Thursday, May 19, 2022

Red Letter Poem #111 Martín Espada

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner



Red Letter Poem #111




It’s as American as apple pie, as baseball, as Fourth of July: racism.  Isn’t it mind-boggling that a nation conceived by beleaguered people seeking a better world – whose founding document states unequivocally that all men are created equal – can have braided within its history some of the most glorious and egregious moments imaginable?  Perhaps it’s the very contradiction of the human soul – that we contain the voices of those ‘better angels’ and well as the snarl of bitterness that sometimes erupts when confronting the other (when constructing the idea that the other actually exists, and needs to be feared, attacked.)  That some people would like to forbid us from even examining and learning from our past – are, in fact, too consumed by fear to allow their children to risk being exposed to the truth – as I said, the mind reels.  But does not retreat.  Perhaps that’s what poets are for.


Case in point: Martín Espada who, over the course of four decades, has become an indispensable American voice bringing us – in fifteen collections of poetry, not to mention translations, essays and anthologies – the hard truths, the hard-fought struggles, and the enduring beauty of our national experience.  The list of Martín’s honors unscrolls like a cash register slip from CVS: the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the American Book Award, the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for a lifetimes achievement.  So we should not be surprised that his most recent collection, Floaters (from W. W. Norton & Co. and which, I’m happy to report, was just released in paperback this week), was the winner of the 2021 National Book Award.  I interviewed Martín many decades ago when he was just starting out and, ever since, his poetry readings are among the ones I seek out repeatedly for the chance to be challenged and revitalized by his Whitmanesque imagination.  This is what signifies to me the career of a great poet: how often he or she forces you to reevaluate your favorite book choice among their oeuvre.  Floaters – with its harrowing poems about immigration and class struggle, its devastating lyrics about love, friendship, and the way fathers carve out a mountain-sized place in our consciousness – has just claimed that top spot.  And so I’m pleased the poet has allowed me to share another from that collection with our Red Letter readers.  This selection seems at first not to be one of his grand societal broadsides; instead, it has the quiet voice, the vulnerable heart of, well, a child.  But thinking back to my own boyhood, what is, in fact, more monumental than discovering the delight of the body via sport; than first falling in love; than discovering the world may not be as you thought (imagined? desired?) it would be?  And yet there is something honest and vital within such heartache; something valuable in posing unanswerable questions; and certainly something worth savoring when we speak out (as poets do) and affirm that we are not alone in all this.  “Asking Questions of the Moon” contains both a sucker punch and a caress.  Reading it, you may feel yourself alone in the vast field watching the baseball (or the spring moon, or the heart of a poet) plummeting toward your upraised glove.  Trying to catch what the world offers us – the best and, yes, the worst; being willing to face the hard facts of existence, and survive with our hearts intact.  What’s more American than that?




Asking Questions of the Moon

Some blind girls

ask questions of the moon

and spirals of weeping

rise through the air.

­––Federico García Lorca

As a boy, I stood guard in right field, lazily punching my glove,

keeping watch over the ballgame and the moon as it rose

from the infield, asking questions of the moon about the girl

with long blonde hair in the back of my classroom, who sat with me

when no one else would, who talked to me when no one else would,

who laughed at my jokes when no one else would, until the day

her friend sat beside us and whispered to her behind that long hair,

and 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, and as I thought of her

in the outfield the moon fell from the sky, tore through the webbing

of my glove, and smacked me in the eye. Blinded, I wept, kicked

the moon at my feet, and loudly blamed the webbing of my glove.

– Martín Espada




The Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter