Martín Espada: Four Poems


Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits

               Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989

No one asks
where I am from,
I must be
from the country of janitors,
I have always mopped this floor.
Honduras, you are a squatter’s camp
outside the city
of their understanding.

No one can speak
my name,
I host the fiesta
of the bathroom,
stirring the toilet
like a punchbowl.
The Spanish music of my name
is lost
when the guests complain
about toilet paper.

What they say
must be true:
I am smart,
but I have a bad attitude.

No one knows
that I quit tonight,
maybe the mop
will push on without me,
sniffing along the floor
like a crazy squid
with stringy gray tentacles.
They will call it Jorge.

The Prisoners of Saint Lawrence

               Riverview Correctional Facility,
               Ogdensburg, New York 1993

Snow astonishing their hammered faces,
the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, island men,
remember in Spanish the island places.

The Saint Lawrence River churns white into Canada, races
past barbed walls. Immigrants from a dark sea find oceanic
snow astonishing. Their hammered faces

harden in city jails and courthouses, indigent cases
telling translators, prosecutors, public defenders what they
remember in Spanish. The island places,

banana leaf and nervous chickens, graces
gone in this amnesia of snow, stinging cocaine
snow, astonishing their hammered faces.

There is snow in the silence of the visiting room, spaces
like snow in the paper of their poems and letters, that
remember in Spanish the island places.

So the law speaks of cocaine, grams and traces,
as the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, island men,
snow astonishing their hammered faces,
remember in Spanish the island places.

When the Leather is a Whip

At night,
with my wife
sitting on the bed,
I turn from her
to unbuckle
my belt
so she won’t see
her father
his belt

Castles for The Laborers and Ballgames on the Radio

               For Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

We stood together at the top of his icy steps, without a word for once,
squinting at the hill below and the tumble we were about to take,
heads bumping on every step till our bodies rolled into the street.
He was older than the bread lines of the Great Depression. Before the War
he labored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, even organized apprentices, but now
there was ice. I outweighed him by a hundred pounds; when my feet began
to skid, I would land on him and hear the crunch of his surgically repaired spine.
The books I held for him would fly away like doves disobeying an amateur magician.
Let’s go back in the house, I said. Show me the baseball Sandy Koufax signed to you:
“from one lefty to another.”
Instead, he picked up a blue plastic bucket of sand,
the kind of pail good for building castles at Coney Island, tossed a fist of sand
down onto the sun-frozen concrete and took the first step, delicately. Again
and again, he would throw a handful of sand in the air like bread for pigeons,
then probe with the tip of his shoe for the sandy place on the next step:
sand, then step; sand, then step. Every time he took a step I took a step,
an apprentice shadow studying the movements of his teacher the body.
This is how I came to dance a soft-shoe in size fourteen boots, grinding
my toes into the gritty spots he left behind on the ice. I was there:

I saw him turn the tundra into the beach with a wave of his hand,
Coney Island of castles for the laborers and ballgames on the radio,
showing the way across the ice and down the hill into the street,
where he spoke to me the last words of the last lesson: You drive.

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