Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas

by Martin Espada,
Smokestack Books, 2008,
66 pages, paper, $7.95,
ISBN: 9780955402814
Buy the Book

Whether the Ponce uprising, or Rosa Park’s simple act of remaining in her bus seat, it seems every rebellion takes on its own momentum and personality. Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas by Martin Espada, is a book of courage, beauty, tribute, and rebellion.  Espada says, “. . . rebellion / is the circle of a lover’s hands / that must keep moving / always weaving.” (51) Puerto Rico’s people and heritage is palpable in Espada’s work, his gritty voice folding a culture textured with slavery and foreign occupation into the faces and voices of Puerto Rico’s ordinary and extraordinary heroes, many his family.

In 1898, during the Spanish American War, the USA invaded Puerto Rico and never left.  Martin Espada is an “independentista” (7); a group who believes in a free Puerto Rico from USA “occupation,” and his poems of Puerto Rico’s persecution resonate like a clanging bell calling us in from the school yard for a history lesson to examine our own behavior.  With incredible clarity and example, Espada shows the struggle for freedom and the brokenness that struggle creates, both politically and personally.  These two characteristics he cannot separate.  Love and rebellion may sound like the antithesis of each other, but not here, not in this work.

Espada paints the invisible bars visible around a still captured Puerto Rico.  In The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive (55), Espada shows it best: “When the beach chilled cold / and the bright stumble of tourists / deserted, she and the FBI man / were left alone with their spying glances /as he waited calmly / for the sobbing to begin / and she refused to sob.”  (56)  His political tribute to Nationalist poet Clemente Soto Velez in the poem “Hands without Irons Become Dragonflies,” (59) a long, passionate poem, somewhat didactic in nature, gives poignant background to Puerto Rico’s history of rebellion.

In 2008, while visiting Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, I walked around graveyards full of Celtic crosses and generations of O’Grady’s; my people, my heritage pulled from the arms of Ireland under British occupation.  I was amazed how strong my reactions were visiting this land where names and customs were kept alive by my family in Pittston, Maine five generations past the “Great Hunger.”  Evolution might well have changed the curve of our backbone, but not the curve of our human nature.

I felt an unexpected sense of beginning and belonging; and yes, resentment when being introduced to an English owner of pristine Irish coastline overlooking the spectacular Ring of Kerry.  For a nanosecond, I felt unexpected ire, remembering that we lost our land and heritage enslaved in our own land, too.  Can occupation and persecution pervade the very soul of a collective people?  I can hear “James Connolly bellowing insurrection to the Citizen Army of Ireland” (48) shout a resounding “yes!”

Espada’s poems are rich wordportraits of the Puerto Rico people and the culture covering them: the religion, coffeebean brown land, the lush smell of papaya, and those displaced to Carolina, or New York City, dreaming of mountains and puffcloud skies.  In a poem for his father Frank Espada, he writes of how he, “. . . saw the mountains / looming above the projects / overwhelming Brooklyn / living by what I saw at night / with my eyes closed.” (14)  Espada’s poems create a collage of face and place that is sometimes transparent, lost or clearly displaced, yet strong even in its changing.  He throws a patchwork quilt over these pages as he allows each name of town, person, image, event to become his country.

In The Rage of Plantation Days, one finds the same vivid imagery and emotive language typical of his work, “Utuado at nightfall / darkness the ink of an octopus / staining the sky between mountains / . . . the shouting over money or a woman /. . . lamp splintered by machete . . .”  Espada shows us bodies dragged through the plaza . . .” and a boy / with a broom on the church steps / who once sobbed when he killed a lizard, watching.” (18)  This is such a vivid, and unfortunately universal, image; the loss of innocence through violence.

Perhaps the book cover “Dias de Cristo” by Frank Dias Escalet best explains Espada’s passion to stand free.  The cover is a black Christ hanging in a central plaza courtyard of de Armas (weapons).  Under the cross, gay sombreros and children, festive donkey carts and trumpeters go about their daily business of life in a celebration, while their black Christ suffers their destiny above them, both past and future.  Poems in the collection repeatedly call out in one way or another, that “this stripped and starving earth is not a grave” (59), yet Espada’s quest to separate as a country, body and soul is pervasive.  He even extends this separation to the persona of Christ; the black Christ of Puerto Rico and the white one the Yankee’s brought.  It’s as if, by the single power of his words, he can keep Puerto Rico’s core identity from dispersing and blowing off into the winds.

Claire Hersom