an on-line poetry magazine
for the 21st century
(WW Norton, 2021)
Floaters – a title taken from the thick-skinned border agents along the Rio Grande valley to describe migrants who drown trying to cross over.
Floaters – a books eponymous poem, responding to a photograph of a Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande that went viral; and the callous assertion by certain border patrol agents, who ‘floated’ a callous Trumpian fake-news allegation about the photograph.
Floaters – a great new book, and necessary book, from one of America’s great living poetic voices, Martín Espada, which as of the time of this review had won the Ruth Lilly Prize and the 2021 National Book Award for poetry.
In this 2021 collection, Espada offer us further proof that his story-telling powers and mastery of the politically charged, fully-turned and precision-targeted poem is undiminished. This is vintage Espada, speaking as always with force and urgency – and with the eloquence of a champion, friend and documentarian to the weary the downtrodden, the innocent victims of man’s inhumanity toward man.
One of the beauties of an Espada collection is the poet’s ability to retain his unequivocal political edge without devolving into rant or scree. A powerful spoken word poet in his own right, his ability to mesmerize audience comes from more than oratorical gravitas or a flawless instinct for ethos – this is a superior story-teller at work, with a craftsman’s sense of what makes for a compelling subject. Espada knows a gold nugget from a handful of stone, and how to infuse the telling of his poems with a rich blend of humor, outrage, sympathy and regret.
Though titled for an incident on the Rio Grande, the range of the poems in the book goes far beyond the issues of the frontera, and the inhumanity of government policies visited upon those who get caught up in the trauma being me with there. Espada introduces us to many a boyhood memory from his version of old Brooklyn, and the impact of his crusading father on his world view.
The titles of some of these poems offer us sufficiently full story-lines in and of themselves, without even another word being read: Among them: Boxer wears America 1st Shorts in Bout With Mexican, Finishes Second; The Stoplight at the Corner Where Somebody had to die, Death Rides The Elevator in Brooklyn, the Assassination of the Landlord’s Purple Vintage 1976 Monte Carlo.
Others, with equally specific stories to tell, obtain their power in part from literary allusion – as in the poem Asking Questions of the Moon, the eponymous poem for the second section of the book, which works off a Lorca image of ‘blind girls who ask questions of the moon,’ causing ‘spirals of weeping (to) rise through the air’.
The heft of this allusion saturates the reader with an inescapable duende, who goes on to read the story of a young Hispanic boy playing outfield on an urban ballfield (distracted, as young boys tend to be, by the prospect of growing intimacy with a blonde girl in school); and how his entire world view is crushed when someone whispers some racist thing into her ear, and the big chill sets in:
‘the girl asked me, as softly as she could: Are you a spic?/ And I, with a hive of words in my head, could only think to say, / Yes, I am. She never spoke to me again.
This mixture of boyish innocence and a highly corrosive society, conceived with the steely clarity of the vision and voice of a poet who has lived it and still struggles to emerged from it, is pure Espada.
Papo stole a car so he wouldn’t be late for school.
One of the most powerful poems in the book, The story of how we came to America, sums it up nicely. It is a poem in which he recalls the ‘oft-told’ family story of his grandfather back in Puerto Rico, a gamble and speakeasy owner, who gets tipped off that the cops are going to raid his place, sells the place, and runs off to America. That, says the narrator of the poem, is the story of how the Espada family came to America.
My father once said: That never happened, and besides, you
Should wait til people are dead to tell stories like that.
Now people are dead, and I am telling stories like that.
Espada’s story, as told in Floaters, continues to be the story of America, how many of us came to be Americans, and how we must find our own way to tell the story of how that happened. For this, his selection for a National Book Award is irrefutable compensation.