One cannot read the title to Martín Espada’s new book, The Republic of Poetry without recalling Plato’s banning of poets from his republic due to the subversive nature of their imaginations. However, in Espada’s republic poetry is not banned and “the guard at the airport/ will not allow you to leave the country/ until you declaim a poem for her/ and she says Ah! Beautiful.”
Although in this title poem Espada reminds us how playfulness is a necessary and central matter to poetry, his paramount concerns through out this book are for democracy and social justice. The book itself is divided into three parts, and the first part entitled “The Republic of Poetry was the outgrowth of an invitation to participate in the 2004 Centenary celebration of Pablo Neruda’s birth in Chile. This first section is in part a paean to Neruda, but the poems also speak of those others who defied the Pinochet regime, in particular, the song maker Victor Jara who was executed during that time and the poet Raúl Zurita, tortured by Pinochet’s secret police but who survived, and Espada also makes mention of the unnamed poets who rented a helicopter and bombed Pinochet’s palace with poems. No wonder Espada calls this place the republic of poetry. However, as much as this was a time of courage and resistance, this was also a time of great loss, and the celebration of Neruda’s birth becomes also a time to mourn the desaparecidos. Espada describes this mourning in “Rain Without Rain” where the thousands of pilgrims come to Neruda’s house to pay homage with “faces of the disappeared on signs strung/ around their necks.”
In the second section, having created his own republic, Espada now populates it with some of the poets who hold special meaning to him. In an elegy to his friend Robert Creeley, he quotes from one of Creeley’s last poems “You got a song, man, sing it.” And sing it Espada does. Read these lines out loud to yourself from “The Poet’s Coat” another elegy in this section. Listen to how the logic of narrative moves into the pure music of the last line, its alliteration and assonance:
Now you are dead, your heart throbbing too fast
for the doctors at the veteran’s hospital to keep the beat,
their pill bottles rattling, maracas in a mambo for the doomed.
In an age where free verse has devolved to open form, where poets don’t seem to know any more whether they are writing prose or verse, and all sense of line seems to have dissipated and where the diction of today’s poetry seems to have slipped comfortably into the “naturalness of conversation,” Espada’s work reminds us that poetry is memorable speech and that the common denominator of the poem, its basic building block, is still the line and that the line should be constructed with an ear to the music of the words and an eye to the images those words paint.
Espada is willing to meet head on the moral injustices that limiting democracy bring and to praise those who speak out through their poetry and/or their civil disobedience. The third and final section of Espada’s book reiterates this theme of resistance found in the book’s first section and places it directly into today’s setting. In “The God of the Weather-Beaten Face” a poem about the Camilo Mejía, an army sergeant in the Iraq War turned conscientious objector, he puts Mejía’s incarceration into the larger American historical context and tradition of “union organizer, hunger striker, freedom rider,/ street corner agitator, conscientious objector.” Espada wants to remind us that moral resistance to unjust governmental pressures is a universal part of the human condition and the responsibilty of the citizen of any country.
Even in poems that are not directly related to the struggle against and resistance to antidemocratic forces, we can still read into Epsada’s writing a certain concern for his republic. Take, for example, the playfulness of “Rules for Captain Ahab’s Provincetown Poetry Workshop.” Just as Plato sought to limit the subjects a poet should write about, so does Ahab, “Ye shall be free to write a poem on any subject, as long as it’s the White Whale.” I have always contended that poetry is a moral art even when it is not talking about moral things, and Espada’s book gives me the opportunity to stake my claim.
We could say all acts are political, and that in some moral sense, one takes a stand even by not taking a stand. If that is so, then when a poet writes a poem of utter nonsensical pleasure, it becomes understood that it is also an exercise of freedom even when the poet’s intentions appear not to be directly aimed at some political injustice or some terrible act such as the 9/11 attack. If we look at politics not just as a jockeying for power but as behavior that in some way, even indirectly, takes a moral stance just by its mere existence, and that all poems somehow reinforce the importance of freedom through the free exercise of whatever a poem speaks about, then all poems duly advise us to “shun the frumious Bandersnatch” which may be the faulty, emotionally charged rhetoric that leads a nation to war as much as anything else we might imagine it to be. Espada’s poems, of course, are more direct than this and that is where their power lies. He infuses his passion for justice with his passion for words.