Martin Espada’s Imagine the Angels of Bread is a collection of poem that speaks out on behalf of the ‘alien,’ the illegal immigrant who is used and abused. An example: In “Offering to an Ulcerated God,” a woman who does not speak English is sued by her landlord for not making the rent. She has with her several photographs of the place, which prove that it is not livable, but she never even gets the chance to show these to the judge. Even though there is a volunteer translator, who is supposed to give her a voice in court, he never gets a chance to speak either, to tell the court what the woman is saying.
While Puerto Rico is referred to repeatedly in the collection, the poems deal with the issues of a broad range of groups. In “Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Food Stamps,” the speaker wonders what Jefferson would have wanted, and writes his “Declaration of Food Stamps: / proclaiming the right / to sit in a white linen restaurant, / eat as well as Thomas Jefferson, / then pay in piles / of clipped toenails / dumped into the tea.”
These are poems of protest, stories of rebellion and revolution. I particularly enjoyed “The Foreman’s Wallet.” Here, we meet the employees of a printing plant owned by “Jehova’s Witnesses, / men as pale as cheese.” We meet them on the day they are told (politely) they are all laid off and need not come back. The workers knock over the unstapled piles of paper, destroy the vending machine and dismantle the machinery they’ve been working with. The final act is an attempt to shrink-wrap the foreman’s head. When this doesn’t work — the machine is built to shrink-wrap books, nothing larger, — “we shrink-wrapped the foreman’s wallet, / gleaming in the fresh plastic / like a pound of hamburger. / / ‘Here’s your wallet,’ I said. And mine.”
Espada’s poems speak of a shared creed, be it that of movie scripts or of a longing for justice. In “Soliloquy at Gunpoint,” our speaker is mugged while in his car, with two boys pointing a gun at him. “I sat calm as a burning monk. / The only god in my meditation / was the one who splices the ribbon of film” he explains, and this god’s rules allow him to defuse the situation: “The script said, ‘Give me the gun,’ / so I said, ‘Give me the gun.’ / And he did.”
Members of minorities are not exempt from the temptation to stereotype people, as Espada’s speaker in “Rednecks” illustrates. When a Puerto Rican lawyer is asked to visit a suburban school and urged to wear his “native costume,” he feels a little lost. “My native costume / is a pinstriped suit.” Of course the teacher means a traditional Puerto Rican garment of some sort. It is winter, too cold to wear a guayabera. The teacher insists, and so the lawyer delivers: “So I went / to the suburban school, / embroidered guayabera / short sleeved shirt / over a turtleneck, / and said, Look kids, / cultural adaptation” (“My Native Costume”).
To be honest, I was a little shocked when I got an email from an international student organization asking us (international students) to come to an event “in native costumes.” We’re not at the zoo. The only time I’ve ever worn anything even remotely ‘native’ / traditionally German was when I was two or three and my parents made me wear red lederhosen. My native costume is shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of trainers or flip flops. What’s yours?