And the Dead Still Have Names: A Review of Martín Espada’s “Floaters”

Here are excerpts from Dante Di Stefano’s review of Martín Espada’s Floaters. Read full article at the Southern Humanities Review (2 September 2021).

“Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.” This is not merely a line from the title poem of Martín Espada’s new poetry collection, Floaters. This is the imperative at the heart of Espada’s body of work: to say, and to sing from there—an artistry of dissent underwritten by an athleticism of outrage and empathy. “Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.” These are the names of a father and his twenty-three-month-old daughter, Salvadoran immigrants, who drowned in the Río Grande while trying to cross into Texas in 2019. The photograph of their corpses, floating face downward, went viral and then disappeared into the glutted newsfeeds of iPhones across the nation. It is the kind of photograph you might be tempted to say you cannot unsee, except that, as Espada’s poetry and prose has reminded readers for the past four decades, large swaths of everyday life in America depend on deliberate and willful acts of unseeing. “Heart of Hunger,” for example, a poem from Espada’s 1982 debut collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, describes:

the brown grain of faces dissolved in bus station dim,
immigrants: mexicano, dominicano,
guatemalteco, puertorriqueño, orphans and travelers,
refused permission to use gas station toilets,
beaten for a beer in unseen towns with white porches,
or evaporated without a tombstone in the peaceful grass.

“Heart of Hunger” ends with outstretched hands reaching “to pull a fierce grasping life / from the polluted current.” Espada’s hands are still outstretched. He swims against the polluted current of quotidian American apathy and inertia, as strongly in 2021 as he did in 1982. Floaters proves he is the greatest living American poet. His poems remind us to resist the urge to unsee.

Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.

Espada prefaces the title poem, “Floaters,” with an anonymous post from a border patrol Facebook group that was frequented by law enforcement officials. The post casts doubt on the authenticity of the picture of the drowned father and daughter, implying that the photograph is a hoax perpetrated by “dems and liberal parties,” and suggesting that Óscar and Valeria were crisis actors in a false flag operation. To this nativist cynicism, to this intentional unseeing, Espada’s poem provides the blazing rejoinder:

And the dead have names, a feast day parade of names, names that
dress all in red, names that twirl skirts, names that blow whistles,
names that shake rattles, names that sing in praise of the saints:
Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.
See how they rise off the tongue, the calling of bird to bird somewhere
in the trees above our heads, trilling in the dark heart of the leaves.

[. . .] Espada places the title poem, “Floaters,” in the first of the book’s four sections. This first section, titled “Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge,” begins with a poem inspired by the poet’s work in the 80s and 90s as “a supervisor for Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants” and ends in a poem about the execution of Sacco and Venzetti. The poems in this section are poems of the political imagination, poems of witness, pugilistic lyrics that hook the belly and jab the ribs. The second section, titled “Asking Questions of the Moon,” reframes the political within the context of Espada’s family and his childhood in Brooklyn. The poems in this section describe, with great pathos, the people and places that shaped Espada’s art and life. In “Why I Wait for the Soggy Tarantula of Spinach,” Espada vividly and humorously renders his parents’ first date, punctuated by a ball of spinach, perhaps thrown out a window, hitting his mother on the head and ruining her hairdo. Fittingly, the second section ends with a poem that begins with a dead tooth and a fistfight and ends as a love poem to Espada’s wife.

Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.

“All poems,” Stanley Kunitz said, “are love poems.” This is true for Espada’s poetry, but it is equally true that, in Espada’s case, all poems are political poems—not merely poems of witness, but poems of action and commitment. The third section of Floaters, titled “Love Song of the Kraken,” contains poems for Espada’s wife, to whom this entire collection is dedicated: the talented poet, Lauren Marie Espada. Espada charges these love poems with a fondness for the natural world and an eye to the oppressed, whom he continues to name, even in his ardor. The aubade here concusses as it dramatizes Lauren Marie Espada’s dedication as a public high school teacher. Espada’s sonnet “Love is a Luminous Insect at the Window” may be the only epithalamion ever written to quote the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán. These love songs are playful, strange, and funny in the way that romantic love sometimes is; Espada reminds his readers that a poem can be funny and full of love and politically engaged at the same time.

Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos. “Morir Soñando,” the fourth section, moves from the “Love Song of the Kraken” to the elegiac mode. In this section, Espada memorializes the lives fountaining through his own. Espada celebrates historical figures like early twentieth century poet and labor organizer, Arturo Giovannitti and nineteenth century Puerto Rican revolutionary, Ramón Emeterio Betances. Along with these historical figures, Espada elegizes the friends and mentors who have been towering presences in his life: poets Donald Hall and Jack Agüeros, and community organizer Luis Garden Acosta. “Be There When They Swarm Me,” the only poem written for a living person in this section, commemorates the friendship between Espada and Paul Mariani, the poet and biographer, who welcomed Espada to the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, “calling me brother as my own brother never would, / calling me poet as if that word had never drowned in the sea.” This section, and the collection, ends with the titanic poem “Letter to My Father,” an excoriation of the Trump presidency and all the historical arcs for which it is a metonym, a love note to Puerto Rico, and a soaring elegy for Frank Espada, whose work as a photographer and as an activist, continues to effloresce in his son’s poetry. [. . .]

[DANTE DI STEFANO is the author of two poetry collections: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016) and Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019).]

For full review, see

Martín Espada
W.W. Norton (2021)

2 thoughts on “And the Dead Still Have Names: A Review of Martín Espada’s “Floaters”

  1. Wonderful site , very informative. I wonder why the opposite experts of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I am sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

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