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poetry The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances

Martín Espada gives an eloquent elegy to Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, a Puerto Rican abolitionist and revolutionary who addressed issues of pandemic and racial oppression.

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The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances

                                                            Mayagüez, Puerto Rico 1856

By Martín Espada

I. The First Horse

Cholera swarmed unseen through the water, lurking in wells and fountains,

squirming in garbage and excrement, infinitesimal worms drilling the intestines,

till all the water and salt would pour from the body, till the body became a worm, shriveling and writhing, a slug in salt, till the skin burned blue as flame, the skin

of the peasant and the skin of the slave gone blue, the skin in the slave barracks blue,

the skin of ten thousand slaves blue. The Blue Death, face hidden in a bandanna,

dug graves with the gravediggers, who fell into holes they shoveled for the dead.

The doctors died too, seeing the signs in the mirror, the hand with the razor shaking.

II. The Second Horse

Doctor Betances stepped off the boat, back from Paris, the humidity of the plague

glistening in his beard. He saw the stepmother who fed him sink into a mound

of dirt, her body empty as the husk of a locust in drought.  He toweled off his hands.

In the quarantine tents there was laudanum by the bitter spoonful, the lemonade

and broth; in the dim of the kerosene lamps there was the compress cool against

the forehead, the elixir of the bark from the cinchona tree.  For peasants and slaves moaning to their gods, the doctor prescribed chilled champagne to soothe the belly.

For the commander of the Spanish garrison, there was silence bitter as the spoon.

III. The Third Horse

At every hacienda, at every plantation, as the bodies of slaves rolled one by one

into ditches all hipbones and ribs, drained of water and salt, stripped of names,

Doctor Betances commanded the torch for the barracks where the bodies would

tangle together, stacked up as if they never left the ship that sailed from Africa,

kept awake by the ravenous worms of the plague feasting upon them. Watching

the blue flames blacken the wood, the doctor and the slaves saw another plague burning away, the plague of manacles scraping the skin from hands that cut

the cane, the plague of the collar with four spikes for the runaways brought back.

IV. The Fourth Horse

The pestilence of the masters, stirred by spoons into the coffee of the world,

spread first at the marketplace, at auction, the coins passing from hand to hand.

So Doctor Betances began, at church, with twenty-five pesos in pieces of eight,

pirate coins dropped into the hands of slaves to drop into the hands of masters, buying their own infants at the baptismal font. The secret society of abolitionists

shoved rowboats full of runaways off the docks in the bluest hour of the blue night,

off to islands without masters. Even the doctor would strangle in the executioner’s

garrote, spittle in his beard, if the soldiers on watch woke up from the opiate of empire.


V. The Fifth Horse

The governor circled his name in the name of empire, so Doctor Betances

sailed away to exile, the island drowning in his sight, but a vision stung

his eyes like salt in the wind: in the world after the plague, no more

plague of manacles; after the pestilence, no more pestilence of masters;

after the cemeteries of cholera, no more collar of spikes or executioners.

In his eye burned the blue of the rebel flag and the rising of his island.

The legend calls him the doctor who exhausted five horses, sleepless

as he chased invisible armies into the night. Listen for the horses.

 Martín Espada’s many books of poems include Floaters (forthcoming 2021), Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A former tenant lawyer, he now is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.