A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen: Poems


"Martín Espada ....forges a new poetic language."—Dennis Loy Johnson, Pittsburgh Tribune
In his sixth collection, American Book Award winner Martín Espada has created a poetic mural. There are conquerors, slaves, and rebels from Caribbean history; the "Mayan astronomer" calmly smoking a cigarette in the middle of a New York tenement fire; a nun staging a White House vigil to protest her torture; a man on death row mourning the loss of his ...

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"Martín Espada ....forges a new poetic language."—Dennis Loy Johnson, Pittsburgh Tribune
In his sixth collection, American Book Award winner Martín Espada has created a poetic mural. There are conquerors, slaves, and rebels from Caribbean history; the "Mayan astronomer" calmly smoking a cigarette in the middle of a New York tenement fire; a nun staging a White House vigil to protest her torture; a man on death row mourning the loss of his books; and even Carmen Miranda.

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Editorial Reviews

Dennis Loy Johnson
Martín Espada ....forges a new poetic language. —Pittsburgh Tribune
Julia Alvarez
[W]onderfully crafted gems, full of humor and surprises. Read this book!
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Espada, a frequent contributor to National Public Radio's various news programs, can keep his magic-inflected tone light even when engaging social disparity: "As I was about/ to put a quarter/ in the parking meter,/ a man walking by/ stopped, whirled,/ fired three karate kicks/ decapitating the meter,/ and stretched out/ his hand/ for the quarter." A former tenant lawyer, Espada makes a convincing Robin Hood both in the poem cursing a "Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks" and in "The Governor of Puerto Rico Reveals at His Inaugural That He Is the Reincarnation of Ponce de Leon." While these poems make a scene defying their overly deterministic titles, it's the quiet and quick ones that make his sixth collection solid, like the title poem, about a man on a fire escape who stops to smoke a cigarette, or "The Mexican Cabdriver's Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him", in which the speaker, having challenged the poets in his cab to write the poem at hand, supplies the somehow heartbreaking information that his wife isn't like the moon but "is like the bridge/ when there is so much traffic/ I have time/ to watch the boats/ on the river." The book ends with a suite of unsatisfying poems about the executions of American political prisoners, but the overall effect of this book is one of poetic uplift in the face of everyday oppression. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
American-born Puerto Rican poet Espada, son of a political activist and at one time a practicing lawyer, has spent his life involved in social justice work on behalf of the Hispanic community. His poems speak eloquently of issues that cut to the core of human existence--death, tumors, heart disease, poverty--and to individuals who suffer inhumane treatment (and worse) owing to political oppression (e.g., Sister Dianna Ortiz, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). From the enigmatic title poem (from a third-floor window, a man watches the restaurant below him burn, seemingly unaware or immune to the danger he's in) through pieces about the death of his grandmother, Puerto Rico, his wife's family, Carmen Miranda, and more, Espada employs a variety of styles--sometimes long-lined, sometimes brief as haiku. In a richly descriptive, highly political poem for death row prisoner/poet Mumia Abu-Jamal (commissioned by NPR's "All Things Considered," which later refused to air it), he writes, "The executioner's needle would flush the poison/ down into Mumia's writing hand/ so the fingers curl like a burned spider." A glossary translates terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader. Highly recommended.--Judy Clarence, California State Univ. Lib., Hayward Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393321685
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Pages: 88
  • Sales rank: 1,389,607
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Martín Espada's The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, teaches at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt


