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poetry How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way

Martin Espada, “The Pablo Neruda of North American poets," according to Sandra Cisneros, turns his critical eye to the persistence of racist murders in our times.

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way

By Martín Espada

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
      Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell

before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.

I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,

shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.

I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street

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in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong

door kicked in, the minister’s heart seizing up. I see the man hawking

a fistful of  cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing

lungs stop wheezing forever.  I am in the crowd, at the window,

kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,

hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking

blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy

said to stampede barehanded into the bullets  drilling his forehead.

I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing

into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking,

words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar.  I see

the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,

shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.

I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,

faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.

I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn

will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder

how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of  slaves

still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke

every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.

Called by Sandra Cisneros “the Pablo Neruda of North American poets, “ Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new collection of poems is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.