Becoming the River: On Martín Espada’s “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed”

Daniel Evans Pritchard in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

VivastothosewhohavefailedThe eponymous opening sequence of Martín Espada’s most recent collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, is a paean to the countless brutalized bodies that overflow the white spaces of history. “Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike,” a teenage mill girl, stalks the picket lines and “[chases] a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word for shame.” An innocent bystander is shot by a careless police officer: “His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.” An Italian cloth dyer raises his red raw hand to mock “the red flag of anarchy” that yellow journalists swore would come — a premonition of frantic Fox News hosts who would rant and squeal about Obama’s socialism a century later.

The 1913 Paterson Silk Strike, which rallied 25,000 workers, would fail. But these workers’ sacrifices, along with the demands and efforts of others like them, would come to underwrite social structures like the minimum wage, safety regulations, child labor laws, and especially the eight-hour work day, which have allowed Americans to live meaningful, prosperous lives for nearly a century.

“Vivas to those who have failed,” Espada writes, borrowing from Whitman, “for they become the river.” It’s not a false note — but in the weeks and months after the 2016 presidential election, sentiments of hope feel unrealistic. While liberals, progressives, and radicals fractured and fought among themselves, other hidden streams gathered into a torrent. The forces of white nationalism have their own barricades, their own honored dead, their own violent history and moral arc. History offers little solace: dictators so often die in their beds of old age.

More here.