A review of "Vivas to Those Who Have Failed" by Martín Espada
Hardcover: 96 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; (January 4, 20116)
Before I begin discussing the title poem of Martín Espada's new collection, "Vivas to Those Who Have Failed" (the title which comes from Walt Whitman), let me make a full disclosure. I am a shop steward in Local 5086 of the United Nurses and Associated Professionals, and one of the things I've learned in my brief seven years of union membership is the importance of institutional memory. "Vivas to Those Who Have Failed" is a poem about The Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 and to my mind also a poem which is meant to remind us that to succeed at anything (but especially at changing conditions in the work place), we must often pass through a series of failures which deserve to be recognized as very important steps toward success. The strike in this poem was one of the first demands for an eight hour workday, something many hourly wage earners take for granted today.
In section after section as this poem unfolds, we learn about the unsung heroes and participants of the strike: an unnamed silk dyer who made the red flag carried by the strikers, whose "name and face [was] rubbed off / by oblivion's thumb like a Roman coin / from the earth of his birthplace dug up / after a thousand years, as the strikers/ shouted the only praise he would ever hear;" a bystander, Modesto Valentino, shot and killed by Joseph Cutherton, a detective hired by the Weidmann Silk Dyeing Company; John Reed, the Harvard educated journalist who became radicalized covering the strike; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, dubbed Hannah Silverman, "the Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike;" and Arturo Mazziotti, one of the organizers of the strike and a member of The Sons of Italy, a fraternal organization which helped coordinate the strike, and many more.
It has been over a hundred years since that strike and by making this poem the title poem of this collection, Espada is underlining that the non-Anglo, people of this country, in many cases faceless workers, have as important and as long a pedigree as those who came over on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock. Indeed, some are also of part of History's elite. In a subsequent poem in the very next section of this book, he presents us with a pre-Plymouth Rock colonizer, Juan de Oñata y Salazar, a Spanish Conquistador whose 1599 injustice had been forgotten until a group of activist Native Americans sawed off the right foot of his bronze statue in Alcade, New Mexico, to remind the world that he had commanded the same to be done to all males over 25 in the Acoma Pueblo community which he enslaved.
Espada does not just give us in this collection the overlooked moments of history which are often as or more important than Anglo historians credit them to be. He gives us the personal as well. As I have learned from an earlier collection, The Trouble Ball, Espada's sense of social justice comes from his father, and he ends this book (dedicated to his father) with a section eulogizing this brave man. In one poem, "Haunt Me," he begins, "I am the archeologist. I sift the shards of you: cufflinks, passport photos / a button from the March on Washington with a black hand shaking / a white hand, letters in Spanish, your birth certificate from a town high / in the mountains. I cup your silence, and the silence melts like ice in a cup." It has been over a hundred years since the Paterson Silk Strike and only two years since the death of Espada's father, but the mute moments of history and personal loss, which Espada gives us, continue to haunt us after we close the cover. This book is a must read for how poetry, the forgotten stories of history and the personal can meld together.
Tim Mayo is a poetic, critic and MHW at the Brattleboro Retreat. He will be reading from his third collection of poems, "Thesaurus of Separation," at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, where Martín Espada will also be reading.