My Name Is Espada

Espada: the word for sword in Spain
wrought by fire and the hammer's chime,
name for the warrior reeling helmut-hooded
through the pandemonium of horses in mud,
or the face dreaming on a sarcophagus,
hands folded across the hilt of stone.
Espada: sword in el Caribe,
rapier tested sharp across the bellies of indios, steel tongue
lapping blood like a mastiff gorged on a runaway slave,
god gleaming brighter than the god nailed to the cross,
forged at the anvil with chains by the millions
tangled and red as the entrails of demons.
Espada: baptizing Taíno or Congolese,
name they stuttered in the barking language
of priests and overseers, slave's finger pressed to the blade
with the pulsing revelation that a Spaniard's throat
could seep blood like a fingertip, sabers for the uprising
smuggled in the hay, slave of the upraised saber
beheaded even as the servants and fieldhands
murmured he is not dead, he rides a white horse at night,
his sword is a torch, the master cannot sleep,
there is a dagger under the pillow.
Espada: cousin to the machete, peasant cutlass
splitting the cane like a peasant's backbone,
cousin to the kitchen knife skinning a plátano.
Swords at rest, the machetero or cook
studied their blisters as if planets
to glimpse the hands of their father the horseman,
map the hands of their mother the serf.
Espada: sword in Puerto Rico, family name of bricklayers
who swore their trowels fell as leaves from iron trees;
teachers who wrote poems in galloping calligraphy;
saintcarvers who whittled a slave's gaze and a conqueror's beard;
shoemaker spitting tuberculosis, madwoman
dangling a lantern to listen for the cough;
gambler in a straw hat inhabited by mathematical angels;
preacher who first heard the savior's voice
bleeding through the plaster of the jailhouse;
dreadlocked sculptor stunned by visions of birds,
sprouting wings from his forehead, earthen wings in the fire.
So the face dreaming on a sarcophagus,
the slave of the saber riding a white horse by night
breathe my name, tell me to taste my name: Espada.

Preciosa Like A Last Cup of Coffee
—for my grandmother, Luisa Roig, 1908-1997
  Carolina, Puerto Rico

Tata says her wheelchair
has been stolen by the nurses.
She hallucinates the ceiling fan
spinning closer, the vertigo
of a plummeting helicopter,
but cannot raise her hands
against the blades. Her legs jerk
with the lightning that splits trees.
She scolds her dead sister,
who studies Tata's face
from a rocking chair by the bed
but does not answer.
The grandchildren are grateful
for the plastic diaper, the absence of bedsores.
Tata's mouth collapses without teeth;
her words are miners blackened in the hole.
Now a word pushes out: café.
No coffee for her, or she won't eat,
says the nurse.
Tata craves more than a puddle
in a styrofoam cup:
the coffee farm in Utuado, 1928,
the mountains hoisting a harvest of clouds,
the beans a handful of planets,
the spoon in the cup a silver oar,
and the roosters' bickering choir.
But no coffee today.
Cousin Bernice crawls into the bed,
stretches her body across Tata's body
like a drowsy lover, mouth hovering
before her grandmother's eyes
as she chants the word: Preciosa.
Preciosa like the song,
chorus brimming from a kitchen radio
on West 98th Street after the war,
splashing down the fire escape,
preciosa te llaman.
An island from the sky
or a last cup of coffee.
Tata repeats: Preciosa.
The song bathes her tongue.

The Shiny Aluminum of God
—Carolina, Puerto Rico, 1997

After the pilgrimage
to the Office of Cemetery Records,
we pay fifty dollars in cash
for the free municipal burial plot,
the clerk hiding the bills in a manila folder.
El pastor Pentecostal forgets the name of the dead,
points at the ceiling and gazes up
whenever he loudly whispers the syllables
for eternal life, la vida eterna,
as if the stain on the tile were the map of heaven.
The mourners are palm trees in the hallelujah wind,
hands raised overhead. Once grandmother Tata's pen
looped the words of the spirits as they spoke to her;
now she grips a borrowed golden crucifix
in the coffin, lid propped open by mistake.
The coffin bumps into a hole of mud
next to the chain-link fence, and then
the family Vélez Espada gathers for dinner.
The pernil is frozen, pork shoulder congealed and raw
like a hunk of Siberian woolly mammoth.
But Angela tells us of the miracle pot
that will roast the meat in an hour
without a cup of water. She sells the pot
to her neighbors too, keeps a tower of boxes
with a picture of the pot resplendent on every box.
The words on her kerchief hail
the shiny aluminum of God: Dios te ama.
The scar carves her husband's forehead
where the doctors scooped the tumor out,
where cancer cells scramble like a fistful of ants.
In a year he will be the next funeral, when the saints
of oncology surrender their weapons. For now
Edwin lives by the finches he snares in the backyard,
wings blundering through the trapdoor of the cage,
sold for five dollars apiece to the neighbors.
He praises God for brain surgery and finches,
leans close and grins about the time
his brother somersaulted out a window
and two swooping angels caught him
by the elbows, inches from the ground.
Only one broken rib, Edwin says,
rubbing his stomach in the slow way
of a man satisfied with his meal.
Angela's brother passes out pamphlets:
God's ambulance found him and his needle
in a condemned building, no shoes
and no heartbeat. Then Edwin says:
God will not let me die.
An hour later,
the pernil is still frozen in the oven.
Angela stares at the sweating pork,
then the boxes of pots unsold in the corner.
A boy cousin taps his fork
and asks if we can eat the finches.
The trap clatters in the backyard,
an angel flapping in the cage.

My Father As A Guitar

The cardiologist prescribed
a new medication
and lectured my father
that he had to stop working.
And my father said: I can't.
The landlord won't let me
The heart pills are dice
in my father's hand,
gambler who needs cash
by the first of the month.
On the night his mother died
in faraway Puerto Rico,
my father lurched upright in bed,
heart hammering
like the fist of a man at the door
with an eviction notice.
Minutes later,
the telephone sputtered
with news of the dead.
Sometimes I dream
my father is a guitar,
with a hole in his chest
where the music throbs
between my fingers.

For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant
in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My
Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait
Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,
the wait staff and the boss
share the complexion of a flour tortilla.
I have spooked the servers at my table
by trilling the word burrito.
I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity
with the refugees of the Américas,
since they steam in your kitchen.
I know my cousin Esteban the sculptor
rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips
of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.
I understand he wanted to be a waiter,
but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,
so he hissed in Spanish
and his apron collapsed on the floor.
May La Migra handcuff the wait staff
as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;
may a hundred mice dive from the oven
like diminutive leaping dolphins
during your Board of Health inspection;
may the kitchen workers strike, sitting
with folded hands as enchiladas blacken
and twisters of smoke panic the customers;
may a Zapatista squadron commandeer the refrigerator,
liberating a pillar of tortillas at gunpoint;
may you hallucinate dreadlocks
braided in thick vines around your ankles;
and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.
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Table of Contents

My Name Is Espada 15
Preciosa Like a Last Cup of Coffee 17
The Shiny Aluminum of God 19
My Father As a Guitar 22
For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks 23
Pegao 25
The Governor of Puerto Rico Reveals at His Inaugural That He Is the Reincarnation of Ponce de Leon 26
Ornithology at the Caribe Hilton 28
The Rage of Plantation Days 30
What Francisco Louis Espada Learned at Age Five, Standing on the Dock 31
The Mexican Cabdriver's Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him 35
A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen 36
The Janitor's Garden 37
The Death of Carmen Miranda 39
The Community College Revises Its Curriculum in Response to Changing Demographics 40
Thanksgiving 41
Pitching the Potatoes 43
Genuflection in Right Field 45
The Ghost in the Trunk of the Car 47
The Man Who Owns the Dumpster Owns the Books 50
Ode to Your Earrings 52
I Apologize for Giving You Poison Ivy by Smacking You in the Eye with the Crayfish at the End of My Fishing Line 54
Why I Went to College 56
Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas 59
Companero Poet and the Surveillance of Sheep 60
A Cigarette's Iris in the Eye of a Candle 63
Anarchism and the Parking Meter 66
The Carpenter Swam to Spain 67
The Eleventh Reason 70
Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent 74
Prisoner AM-8335 and His Library of Lions 78
The River Will Not Testify 80
Glossary 83
Biographical Note 86
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2000

    Excellent bilingual poetry!

    Not only does Espada use choice topics, but the words read like a song. He ranges from humor to history with beaut

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