On a late summer evening in 1888, lying in bed at his house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman admits to his young friend Horace Traubel, “Sometimes I think some of you fellows have outstripped even me—have gone on even beyond me flaunting your red flag of revolt.” Traubel responds, “Do you mean that for a rebuke or a blessing?” Whitman doesn’t hesitate: “For a blessing, to be sure: God bless the red flag of revolt!”
The red flag has long symbolized leftist protest and a willingness to fight, to bleed, to die for the cause of the people. The British Labour Party’s anthem, “The Red Flag,” describes the symbolism aptly:
The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyred dead, And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.
The United States hasn’t always been the most accommodating place to hoist the red flag, but it’s been flying triumphantly for years in the writing of Martín Espada. Born in Brooklyn in 1957 to a Puerto Rican father and a Jewish mother, Espada has published twenty critically acclaimed books as poet, essayist, editor, and translator, winning the American Book Award for Imagine the Angels of Bread (1997) and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Republic of Poetry (2006).
Before his impressive literary career, Espada worked as a tenant lawyer in Boston, where he advocated for the Latino community; he continues to write poems of advocacy that give voice to the powerless. We see the red flag waving prominently, for instance, in the opening sonnet sequence of his new poetry collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. The poem recounts the events of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike in vivid, sometimes bloody detail:
At the strike meeting, a dyers’ helper from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor, lifted up his hand and said Here is the red flag: brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties and scarves, the skin and fingernails boiled away for six dollars a week in the dye house.
This man’s hand serves as both a salute to comrades and a protest against poor working conditions. In the poem, the hand is an unusually deep symbol as the literal red dye replaces the figurative red blood, and the literal hand replaces the already deeply symbolic flag. The symbol is further enriched by the suggestive metonymy of hands as work. Look at this hand, says the man, and you will see me. Look at this hand, says the poet, and you will see all who labor and suffer invisibly in our world. When the man sits down, “the strikers / shouted the only praise he would ever hear.”
Hands have always been resonant poetic images for Espada, not least because they’re able to carry the weight of so much symbolic, metaphorical, and metonymic significance. In a 2010 interview, he said that in such working environments “you’re only seen for what your hands can do. The rest of you is rendered invisible.” Espada’s poetics involves advocating for these invisible people, bringing “the rest” of them out of the darkness. In “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” for example, from his book City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), the poet describes having worked in a printing plant:
Ten years later, in law school, I knew that every legal pad was glued with the sting of hidden cuts, that every open lawbook was a pair of hands upturned and burning.
Like the Paterson silk workers, these hands suffer in their labor, but they are also held out to us in an open gesture of invitation. The invitation is ambiguous here, but elsewhere Espada makes it clear that hands must continue their work to effect social change, as in the title poem of Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990), written to observe the fiftieth anniversary of the Ponce Massacre, during which twenty unarmed Puerto Rican nationalists were killed.
Rather than a red flag, the image of a woman embroidering a wedding dress represents steadfast resistance to colonial rule (and by extension political oppression in general) as her hands “keep moving, / always weaving.” Similarly, in “Not Words but Hands” from The Republic of Poetry, the poet bestows upon his own poem the power of this kind of artful handiwork, the metonymy of hands shifting now to signify writing as well: “And this, this poem, / this is my hand.”
You certainly see hands working in Espada’s poetic forefather Whitman, too (“hands at work at all the old processes, and all the new ones”), as he celebrates “manual work for each and all—to plough, hoe, dig.” But just as often, Whitman’s are sexual hands, touching hands, accompanied by lips and phalluses—or else hands function as social connection and manly adhesiveness: clapping, clasping, shaking hands. Whitman’s profound influence on Espada is announced loudly not only in the title of Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, which comes from section 18 of “Song of Myself,” but also in many epigraphs, allusions, themes, and images throughout this new collection.
“Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World,” dedicated to the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, brings to mind not only Edgar Allan Poe’s plangent poem, “The Bells,” but also Whitman’s short memorial poem, “The Sobbing of the Bells,” written a few days after the death of James Garfield in 1881. Espada has a Shelleyan incantatory power here that would likely sound a few wrong notes in a less able poet’s voice: “and the bell born / in the foundry says: I was born of bullets, but now I sing / of a world where bullets melt into bells.” The poem itself becomes a bell, tolling “in the ancient language of bronze,” embodying Espada’s conviction that art, song, poetry, and words can indeed change the world, even if only one reader at a time.
Never is Espada more Whitmanesque, however, than in “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way,” whose epigraph comes from Leaves of Grass: “Not songs of loyalty alone are these, / But songs of insurrection also, / For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.” The poem powerfully establishes itself as a declaration that Black Lives Matter: “I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell / before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.”
The poet bears witness not only to episodes of police violence erupting throughout the United States today—most notably the killings of young black men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Walter Scott—but also going back as far as 1974 with the death of Martín “Tito” Pérez. Like Whitman (“I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there”) the poet is there, too, “in the crowd, at the window, / kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.”
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is also haunted by a different kind of death: the death in 2014 of the poet’s father, Frank Espada, to whom the book and multiple individual poems are dedicated. Frank Espada was a community organizer, political activist, and documentary photographer who founded and directed the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, and from the beginning he has figured prominently in Martín’s life and poetry.
The final ten poems in Vivas are animated by a deep elegiac energy and grief over the death of the poet’s father. But the poetry resists being overwhelmed by mourning. Instead of conventional consolation—or sentimentality or self-indulgence or funereal morbidity—Espada offers us a plant called el moriviví, in Puerto Rican Spanish “I died/I lived,” so called because its leaves shrink from contact. The poem “El Moriviví” returns to moment after moment in which Frank “would die, then live,” because he “spoke in the tongue of moriviví” and knew its secrets.
The most striking example of Frank’s figurative resurrection comes when he is detained for many days, along with hundreds of other demonstrators protesting the 1964 New York World’s Fair, on Hart Island, the location of New York City’s potter’s field. Miraculously, “he came back from the island of the dead, black hair combed meticulously.” This moment in “El Moriviví” returns to a scene in “The Sign in My Father’s Hands” from Imagine the Angels of Bread. In the earlier version, the poet offers his own perspective as a child: “I knew my father was dead. / I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy / who did not hear the question in school.”
But of course Frank returns “from the netherworld”: “Days later, he appeared in the doorway / grinning with his gilded tooth . . . . / I search my father’s hands / for a sign of the miracle.” The poet’s father is magical, a Christ figure whose hands hold the sign—as hands are apt to do in Espada’s poetry—and he’s something of a trickster, too, with his grin and glinting gold tooth as he traverses the most seemingly solid of boundaries, between life and death.
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed implicates all of us in the various failures to be found in its pages: not only the social failure of racist violence and injustice, but the ultimate failure in death. We’ve all failed, and we’ll all fail again. The question then is how we move forward without giving in to cynicism and despair. We find a possible answer in one of the last poems of the collection, “After the Goose That Rose Like the God of Geese.” Retreating from the chaos of his father’s death, the poet goes to the park to feed the birds, opening his hand with an offering of bread, of life—of vivas—to the geese he finds there:
there was quiet in my head, no cacophony of the dead lost in the catacombs, no mosquito hum of condolences, only the next offering of bread raised up in my open hand, the bread warm on the table of my truce with the world.
J.D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa.