor 

The language is simple and clear. The lines are well-balanced. Though there is no comma in the second, there is a natural pause after “rose” which rehearses the break in the first line. Was there a job in the industry known as “dyers’ helper” ? If so, Espada has chosen well in making use of the formulation: two syllables each word, a stressed followed by an unstressed, and the sound parallelism of the final syllables of each, creates a pleasant and memorable two-note phrase. Its musicality sticks as does its meaning. “Naples” reverses the central sound of “helper” and the long “o” of “rose” followed by the quiet sibilant effects the slight hiatus which allows the subsequent image to be foregrounded. The syllable pattern of the last seven words is 2,3,4 : as if/ from the steam/of his labor.  

            On the surface, and at first reading, the lines might seem prosaic. Their careful assemblage is typical of Espada’s style. He is a master of subtle effects. The language draws no attention to itself. Like everything beautiful, it doesn’t need to.  

            The poem is about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913, not entirely popular subject matter. There is an assumption in contemporary poetry ( and in literature in general, though there is more engagement in the theatre) sometimes hinted at but mostly tacitly accepted, that “political” content should be avoided because it is bound to drag poetry away from its concern with eternal truths. Poetry is supposed, somehow, to float above the political. The effect of this, however, is not to connect poetry to ever-replicated human dilemmas (like Medea’s inability to cope with her grief without visiting destruction on others, and most fiercely her own children – a scenario re-enacted, if not so violently, millions of times in modern divorces) but to suffuse it with a sense of being beyond the reach of tragedy. Which contemporary British poets, for example, produce work imbued with a sense of tragedy ? The commonplace procedure of the modern well-thought-of poet, is to begin from an assumption of absolute self-awareness, (the “I” of the modern poem asserts itself with lunatic certainty), pick on some event the poet has been part of (it goes without saying that events the poet hasn’t been part of are diminished in significance) write about it from a stance of obvious superiority and round off with a little irony.

            Espada’s poems are full of a sense of tragedy. The Paterson Silk Strike was a tragic affair. Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Hayward were significantly involved. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World not International) helped the strikers to form their own, directly democratic structures. It was a pivotal and seminal battle in the rough struggle for a gentle decency: the right to control over your own work.  

            This conflict, which defines our time, our politics being rooted in the question of who will control work and therefore its product, is seldom treated with the tragic gravity it deserves. In so far as tragedy informs contemporary literature, and a substantial portion is written by people whose sensibility doesn’t admit the possibility, it tends to be located in the domestic. Divorcees chatting it over in Islington is the nearest much of it comes to tragedy. Yet most people in the modern world, including its richest countries, don’t live lives of quiet desperation, but of tragic curtailment. This is not a matter of people earning less than they might or failing to shin high enough up the slippery pole, but of, as Lawrence might have put it, failing to come into being. It isn’t tragic not to have a plasma tv, but it is tragic to fail to realize the full potential of your mind. Above all, it is tragic to have to live without love. The obvious emotional impoverishment of most of the rich, powerful and famous figures our culture expects people to admire, is a measure of our tragedy.  

            In this first little poem, Espada embraces the tragedy of lives abused and diminished by employment. The dyers’ helper is a nobody. He produces the red flag and for that receives the only praise he will ever know. No love responds to his work. We take that for granted. The boss is bound to be a bastard. Such is our tragedy. Not to love the man who has dyed your bow-tie is a terrible failure. We think it’s enough to give him wages. Our duty to him is finished if he has enough for a tin roof and a plate of beans. Not only he but we are destroyed by this.  

            The collection is divided into five sections. The thirty-six poems are left-justified and don’t rhyme. They sit quietly on the page. There is no vaudeville distraction in Espada. 

            If a collection is as strong as its weakest poem, this is a remarkably robust book. There is virtually no unevenness and certainly not a poem to be thought of as “occasional”. The final section is called El Morivivi, (I died, I lived) the name for a weed. It is dedicated to Espada’s father, a Puerto Rican immigrant, working man and survivor who nearly died many times. The poems make many references to Espada’s experience but always in a way which avoids precious retreat. He is always pointing towards the cultural forces which make us what we are. To do justice to the book would require a book-length study. There are two poems which might stand as exemplars of the collection’s many virtues: How We Could Have Lived Or Died This Way and Marshmallow Rice Krispie Treat Machu Picchu. The first casts the poet as witness to multiple injustices and rests technically on the repeated, “I see..”.Its last stanza evokes the poets of the future who will look back on our times and wonder: 

                                                                                                     how we awoke
             every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore 

It is a poem of hope: there will be a future; it will be better; people will disdain our violence, exploitation and ignorance. The common stance of contemporary mentality to is to see ourselves as superior to our ancestors; we are the inheritors of progress; we are civilized. It is much less common to imagine how will are likely to be seen by the inhabitants of a putative future, for the simple reason that our self-complacency blenches from recognizing that just as we disdain slave owners and denial of political rights to women, so the future will despise what we believe to be our enlightenment. What goes hand in hand with that is nihilism: who cares about the future, we might all be dead in a decade. Ever since Eliot there has been a tilt in poetry in English towards regret for the golden times. Eliot’s work bears no hope: we inhabit the waste land and only worse lies ahead. A remarkable amount of contemporary poetry implicitly shares this view. It is essentially cowardice.  

            Espada’s poem isn’t optimistic. Optimism is as naïve as sentimental nostalgia. It bears rather the weight of courageous hope. Ironically, the hope has to come from a clear-eyed view of our current lunatic arrangements. That is what Eliot lacked the courage to face. He shrank from his time not because he loathed its injustice but because his snobbery made him despise the democracy that might remedy it. Espada’s stance is quite unlike that in most modern poetry. It eschews post-modern cynicism, the fashionable rejection of a hierarchy of values (practised mostly by people whose first value is their own “success”), is unembarrassed to propose a morality and is determined to fashion poetry which says something about the world beyond the poet’s flimsy ego. 

            The second exemplar, is a poem of joyous celebration. It tells of the poet’s role in a production of As You Like It in the summer of love and then switches to his birthday when a troupe of actors embraces his house to toast his fiftieth. The party-makers are ascribed roles from the play. It’s a poem of unbuttoned, loose-belted, but good-hearted fun. Through it runs delight in Shakespeare’s language and invention. As You Like It is, of course, a somewhat throwaway play, but that’s the point. There has to be a place for letting go and engaging in light-hearted fun (but it doesn’t need to be mindless).  In our culture of empty-headed pseudo-seriousness and forms of enjoyment which have all the characteristics of forced labour, this is more significant than it might at first appear. 

            This first-rate collection from a poet of real importance may well be read by few. They are the lucky one. They represent the future.