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On "Imagine the Angels of Bread"

Heather Zadra

Martin Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread" is a fascinating combination of the vengeful and the visionary, of anger and compassion, and of reality and dream. The speaker imagines a worldwide release from oppression, depicting an escape, among other injustices, from inhumane work conditions, tenant evictions, and politically motivated murders. The poem proceeds by way of a series of near-apocalyptic revolutionary reversals, by inverting long-standing injustices as Espada, on the one hand, imagines those in power themselves suffering for the first time--"squatters evict landlords"--or, conversely, dreams of liberating the poor and the victims of discrimination.

"Imagine the Angels of Bread" is divided roughly into three phases that transition with each stanza break, and that correspond to the speaker's internal motivations, culminating in the appearance of the Angels of Bread. The first expresses rage and some level of retribution; the second, a freeing of the oppressed and the existence of hope, and the third, a call to action in accomplishing the "imagined" of the poem's title. The final lines recognize the reality of the present time, even as they look toward a future in which change must define what "this year" will bring.

In an interview with Espada, Steven Ratiner points to the poet's ability to challenge "the official history" in his work, to define new heroes in that history and, in Espada's words, to let anger "be a recurrent feeling in the poems as long as you vary the tone." Certainly all of these components make up, to some degree, "Imagine the Angels of Bread." The first stanza is perhaps the most explicitly angry in its redistributed punishment of those who have long inflicted the same wounds on their victims:

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination[.]

The voice of the poem is assisted in its project even by the repressive objects it names: "police revolvers, / stove-hot, blister the fingers / of raging cops, and nightsticks splinter / in their palms." Explicit violence is contained in that the instruments typically used to cause death and wounding do not simply turn on their owners, but become impotent in their hands. Similarly, the last image of the stanza suggests not a retributive justice, but an anger put to positive means, rather than resorting to the same horror enacted on innocent bodies, as "darkskinned men / lynched a century ago / return to sip coffee quietly / with the apologizing descendents / of their executioners." Here, the very act of apology, while never sufficient to atone for the deaths of those wrongly accused, does provide for some link to a future that, while perhaps not yet achievable in the here and now (the significance of "this is the year," unbounded by a specific time, enables the future and allows for indulgences in the spiritually miraculous and fantastic throughout the poem), envisions unity and some peace.

The second stanza leaves behind direct oppressors, as anger becomes more concretely reshaped into hope. That the body (or many bodies) are fragmented in this stanza--into hands, eyes, an ear, heads--suggests their current status as mere instruments of work, dissociated from personhood or individuality. At the same time, these are vehicles for interpreting sensations, for comprehending and knowing the beauty of a released nature, "the earth that sprouts the vine," "the rooster-loud hillside," "the coffee plantation country" that, freed from death, might flourish unworked, unsoiled. Both the natural and the manmade are invested with the potential for redemption, even if, at this time, they can be "imagine"d only in negatives, in what actually happens in the here and now.

The third stanza, then, urges on the vision described in the poem thus far; the persistent "if"s stack upon one another, increasing the urgency and potency of language and, necessarily, of action. For the answer to each of these "if"s is, of course, "yes, yes, YES!", and one can almost imagine the speaker on a platform, reminding his listeners of past triumphs over horrific slaughter, abuse, and ownership, while ehorting them to realize the potential that THIS is the year, the time, when action will result in full success. The final lines of the poem encompass both the truths with which we are currently faced ("humiliated mouth[s], teeth like desecrated headstones"), and the redemption possible through a secular resurrection, a rising up not of Christ, but of the people. That the body remains fragmented, but that it is now a "mouth" that is imaged signifies the place where change begins (initiated by the mouth, the words of the speaker-poet, agent of change); these mouths will not fill with bread, but with "angels" themselves. Thus, somewhat as Tim Dean notes in his MAPS essay on Mark Doty's "Homo Will Not Inherit," the marginalized and their cause becomes santified, holy. "This is the year" that history will be written for the future, and death will be overcome by the transcendent.

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

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