The Meaning of the Shovel

Martín Espada has worked as a bouncer, a primate caretaker, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, a gas station attendant and a tenant lawyer. As a poet, he acts as an advocate for the Latino community in the United States, particularly the immigrant working class, from farm workers sprayed with pesticides in the field to the kitchen staff who died in a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. The Meaning of the Shovel brings together, for the first time, all of Espada's poems about work, including several previously unpublished poems. It is a book about the emotional and often invisible landscape of labour, about 'hard-handed men', 'the rude Mechanicals: the tailor, the weaver, the tinker, the bellows-mender.' The title poem, based on the poet's experience of digging latrines in Nicaragua, embraces a vision of revolutionary change.

Sample Poems

The Meaning of the Shovel

Barrio René Cisneros, Managua, Nicaragua, June-July 1982

This was the dictator's land
before the revolution.
Now the dictator is exiled to necropolis,
his army brooding in camps on the border,
and the congregation of the landless
stipples the earth with a thousand shacks,
every weather-beaten carpenter
planting a fistful of nails.
Here I dig latrines. I dig because last week
I saw a funeral in the streets of Managua,
the coffin swaddled in a red and black flag,
hoisted by a procession so silent
that even their feet seemed
to leave no sound on the gravel.
He was eighteen, with the border patrol,
when a sharpshooter from the dictator's army
took aim at the back of his head.
I dig because yesterday
I saw four walls of photographs:
the faces of volunteers
in high school uniforms
who taught campesinos to read,
bringing an alphabet
sandwiched in notebooks
to places where the mist never rises
from the trees. All dead,
by malaria or the greedy river
or the dictator's army
swarming the illiterate villages
like a sky full of corn-plundering birds.

I dig because today, in this barrio
without plumbing, I saw a woman
wearing a yellow dress
climb into a barrel of water
to wash herself and the dress
at the same time,
her cupped hands spilling.
I dig because today I stopped digging
to drink an orange soda. In a country
with no glass, the boy kept the treasured bottle
and poured the liquid into a plastic bag
full of ice, then poked a hole with a straw.
I dig because today my shovel
struck a clay bowl centuries old,
the art of ancient fingers
moist with this same earth,
perfect but for one crack in the lip.
I dig because I have hauled garbage
and pumped gas and cut paper
and sold encyclopaedias door to door.
I dig, digging until the passport
in my back pocket saturates with dirt,
because here I work for nothing
and for everything.

Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer

Monkeys at the laboratory:
monkeys doing countless somersaults
in every cage on the row,
monkeys gobbling Purina Monkey Chow
or Fruit Loops with nervous greedy paws,
monkeys pressing faces
through a grill of steel,
monkeys beating the bars
and showing fang,
monkeys and pink skin
where fur once was,
monkeys with numbers and letters
on bare stomachs,
monkeys clamped and injected, monkeys.

I was a lab coat and rubber gloves
hulking between the cages.
I sprayed down the batter of monkey-shit
coating the bars, fed infant formula in a bottle
to creatures with real fingers,
tested digital thermometers greased
in their asses, and carried boxes of monkeys
to the next experiment.
We gathered the Fear Data, keeping score
as a mechanical head
with blinking red bulbs for eyes
and a siren for a voice
scared monkeys who spun in circles,
chattering instructions
from their bewildered brains.

I did not ask for explanations,
even when I saw the sign
taped to the refrigerator that read:
Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer.
I imagined the doctor who ordered the sign,
the moment when the freezer door
swung open on that other face,
and his heart muscle chattered like a monkey.
So I understood
when a monkey leapt from the cage
and bit my thumb through the rubber glove,
leaving a dollop of blood that gleamed
like icing on a cookie.
And I understood when one day, the doctors gone,
a monkey outside the bell curve of the Fear Data
shrieked in revolt, charging
the red-eyed mechanical head
as all the lab coats cheered.

The Bouncer's Confession

I know about the Westerns
where stunt doubles belly-flop
through banisters rigged to collapse
or crash through chairs designed to splinter.
A few times the job was like that.
A bone fragment still floats
in my right ring finger
because the human skull
is harder than any fist.

Mostly, I stood watch at the door
and imagined their skulls
brimming with alcohol
like divers drowning in their own helmets.
Their heads would sag, shaking
to stay awake, elbows sliding out
across the bar.
I gathered their coats. I found their hats.
I rolled up their paper bags
full of sacred objects only I could see.
I interrogated them for an address,
a hometown. I called the cab;
I slung an arm across my shoulders
to walk them down the stairs.

One face still wakes me some mornings.
I remember black-frame eyeglasses
off-balance, his unwashed hair.
I remember the palsy that made claws
of his hands, that twisted his mouth
in the trembling parody of a kiss.
I remember the stack of books he read
beside the beer he would not stop drinking.
I remember his fainted face
pressed against the bar.

This time, I dragged a corkscrewed body
slowly down the stairs, hugged to my ribs,
his books in my other hand,
only to see the impatient taxi
pulling away. I yelled at acceleration smoke,
then fumbled the body with the books
back up the stairs, and called the cab again.

No movie barrooms. No tall stranger
shot the body spread-eagled across the broken table.
No hero, with a hero's uppercut, knocked them out,
not even me. I carried them out.

My Native Costume

When you come to visit,
said a teacher
from the suburban school,
don't forget to wear
your native costume.

But I'm a lawyer,
I said.
My native costume
is a pinstriped suit.

You know, the teacher said,
a Puerto Rican costume.

Like a guayabera? The shirt? I said.
But it's February.
The children want to see
a native costume,
the teacher said.

So I went
to the suburban school,
embroidered guayabera
short-sleeved shirt
over a turtleneck,
and said, Look kids,
cultural adaptation.

Reviews

'Espada is fearless in his philosophy, politics and poetry... wide-ranging, deeply personal, wildly imaginative, witty and beautifully nuanced.'

Counterpunch

'The poems in this collection are immensely enjoyable. There is nothing stolidly worthy about them. They celebrate language, imagination, creativity, joy, compassion, solidarity and work, as they attack what destroys these things. Espada has homed in on what is inescapably important in modern life and he writes about it beautifully, skilfully so that you read his poems with ease and a rising sense of delight. He has the true poet's ability to engage with the everyday drama of the lives of all of us and turn it into enduring literature.'

Mistress Quickly's Bed

'immensely enjoyable... Espada has the true poet's ability to engage with the everyday drama of the lives of all of us and turn it into enduring literature.'

Mistress Quickly’s Bed

‘This first-rate collection from a poet of real importance.’

Northern Review of Books

‘A fascinating read.’

Synecdoche