Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Martin Espada's The Trouble Ball

The Trouble Ball
By Martin Espada
(W.W. Norton, 2011)
66 pages, cloth

Reviewed by Sunil Freeman

Recently a poet friend complained about the disconnect between what’s happening in the world today–-with housing foreclosures, unemployment, labor struggles, environmental disasters, and ongoing wars-–and the broad picture as depicted in most contemporary poetry journals. She pointed to a shelf and said the poems there, good as they often are, rarely reflect the state of contemporary society.

There are exceptions. We agreed that many fine poets write about people left out of the American Dream. Jim Daniels and David Salner write powerful poems that honor working class lives. Patricia Smith, Philip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and several others come to mind. And, of course, there is Martin Espada.

Espada’s eleventh collection of poetry, The Trouble Ball, continues his tradition of poetic witness in books such as The Republic of Poetry, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The opening title poem is a tour de force, revisiting a day in 1941 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, when Espada’s 11 year old father, hoping to see the legendary Satchel Paige pitch, learned that Blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball.

It was then that the only brown boy at Ebbets field felt himself
levitate above the grandstand and the diamond, another banner
at the ballgame. From up high he could see that everyone was white,
and their whiteness was impossible, like snow in Puerto Rico,

I resist the urge to quote the entire poem. Along the way, Espada shares a treasure trove of baseball lore, including the names of pitches associated with Paige:

. . . he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball/ The
Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz,/
The Thoughtful Stuff. . . .

Anger is tempered with a streak of defiant humor in “A Traveling Salesman in the Gardens of Paradise.”

I quit one day, when the cops spotted me reading maps
spread across the steering wheel, and held me for hours
in the parking lot, suspected for stealing my own car.
The little cop wore sunglasses in the rain, asking repeatedly,
If I was wanted by the police. I don’t know, I said. Do you want me?

Other poems shed light on the brutal U.S.-backed Chilean regime of Augusto Pinochet. “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi” depicts torturers teaching their children to swim near where political prisoners are held.

Here the guards and officers would gather families
For barbeques. The interrogator coached his son:
Kick your feet. Turn your head to breathe.
The torturer’s hands braced the belly of his daughter,
Learning to float, flailing at her lesson.

“Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez Have Been Deported, Leaving Six Children Behind with the Neighbors,” is based on an item in an email newsletter calling for donations of shoes for children aged 5 to 17.

Although Espada’s poems are clearly fueled by anger at widespread injustice, The Trouble Ball is also suffused with tenderness. “Isabel’s Corrido” recalls a “wedding” of convenience so an undocumented young woman “from a village where the elders/ spoke the language of the Aztecs” can live legally in the U.S. “People Like Us Are Dangerous” honors the boxer Carlos Ortiz even while showing him long after his glory days. Several poems celebrate the lives of people who have died, including Alexander “Sandy” Taylor, cofounder of Curbstone Press, and Howard Zinn.

Espada is an activist poet; I think it's in that spirit that he includes a generous section of notes that offer additional context to his poems and invite further study. A brief blog review can only give a snapshot view of the riches in this powerful collection. There will always be a place for well-written poems about starlit evenings, lost loves, and reveries of childhood, but poetry would have no meaning in society if it did not also include the work of poets like Martin Espada who look beyond the surface glitter of contemporary culture, who bear witness, and bring us the hard news from this all too real world we live in.

[Note: David Salner reads at The Writer's Center at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, July 24.]

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