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  • The Poetics of Advocacy: Three Poems
  • Martín Espada (bio)

I am a lawyer. I have not practiced for eight years, since I left the law to teach poetry. Once I was the supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income Spanish-speaking tenants in greater Boston; now I am a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Yet I have kept my license to practice law, because a lawyer never really stops being a lawyer. Someone always needs advice about the quotidian disasters lawyers know so well: jail, eviction, divorce. But the lawyer is in the poems, too. Both as a lawyer and as a poet, I have performed the role of advocate. This is a natural act for me. Others may see such an act as presumptuous, but consider the alternative: silence. There is a poetic as well as a legal tradition of advocacy, established on the granite foundations of Whitman and Neruda. The common impulse behind the three poems presented here is advocacy. All three are fact-based; all three involve the oxymoronic “criminal justice” system; all three challenge silence, imposed in these poems by death, imprisonment, and the threat of death or imprisonment, respectively. In each poem there is testimony, evidence, and argument. Let the reader be the judge.

“Ezequiel” concerns the story of Ezequiel Hernández, a young Chicano from Redford, Texas, who was shot and killed as he herded his goats by U.S. Marines patrolling the border in search of drug smugglers. The poem is not simply an attempt to indict and convict the Marines, nor is it only a protest against the militarization of the border. My research for the poem went beyond reading numerous accounts of the incident, to an exploration of the Bible. The poem—being a poem and not a legal brief—is characterized by the surrealistic imagery and apocalyptic vision of the prophet. What if the Marines had actually killed the prophet Ezekiel? What if his killing had prevented him from warning us of impending cataclysm? Not only does this approach magnify the enormous waste of such a death; the poem argues, in effect, that the killing of Ezequiel Hernández is itself a warning, an omen that this violently policed and racially paranoid society ignores at its own peril. Empires collapse.

“The Poet in the Box” is based on an encounter with a young African American man, known to me only as Brandon, who was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center outside Boston. He shared his poems with me after a reading I gave there. I discovered later that he [End Page 128] habitually provoked fights with other inmates to get himself thrown into solitary confinement, where he could write in peace. Never have I met a poet more dedicated to his craft. He was willing to sacrifice the freedom of his body for the freedom of his spirit, serving a longer sentence—as his repeated infractions would mandate—for the sake of his poetry. Yet he is a poet the world will probably never read, one of many, no doubt, silenced by the epidemic of incarceration in the United States. “The Poet in the Box” expresses the realization that at times one poet has the responsibility to speak for another poet and, in so doing, speaks on behalf of poetry.

Sometimes an advocate needs an advocate. “Circle Your Name” is a poem about a close friend, Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, a lawyer, professor, translator, and human rights activist. Born in New York and now living in Mexico City, Camilo has involved himself with various battles in his adopted country, from a strike of bus drivers (and the imprisonment of their union leadership) to the insurgency of the Zapatistas. His name appeared on a government-enemies list published in a major newspaper several years ago. As I fired off letters to Amnesty International, the Mexican consulate, the media, and friends, I was struck by my sense of powerlessness and by the fragility of Camilo’s life. Not only was my advocacy for Camilo inadequate; I wanted him to cease his advocacy for others. That is the...