Thursday, February 23, 2012
Martin Espada's Allegory of the Oppressed
In finding ways to write about immigration and immigrant communities of Los Angeles, I decided to study Martin Espada's collection, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. In my study of his poems, focused on urban centers and working class and immigrant communities of the east coast, I discovered that many of his poems were allegorical. Characters like The Toolmaker became symbols for the working class and characters like The Lawyer and The Landlord became symbols for the ruling class, which is why I like to call is Allegory of the Oppressed.
Besides the characters, he also uses paradox and symbols, both common in allegory, but more specifically, he uses Catholic symbols. For example, in “Who Burns of the Perfection of Paper,” Espada writes, “Ten years later, in law school, / I knew that every legal pad / was glued with the sting of hidden cuts, / that every open law book / was a pair of hands / upturned and burning” (49). The image of the wounded palms alludes to Jesus on the cross and is symbolic of sacrifice.
I grew up Catholic, and made 4 of the 7 sacraments by the age of 15, but now at 31, I do not subscribe to the beliefs or practices of the Catholic Church. But that doesn't stop me from being drawn to Catholic symbols in my work, and by being comforted by images of the Virgin Mary or by the language and ritual of Sunday Mass when I find myself in the midst of them. I have great respect for the symbolic language my Catholic upbringing afforded me. And it can only enrich my work as I try to write to and for my community because Catholicism is our shared language.
Dana Gioia, perhaps best known for his essay, "Does Poetry Matter?" is a practicing Catholic, and he said, “the Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.”
The Parables of the Bible were some my earliest introductions to storytelling, and I appreciate that Espada has found a way to integrate aspects of this type of story into his poetry, especially when writing about Latino-American communities and culture. It is our shared language, and to someone like myself, it only feels natural.
For a full analysis of Espada's City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, you can check out my annotation at Annotation Nation.
Here is a clip of Espada reading Who Burns of the Perfection of Paper.