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of the Shovel brings together, for the first time, all of Espada's poems about work, including several previously unpublished poems.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'Espada is fearless in his philosophy, politics and poetry... wide-ranging, deeply personal, wildly imaginative, witty and beautifully nuanced.'
'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.’