Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
In “Something Escapes the Bonfire,” a poem from his collection, The Republic of Poetry, Martín Espada recounts the story of Victor Jara, the Chilean songwriter and poet murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. Fellow prisoners have testified that after the guards had beaten Jara and broken his hands, they taunted him to sing and play guitar. Jara responded by singing a forbidden political anthem. This act of defiance gave heart and courage to the thousands then imprisoned in the Estadio Chilé.
Knowing of his empathy for Jara might offer some insight while listening to Espada read one of his earlier poems, “Imagine the Angels of Bread.”
Like Jara’s song, Espada’s “Imagine the Angels of Bread” seems written, at least in part, to give encouragement to those who have suffered or are suffering from oppression. Remembering that the root meaning of the word encourage is to give courage, or to give heart, perhaps suggests one aspect of Espada’s sense of the poet’s task.
The poem also seems an act of defiance against the euphemisms so often used in political discourse. Espada counteracts the numbing effects of such vague language. In “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” vivid images give a physical and emotional immediacy to what might otherwise remain abstractions. Espada does not allow the listener or reader to plead ignorance. Perhaps he also believes poetry can put a human face on political issues.
But the title of the poem could be read as a declarative: Imagine what is possible now to bring about change in the future. The poem catalogs several acts of the imagination that brought about change in the past, and this suggests that Espada believes strongly that any political act must begin as an act of the imagination. From this perspective, an act of the imagination is a political act. Listening to the poem again, would you agree?
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye and others.