THE REPUBLIC OF POETRY
by Martin Espada
500 Fifth Avenue,
New York, N.Y. 10110; ISBN# 978-0-393-06256-4, 2006, 96 pp., $23.95
In Martin Espada's Chile, poetry is not romance -- it is a reclamation project for a country emerging from twenty years of fascism. The ransacking of Neruda's home at Isla Negra, and the breaking of Victor Jara' hands are only the scars most remembered by North Americans. Yet the scars of torture victims and the echoing voices of the disappeared make it impossible to put Pinochet far out of mind even after his death.
At the beginning of this book, rather than simply recalling the bombs that tore into La Moneda on September 11, 1973, Espada is whimsical enough to imagine planes bombarding "the national palace / with poems on bookmarks / and everyone in the courtyard / rushes to grab a poem / fluttering from the sky."
Yet the martyrs and the disappeared remain encased in stone "Today Allende is white marble outside the palace/ mute as a martyr, without a hand free to wave from / the balcony without a voice to crackle/ his last words in the radio air." ("Not Here")
The memories of the disappeared burst forth in tangible and concrete form. The stadium where Victor Jara was tortured and killed might be named Estadio Victor Jara now, where "his words flow in stone across the wall of the lobby," yet his widow still yearns "for the tingle of fingertips at her elbow." ("Something Escapes the Bonfire")
The families of the disappeared gather around Neruda's tomb: "my brother, my sister, my uncle, my cousin / Give us the bones for the coffin / give us the coffin for the grave / give us the grave for the gravestone / give us the gravestone so we can sleep." ("Rain Without Rain")
Until very recently the story of appearances of the former despot Pinochet -- idolizied in some quarters, hated in most others, in and out of dentintion in both in London and Santiago, linked to court appearances -- Pinochet becomes the enigma of this book, the stuffed pinata a great many people would like to whack, as in "General Pinochet at the Bookstore," in which the narrator dryly observes that the general fails to cause books to crumble into ash.
In the section of the book that takes part after Espada's return from the celebration of Neurda's hundredth birthday he retains his uncanny ability to balance politics with well-crafted poems.
"Not Words But Hands" is one of the most heartbreaking elegies I have ever read. The subject of the poem has suffered a crime so terrible that the poet can offer no solace more than this: "We only have our hands, to soap your shirts / or ladle soup for you, grip your shoulder / or dim the lamp."
Martin Espada is a poet for those of us with long memories, small wallets, and troubled hearts.