I want my words to live in a redeeming, magnificent song
to worship the hole in freedom

was originally published on Meandering home


To be a bad poet

who is not invited to exotic
poetry festivals in cultural capitals, not
celebrated for his otherness, not
for the soothing justice
that emanates from his professionally
__translated words, not
for the clapping of the audience when he reads
and they see the scaffolding of a pristine soul

To be that poet who loves
the colors and the sounds and the smells
and the people,
and writes “beautiful” in a beautiful language

To be that poet who loves
the sanctity of simple words when they sail an honest breath

To be the one whose dearest words
are thin and tenuous like singing ice

To be a bad poet was originally published on Meandering home

The task of philosophy

The task of philosophy, often a difficult and painful one, is to extricate and bring to light the hidden categories and models in terms of which human beings think, to reveal what is obscure or contradictory in them, to discern the conflicts between them that prevent the construction of more adequate ways of organising and describing and explaining experience (for all description as well as explanation involves some model in terms of which the describing and explaining is done); and then, at a still ‘higher’ level, to examine the nature of this activity itself (epistemology, philosophical logic, linguistic analysis), and to bring to light the concealed models that operate in this second-order, philosophical, activity itself. – Isaiah Berlin

The task of philosophy was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Sign in My Father’s Hands by Martín Espada

Martín Espada (b. ) is an American poet, critic and attorney with Puerto Rican roots. His most important influence was his father, a community organizer and social justice activist. Poetry for him is giving a voice to the voiceless. I read a hommage to his father.

The Sign in My Father’s Hands

—for Frank Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.

The opening lines read like a newspaper article, until the cops start beating up Frank with their nightstickes ‘to protect the beer / and my father disappeared’. The subtle rhyme opens up the poetic dimension.

The boy mourned his father’s death, not knowing that he was still alive. It was 1964. The Jim Crow laws of racial segragation were abolished on 2 July 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When the father reappears ‘days later’ (three days would have been kitsch) the boy begins to learn. He loses his endearing naivity (a boycott as a boy’s haircut – I have believed similar things when I was young, but never saw my father disappear like that).

The cops have turned into drunken thugs, disappointed about the freedom of the activist. And Martín searches his father’s hands for the sign of the miracle. I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t think there is a Christian connotation. The hands are just an activist’s hands. Maybe the miracle is what we can accomplish if we join hands.

Reading: The Sign in My Father’s Hands by Martín Espada was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Shirt by Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky (b. 1940) is one of America’s greatest poetry critics. He was elected Poet Laurate of the US in 1997. Today I read a social poem about sweatshops, written long before the incident in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013.

The Shirt
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the patern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

The details about the shirt and the supply chain that made it possible is a tried and tested poetic technique to invoke in the reader a sentiment of injustice about the system of consumerism. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory incident of 1911 was the deadliest factory incident in the history of New York City. Sixty-two people indeed jumped and fell from windows.

In our time such an incident is only imaginable in underdeveloped countries that are a century behind the Western world when it comes to labor regulations or worker’s organization.

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a British metaphysical poet who served in the parliament under King James. Later he became a priest for a few years, before he died of consumption. The idea that Irma was his descendant is thus intriguing.

Reading: The Shirt by Robert Pinsky was originally published on Meandering home