Analysis of “Imagine the Angels,” by Martin Espada

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Martin Espada is a Brooklyn-born professor at the University of Massachusetts who writes poetry in an attempt to humanize the abstract in life and “make the general specific and particular.”  He writes about things he has experienced in life, such as the suffering he pens in his poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread.”  Espada uses repetition via a contrast of realistic imagery and figurative language to pull the reader in and ensure empathy with his subject through his depictions of current and historical social injustices.


Beginning with a general description of an uprising of sorts, when those who have experienced injustice in the past will rise up against their adversaries, Espada uses juxtaposition of the senses to help the reader visualize a scene in which squatters in buildings evict their landlords as they watch in satisfaction, refugees previously hiding in the shadows deport their judges as the judges stare at their feet with no control over the files being stamped with their ultimate destinations, angry and violent cops are punished by their own revolvers and nightsticks turning against them, and the descendants of the lynched dark-skinned men sip their coffee as the offspring of the executioners apologize for their ancestors’ actions.  He repeats the phrase “this is the year”” to emphasize the idea that the rising is going to occur imminently, that these oppressed people have hope.

His parallelism continues through the poem with the imagery of victory for the immigrants who are swimming to sneak through the border, or hiding in trains to bypass security.  The reader can feel the triumph when these impoverished men and women “are greeted with trumpets and drums at the first railroad crossing on the other side.”  The conquest continues as the “hands canning tomatoes are named in the will,” thus stating that those who worked so hard to provide the food will finally receive their just compensation through ownership of the proceeds that came about due to their hard work.

Harsh visualization used by Espada helps the reader to understand the immense plight of the sufferers with honest, painful words such as “…this is the year that cockroaches become extinct, that no doctor finds a roach embedded in the ear of an infant…”  No one wants to believe that this could possibly have ever happened, yet Espada’s resonance makes it hard to shrug off as the fictional writings of an imaginative poet.  It’s not exaggeration, as much as the reader wants to believe it is.  He switches up realism with figurative language, leaving the reader deeply involved in the words on the paper, so that each new situation is a kick in the gut and a cut to the soul and a call to do something, anything.

The author’s figurative language appears in the use of similes and metaphors as he says that “food stamps of adolescent mothers are auctioned like gold doubloons, and no coin is given to buy machetes for the next bouquet of severed heads in coffee plantation country.”  This severe image gives hope that there is a change coming where food stamps will be a thing of the past and workers will be treated fairly, where young children aren’t producing young children themselves and equality is visible and the general philosophy of life.

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Espada closes by asserting that, although these images may seem idealistic and impossible, history has shown that even more difficult and intolerable things have been overcome.  The idea of one slave’s hands being free led to the abolition of slavery, the vision of a land without barbed wire led to the shut-down of all concentration camps, and the realization that an intimidating potential conqueror is just a person like anyone else led to the rebellions and freedom of many oppressed nations and peoples.  By applying these historical contexts to the current social injustices in need of attention, the author takes seemingly overwhelming situations and makes them seem possible.

Using the term “angels of bread” in his last stanza, as well as applying it significantly as the title, allows one to imagine a higher force living in the poor and downtrodden.  In the context of the spiritual force, the phrase gives those living in these situations something to look towards, the anticipation that there is better out there beyond this life.  There is also the connotation of there being a social angel somewhere in the world – the one who will stand up for these wrongs and attempt to right them, the one who will be vocal for those who have no voice.  He gives hope to those who previously had been hopeless, and evokes sympathy from those who have not been victims of oppression, giving them the urge to rise up and act against these immoral and unethical practices.

By using these contrasts between past and present and realism and figurative language, paired with the intense style of repetition and parallelism, Martin Espada is able to describe the reality of social injustices in a way that gives optimism and courage to the disheartened and dejected, and disgust and the need for action to the reader.  History is full of heartening stories that began in dismay and the worst of conditions and ended in victory over situations that seemed insurmountable.  With that in mind, Espada showcases that the events occurring today, when compared to the significant trials of the past, don’t seem quite so daunting and hopeless.

About: Martín Espada (born 1957) is a Latino poet, and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches poetry. Puerto Rico has frequently been featured as a theme in his poems. Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was introduced to political activism at an early age by his father, a leader in the Puerto Rican community and the civil rights movement.

Espada received a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a J.D. from Northeastern University (Boston, Massachusetts). For many years, he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program. In 1982, Espada published his first book of political poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, featuring photography by his father. This was followed by Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction (1987) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands. In 2001, he was named the first Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts.

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