May 30, 2011

Review by Howard Rosenberg

THE TROUBLE BALL
by Martín Espada

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-08003-2
2011, 66 pp., $24.95
http://books.wwnorton.com

Martín Espada’s latest book, The Trouble Ball, is a collage of 24 poems that serve as vehicles for the expression of his political and social concerns. To share those concerns, he takes readers on a poetic journey to a variety of places including the streets of Brooklyn, a city in Wisconsin, and a detention center in Chile.

Brooklyn is the base for his first four poems, beginning with its title poem, which shines a spotlight on Brooklyn’s “field of dreams,” Ebbets Field. Its first stanza reveals the celebration as each home game began:

When the umpires lumbered on the field, the band in the stands
with a bass drum and trombone struck up a chorus of Three Blind Mice.
The peanut vendor shook a cowbell and hollered. The home team
raced across the diamond, and thirty thousand people shouted
all at once, as if an army of liberation rolled down Bedford Avenue.

In those lines, Espada captures the fans’ fervor for their team, Brooklyn’s status symbol. It was a devotion that turned to disbelief and grief when, after the 1957 season, the Dodgers abandoned the borough. The team’s departure doomed its ballpark: “A wrecking ball swung an uppercut into the face / of Ebbets Field” in 1960.

The poem, however, is about more than the loss of a team and its field. It’s a carefully constructed statement on discrimination. That focus is exemplified by both Satchell Paige and the speaker’s parents. Paige, the pitcher who threw the fastball called the “Trouble Ball,” was barred by baseball’s racial prejudice from playing in the Major Leagues during his prime. As a result, many of America’s baseball fans lost the opportunity to watch Paige pitch in his peak years.

The speaker’s parents were discrimination’s victims when they were refused service in a restaurant because they were “a mixed couple.” However, the speaker’s father didn’t passively accept the injustice. When the waiter “refused to serve them,” the speaker states in the poem’s next line, “my father hoisted him by the lapels and the waiter’s feet dangled in the air, / a puppet and his furious puppeteer.”

Espada’s concern for others extends beyond human beings. “My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag” is a poem about a janitor on a “cleaning crew” at Sears. The worker, the poem’s speaker, witnesses the cruel killing of a mouse by a security guard who then tosses the bag containing the mouse toward him. At that moment, the janitor says, “my heart kicked like a mouse in a paper bag.” As a result, now, before the speaker places his garbage cans on the street for pickup, he inspects the refuse for “the perfect mouse to liberate.”

Espada, a lawyer, even writes about a twenty-three-year-old man willing to defy the law to protect another human being. In one of the book’s first-person narratives, “Isabel’s Corrido,” he shares how the young man marries a nineteen-year-old Mexican woman in Wisconsin so she can remain in the United States. In the poem’s last line, the man admits “There was a conspiracy to commit a crime. / This is my confession: I’d do it again.” Espada both presents life’s complexity and elucidates how “simple” acts create the complexity of our lives.

The book contains other mini-portraits. In “The Spider and the Angel,” Espada shares the first-person account of an 11-year-old boy challenged to defend his identity in a summer day camp in Brooklyn. The title’s nouns refer to two other campers, both also Puerto Rican, who attended the same camp.

The speaker’s “crippled Spanish” caused “spider-boy” to challenge his claim to be Puerto Rican. To provide proof, the speaker bloodied Angel in a camp-approved wrestling match. Being viewed as Puerto Rican justified the damage he did to Angel’s mouth. Afterward, the speaker announces, “I was satisfied. We were Puerto Ricans, / wrestling for the approval of our keepers.” However, it seems that he was fighting for more than his “keepers” approval; he was fighting for his peer’s recognition, which he gained.

His action caused me to think about peer pressure, of times when I was challenged and about how I responded. During my first year in junior high school year, I was challenged to a fight once, my small size provoking it. I refused to fight, but I don’t regret my inaction. If I had accepted the challenge and defeated my classmate—a possibility given that he was slightly shorter than I was—at best I would have gained entry into their “club,” a group whose companionship I was better off without.

In the poem, “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi,” Espada returns to third person to address the mistreatment of inmates at Villa Grimaldi, a detention center in Chile where “convoys spilled their cargo / of blindfolded prisoners,” men and women arrested as subversives. The poem shifts between the inhumane way the prisoners were treated and the prison’s swimming pool where “the guards and officers would gather families / for barbecues.”

By contrasting the staff’s pleasure with the prisoners pain, he intensifies the difference and then magnifies it. For example, while an interrogator taught his son how to swim and a torturer taught his daughter how to float, “a dissident pulled by the hair from a vat / of urine and feces cried out for God,” the staff and their kin oblivious to the prisoner’s pain.

The inmates weren’t the only victims; their guardians were too. The latter lost their humanity:

what was human in them
had dissolved forever, vanished like the prisoners
thrown from helicopters into the ocean by the secret police,
their bellies slit so the bodies could not float.

In the last line above, Espada creates an image so vivid I felt as if I were viewing the scene on a Salvador Dalí poster of it, the poetic equivalent of the surrealist painter’s brushstrokes, one that magnifies the victims’ agony while devouring a viewer’s attention—a verbal Venus Flytrap.

And then there’s the poem without a locale. “Epiphany” is a dedication to a person (Adrian Mitchell), its title repeated eleven times within its content. It’s one of the few poems in which my attention drifted, the poem’s abstractness a breeze pushing my mind away from its pages. Yet even that poem carries a political message, expressed by its opening stanza:

Epiphany is not a blazing light. A blazing light
blazes when airplane’s spread their demon’s winds
and drop their demon’s eggs over the city,
and the city burns like the eye of a screaming horse.

In The Trouble Ball, Espada again uses poetry as an outlet for his desire to reveal the suffering that oppression can cause. By illuminating the invisible, he exposes castigators of both man and animal in language accessible even to those reluctant to read poems. In doing so, he continues to represent those unable either to speak or to speak in as powerful a voice. His voice becomes theirs.

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Howard Rosenberg has written articles for both magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He has had poems published in Christian Science Monitor, Poetica, and Vanguard, and his poetry book reviews have appeared in Rattle. His poem, “Stetter to Sheffield to Matcovich,” was selected by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine as its “Baseball Poem of the Month” for July 2010. He teaches writing at a two-year college in New Jersey.