Poetry Can Save Us

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The Trouble Ball witnesses the darker parts of history and celebrates resistance to the forces that created those.

Martín Espada’s new book, The Trouble Ball is divided into two sections. Part One, “The Trouble Ball,” traces oppression in the racism of his and his father’s childhoods, the experience of poverty, and the atrocities committed in the name of economic reform in Pinochet’s Chile. The divide between the sections—a brief silence after a long history of awfulness—seems to ask, What should be done? And Part Two (“Blasphemy”) offers Espada’s answer through its paeans to poetry, and elegies to activists, poets, and scholars who have recently died, and, more generally, celebrations of resistance.

One kind of resistance comes through the human connections and epiphany we find in poetry. “Blasphemy,” which I’ll quote in full, explains:

Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,
not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer
into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,
promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him
on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.

Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems
from the prison library, and I know why
his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.

Connection is one thing Espada’s poems aspire to and, at their best, achieve. The language is grand (“Epiphany is the chorus of rebels, beggars, lunatics bellowing with your voice, / the flickering revelation that the words of the song in my head are your words”) and accessible.

Reading this book made me think about the function of memorials. The obvious form of the memorial is the stone pillar or (at its best) the black cleft in the earth listing names of the war-dead. The memorials at the heart of Espada’s book are a subgenre, the version that remembers not the dead soldiers but the dead innocents, the victims—and often resisters and recorders—of human rights atrocities. Some of the poems include victims’ names, others describe the grisly ironies of the scenes of the atrocities, as in “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi” in Santiago, Chile during the Pinochet regime, where

the host
served chocolate cookies and Coke on ice
to the prisoner who let the names of comrades
bleed down his chin, and the prisoner
who refused to speak a word stopped breathing
in the water, facedown at the end of a rope.

That we have a history of this violence seems important. And yet, if we’ve read Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Carolyn Forché, or countless others, we have read scenes like this before. Much as they seemed to want to, these poems didn’t move me. The language is vivid, the horrors are real . . . and that’s all. Monuments. The reader’s left with a feeling of “Wow, that’s terrible that that happened. And as recently as the 1970s. Humans are cruel.”

What do I miss? I want to say a broader political or economic context would have helped, something to move us to a new understanding. But maybe monuments are meant to create something other than understanding—they shape memory and the past not to raise questions but to strengthen a set of believes, enforce a narrative.

My desire for more political context around issues of violence and oppression is probably idiosyncratic. I recently read Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and was fascinated by the degree of Washington’s involvement, along with the University of Chicago’s economists, in the Pinochet regime, and their continued insistence on using violence to implement their economic policies throughout the world. I realize that may not be the kind of news we come to poetry for. Still, because politics was a theme in the book, the apparent simplicity of Espada’s positions troubled me. The final poem, “Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass,” is exemplary.

“Litany” takes place three days after Obama’s election. The poem rejoices in how we as a nation have overcome our legacy of racism, contrasting Douglass’s time with ours:

This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints
on the slavebreaker’s throat so the whip would never carve his back again;
now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up
by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver.

The poem wonderfully captures the elation so many of us felt after the election. It seemed like everyone I knew wanted to follow the closing lines of the poem and “say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call / the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.” That’s what we had hoped. It seems ever more likely, now, though, that breaking the race barrier wasn’t really what we needed. The economic policies that caused the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime are healthy as ever in the Obama White House. It’s interesting that all the oppression described in this book occurred in the past, and the worst horrors in (and, according to the poems, by) other countries. If the book had been published closer to the election, I would have been more sympathetic, but Espada’s decision to close the book, released in April 2011, with the hope that Obama’s election means we are at last burying all that, left me feeling especially sad.

I would have been more satisfied if the book had ended with the elegy to Howard Zinn. It’s in the elegies that Espada does his most satisfying work. His goal is to capture the spirit of a person’s life, so these poems feel less like they’re trying to make one particular argument (if only because the ideology comes laterally, from the people the poems are about rather than directly from the poet). The Zinn elegy, “Walking,” opens with an epigraph from Eduardo Galeano that ends, “What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.” The poem itself is another litany, showing Zinn “walking the backroads in a country of Confederate flags, shoes baked in mud, / shuffling on the picket line with dark-skinned sharecroppers,” walking “through schoolrooms, the smooth oval of faces tilted up,” walking “by the river with the fugitive priest-poet who sang of the risen bread,” and, at last,

walking with thousands beside you now, a roaring sea, down the road to a city
where they greet you with blackberries that grow wild in the ruins, where scars
of liquid fire dissolve into skin, where the bombs will never fall again.

What makes this ending, similar in its never-again sentiment to the Douglass-Obama litany, so much easier to accept is that because of the epigraph, we know we will never get there. There are no final answers. We just keep walking.

The Trouble Ball witnesses the darker parts of history and celebrates resistance to the forces that created those. It’s important work. Espada has a clear position on these issues, on who is the victim and who is the oppressor, even if, at the hands of the greater oppressor, the victims turn on each other at times. Espada wants us to understand these relationships.

If some of us come to poetry for other reasons—not that we want to avoid thinking about oppression but to follow the thinking of someone a little less sure of her positions, someone trying to complicate her own understanding of the world, someone a little less interested in teaching me—I think that doesn’t diminish the importance of poetry like Espada’s for plenty of readers. I want to acknowledge the value of assurance in language. It can enrage and engage and make people get up and do something. This book’s stories of cruelty and inspiring resistance, its sometimes ecstatic and always accessible language, its clear, strong point of view, will, I’m sure, reach beyond the circles of “contemporary American poetry” (institutional, experimental, hybrid, hip, or whatever) to readers maybe not previously moved by poetry. I like to think it will reach, as Espada’s poetry already has, into classrooms and prisons, inspiring its readers to greater human connection and to keep fighting the good fight.

Former and future curator of the Gould’s Irregular Lectures lecture series, Alex Chambers lives in Bloomington, Indiana. His poems and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Gulf Coast, and Paper Darts. More from this author →