Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Republic of Poetry by Martín Espada

What sort of place is "The Republic of Poetry"? As portrayed in the title poem of Martín Espada's dynamic eighth collection, it's a place where poets eat for free in restaurants, where "poets rent a helicopter/ to bombard the national palace/ with poems on bookmarks," and where the "the guard at the airport/ will not allow you to leave the country/ until you declaim a poem for her/ and she says Ah! Beautiful."
While such a land might sound like a fanciful literature-loving utopia, what's described here is the very real republic of Chile -- to which the poem is dedicated, and whose culture and recent history provide the lion's share of inspiration for the book. Yet Chile is not the only muse here: The book's three sections provide a triptych of metaphorical "republics" of poetry, including the poetry of elegy -- where both the past and the dead are visited -- and the poetry of protest. Throughout, poetry is shown to bear the power to dissolve, reshape and illuminate the borders of time and place.

Espada, a Brooklyn native whose parents hailed from Puerto Rico, has long been inspired by Latin American poetry (of which he is a widely published translator), and most especially by Chile's most esteemed and extraordinary poet, Pablo Neruda. Today Espada teaches courses on Neruda, along with creative writing classes, as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And in his own poetry (for which he has won the American Book Award), he often seems to work in the tradition of Neruda, displaying a vibrant, far-reaching and distinctively openhearted imagination on matters both political and personal.
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