Online Edition: Spring 2008

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 The Republic of Poetry

 Martín Espada

 W.W. Norton & Company ($23.95)

 by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez

Martín Espada’s The Republic of Poetry is a moving collection that cries with outrage at social injustice and with tribute for poets whose lives have been marked by courage and humanism. It is a brave testament to both the bitterness of truth and the tenaciousness of hope:

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.

What is most striking about this collection is how Espada presents the best and the worst of humanity through a delicate balance of absence and presence; his poems seem to inhabit the liminal world of Chile’s disappeared. In a poem about Neruda’s mourners, grief emerges in stark relief against a rainless day: “Yet there is rain without rain in the air. / In the horseshoe path of the poet’s tomb / they walk, lips sewn up by the seamstress grief.” Similarly, in “General Pinochet at the Bookstore,” Espada meticulously portrays the dictator through the absence of infamy: “There are 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.”

In a collection marked by torture and survival, Espada does not shy away from brutality or humor. Deriving their power from a unique blend of precision and restraint, Espada’s images unfold slowly, accumulating line by line: “They told you about a corpse of a boy or girl / rolled at your feet, hair gray with the powder / of rubble and bombardment, flies a whirlpool blackening both eyes.” The poet applies this same skillful pacing in his humorous ode to a python:

You greet each rat with joy,
the S of your neck whipping the air,
jaws unhinged to gorge on rat head
and shoulders, then the feet
poking up in death’s last embarrassment,
till only the tail is left,
hanging from your mouth
like a fine Cuban cigar.

Amid the dangers of war and Espada’s subversive truths, the collection resounds with a series of poignant elegies. Relentlessly rhythmic, Espada invokes a chorus of poets ranging from Robert Creeley (“You got a song, man, sing it. / You got a bell, man, ring it.”) to imprisoned South African poet Dennis Brutus: “Sirens knuckles boots. Sirens knuckles boots.

As a fitting echo to the conjuring of Chile in 1973 and the eulogizing of valiant poetic voices, Espada closes his collection with a personal meditation on war, mortality, and loss. But just as he begins by imagining a republic of poetry, he ends with the transformative power of art and imagination in “The Caves of Camuy” (written for his wife after her hysterectomy): “Gather good brushes and good paper, / and the creatures in the caves will stir: / … / your sons and daughters pouring from the mouth of the world.” This relentless return to hope reminds the reader that, in Espada’s republic, “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.

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