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poetry Morir Soñando

“This poem is an elegy for a dear friend and mentor, Luis Garden Acosta,” writes Martin Espada, whose “activism…changed his community in Brooklyn [and] the lives of untold thousands like me.”

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Morir Soñando

By Martín Espada

               For Luis Garden Acosta (1945-2019)

               Brooklyn, New York

I saw the empty cross atop the empty church on South 4th Street, as if Jesus

flapped his arms and flew away, spooked by one ambulance siren too many.

I saw the stained glass windows I wanted to break with a brick, the mural

of Saint Mary and the Angels hovering innocent as spies over the congregation,

and wanted to know why you brought me here, the son of a man punched

in the face by a priest for questioning the Trinity, who punched him back.

This is El Puente, you said. The Bridge. I knew about the Williamsburg Bridge,

eight lanes of traffic and the subway stampeding in the open windows of the barrio

all summer. You spread your arms in that abandoned church and saw the spinning

of a carousel better than any wooden horses pumping up and down at Coney Island:

here the ESL classes for the neighbors cursed with swollen tongues in English;

there the clinics on contraception, the pestilence in the veins of the unsuspecting;

here the karate lessons, feet spearing the air to keep schoolyard demons away;

there the dancers in white, swirling their skirts to the drumming of bomba;

here the workshops on Puerto Rican history, La Masacre de Ponce where your

mother’s beloved painted his last words on the street with a fingertip of blood.

I was a law student, first year, memorizing law school Latin, listening to classical

guitar on my boom box as I studied the rules of property: It’s mine. It’s not yours.

I saw only what could be proven by a preponderance of the evidence: the church

abandoned by the church, the cross atop the church abandoned by the Son of God.

My belly empty as Saint Mary of the Angels, I told you I was hungry, and we left.

I wanted Chinese food, but you told me about the Chinese take-out down the block

where you stood behind a man who shrieked about the price of wonton soup,

left and returned with a can of gasoline, splashed it on the floor and pulled a box

of kitchen matches from his pocket. Will you wait till I pick up my egg roll and pork

fried rice? you said, with a high school teacher’s exasperated authority, so he did.

You could talk an arsonist into postponing his inferno till you left with lunch,

but you couldn’t raise the dead in the ER at Greenpoint Hospital, even in your suit

and tie. You couldn’t convince the girl called Sugar to rise from the gurney after

the gunshot drained the blood from her body. You couldn’t persuade the doctor who peeled his gloves and shook his head to bring her back to life, telling him do it again,

an arsonist in medical scrubs trying to strike a wet match. You couldn’t jumpstart

the calliope in her heart so the carousel of horses would rise and fall and rise again.

Whenever you saw the gutted church, you would see the sheets of the gurney

dipped in red, all the gurneys rolling into the ER with a sacrifice of adolescents.

We walked to the luncheonette on Havemeyer Street. A red awning announced

Morir Soñando. To Die Dreaming, you said, from the DR, my father’s island.

The boy at the counter who spoke no English, brown as my father, called Martín

like me, grinned the way you grinned at El Puente, once Saint Mary of the Angels.

He squeezed the oranges into a drizzle of juice with evaporated milk, cane sugar

and ice, shook the elixir and poured it till the froth spilled over the lip of the glass.

Foam freckled my snout as I raised my hand for another. Intoxicated by morir

soñando number three and the prophet gently rocking at my table, I had a vision:

ESL classes healing the jaws wired shut by English, clinics full of adolescents

studying the secrets of the body unspeakable in the kitchen or the confessional,

karate students landing bare feet on the mat with a thump and grunt in unison,

bomba dancers twirling to a song in praise of Yoruba gods abolished by the priests,

the words of Puerto Rican rebels painted on the walls by brushes dipped in every

color, pressed in the pages of notebooks by a generation condemned to amnesia.


Morir soñando: Luis, I know you died dreaming of South 4th Street, the banners

that said no to the toxic waste plant down the block or the Navy bombarding

an island of fishermen for target practice thousands of miles away. Morir soñando:

I know you died dreaming of vejigantes, carnival máscaras bristling with horns

that dangled with the angels at El Puente. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming

of the next El Puente. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming of the hammer’s claw,

the drill whining to the screw, the dust like snow in a globe, then the shy genius

raising her hand in the back of the room. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming

of the poets who stank of weed in the parking lot, then stood before the mike

you electrified for them and rubbed their eyes when the faces in their poems

gathered there, waiting for the first word, so we could all die dreaming, morir

soñando, intoxicated by the elixir of the tongue, oh rocking prophet at my table.

Martín Espada has published more than 20 books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His forthcoming book of poems is called Floaters. Other collections of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). His honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.