“Pity the Poor Immigrant”
Review of: Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction by Martin Espada, Bilingual Press, Arizona State U., Tempe AZ 85287, $7.00. ISBN: 0-916950-72-7; and Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions, 92 Park Ave., Brockport, NY, 14420, $6.95. ISBN: 0-918526-53-1.1994.
I received both of these books in the mail together, and it is not only that I am too busy to write separate reviews but decided to review them together because their many similarities isolate their essential difference, and such difference is crucial to our poetry.
Both poets are young, born in 1957, and speak from their experience as outsiders: Lee born in Jakarta of Chinese parents, and Espada in the barrio of los puertorriquenos in Brooklyn. Both are in some degree “workshop” poets who write competent, crafted verse. Thematically the figure of the father keys each poet into the language of intense longing, long for meaning. Structurally the books mirror each other, that they also mimic countless others is not entirely irrelevant. The poems are loosely connected collections of short poems —but for one exception—and held together equally as loosely with forwards by established poets, call them fathers: Robert Creeley for Espada and Gerald Stern for Lee. And these two established poets, speaking for their respective man-child, do also speak for two (among several) dominant branchings grafted onto the WCW tree of American poetics. The good doctor is evoked with enthusiasm by Creeley and apologetically by Stern.
Creeley quite accurately, as we should expect of him, speaks of how our poetry has been colonized by the teaching of poetry by its “patronizing” and “exploiting the common ground of human feeling for isolating details of style or taste.” Creeley recognizes that our poetry is being taught out of us as it is taught to us: “poetry became a markedly foreign world, both alien and alienating, and we were rarely if ever its people.” Father Creeley with characteristic generosity pushes his immigrant son Martin Espada to the front of the classroom hoping for a new pedagogy (echoes of Paulo Freire). Creeley: “Martin Espada is a poet of great communal power and he is also, with equal resource, the voice of intensive isolation.” Creeley calls for a plurality of voices to break the domination of the academic drone.
I wonder if Creeley and Stern are friends, or friendly. I suppose academic politics require cordiality at least. After all, these two books do not represent two diametrically opposing voices; Creeley is firmly entrenched within the academic mainstream —or perhaps a strong rivulet streaming down from the Black Mountain? Anyhow, I wonder what the two of them would say to each other. Creeley writes exactly; Stern writes obfuscating drivel exemplifying just the patronizing hegemony Creeley opposes with his call for plurality. Stern lectures us, ah, and quite sternly, about the importance of Lee’s father in making the poems interesting to us. Stern seems to have cut his teeth on mystifying 20 year-olds with vague references to equally vague debts to the undergraduate poetry curriculum: Whitman, Roethke, Herbert, Traherne, James Wright, Kinnell, and Philip Levine. Fortunately Lee is a better poet than Stern is a critic, but there is little evidence of the struggle to free himself from his literary father’s limitations.
I admit my prejudices surface when I see acknowledgements that mention the poems being published in reviews, only reviews. There is the American Poetry Review, The Brockport and the Iowa Reviews, the Madison and the Missouri State Reviews, and then the added hype that the poems were in the Pushcart Prize collections. Admittedly not everyone is as turned off as I am by this push by the poetry mafia to pump one of their own, but it is obvious that Lee hardly exemplifies the move toward plurality!
What about the poems? They are competent, but so what? There are hundreds of books of competent poems around these days. Lee writes well, Espada has soul. And that is rare. Espada also has language, language that fights back, and fights for, language aware of its limits and its strengths. Espada knows what it means, in the language of his poems, and hence meaning is his driving necessity, what it means to be outside of language. His poems are about, from, and for the evicted ones, “like Daniel, the boy stockaded/ in the back of retarded classrooms/ for having no English/ to comfort third-grade
teachers.” Espada can say accurately, truthfully that “We are the ones identified by case number, / summons in the wrong language.” Espada speaks as one who knows, and he speaks of what he knows has been destroyed, and from the pain of the absence of community, from its destruction, its purposeful destruction: “The labors of cement in Ponce/ paid for a banker’s art museum/ and centuries of European painting.”
Lee writes about his father. Almost every poem in the book concerns his father. After a while, unless you are Gerald Stern who wants to turn this obsession into a myth, you want to just scream at Lee, “Knock it off man. So your father dominated your life, still does. Deal with it, get on with your life, but poetry isn’t therapy.” Lee knows things also. He knows fruits and flowers. And that ain’t bad. But he can’t seem to leave them alone, and here it seems is the influence of the poetry workshops, and Stern makes much of the fact that Lee was an undergraduate in his graduate writing class [wow]. The poetry workshops and their (dis)ability, to colonize us by teaching us to not simply stay with our perceptions but to turn them into something else, the else that pretends to be something more profound than simply accurately perceiving. Here is Lee wanting, almost desperately wanting, to see a flower that is more than a flower: “It’s late. I've come/ to find the flower which blossoms/ like a saint dying upside down.” I don’t know. But “like a saint”? That is not so bad, just too much like too much, the kind of line I guess that an undergraduate would write for a graduate writing class. Lee does extend his reach in the one long poem in his collection, but it too seems more like an obligatory heroic gesture than language driven by the necessity to grow beyond the confines of the short lyric. Anyhow, Lee shows enough accurate writing, enough so that it would be refreshing if in the next collection he puts together he would just cut loose, cut loose his language from the confines of the “reviews” and cut loose his preoccupation with his father and risk writing badly, as badly as Espada can sometimes write just because Espada does write from that willingness to risk failure and so ends up writing so well.