If you’ve never heard of the Paterson Silk Strike (1913), you’re not alone. The strikers died mostly forgotten, overshadowed by other actions from the eight-hour workday movement (most notably the Haymarket Affair). Martin Espada’s new poetry collection kicks off with a sonnet cycle that brings this tiny moment in labor history back to life, praising the men and women who put their lives on the line for workers’ rights. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed–the title of both the cycle and the book–is taken from Whitman‘s Song of Myself. Like their namesake, the sonnets ask that we praise the unsung heroes and common people who, though not widely remembered, and perhaps loved by only a few, did their best to make the world a better place.
“Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word
for shame. Back in court she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail (“IV: The Little Agitator,” 22).”
Espada could have stopped there and this would have been a great chapbook. We’re very fortunate, however, that he continued on in the same thematic vein and delivered a full collection. The other poems also tell tales of everyday heroism, and most of the people honored are Espada’s family, friends, and professional colleagues. A great deal of the work is dedicated to his father, Frank, who died in 2014. Reading about Frank’s life and adventures will make you envy Espada more than a little for having such an outrageous, courageous dad:
“He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck (“El Morivivi,” 85).”
Reading about Frank Espada is like sitting around the kitchen table listening to the grownups tell “back in the day” stories. Bold and yet at the same time restrained, Espada’s tone conveys the true nature of paternal loss: a virus that ebbs and flows through various emotions, restrained by the codes of manhood. The overall mood is somber, but defiant.
Other standouts in Vivas include “Hard-Handed Men of Athens” (wryly funny), “On the Hovering of Souls and Balloon Animals” (not funny, but true), and “Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island the Morning After George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager” (which makes its point like an arrow hitting the bullseye). Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a solid poetry collection that will resonate most strongly with anyone who has grieved a loved one, but will also strike a chord with readers who like their poetry socially conscious and defiant.
For more on Espada, check out this interview with him in Sampsonia Way.
Who are your unsung heroes? What brave deeds should everybody know about? Tell us all in the comments below.
Martin Espada’s FailedReserve Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
Leigh Anne recommends good books and outwits Google daily. If you hear anybody singing or whistling in the stacks, it’s probably her.