07 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/36

Green and Red, Verde y Rojo

for Jacobo Mena

At night, when Beacon Hill
is a private army
of antique gas lamps
glowing in single file,
Jacobo vacuum-cleans
the law office of Adams and Blinn,
established 1856, with the founder's
wire-rimmed Protestant face
still supervising the labor,
a restored photograph in the window.

Jacobo's face
is indio-guatemalteco,
bored as the work,
round as worry,
heavy as waiting.
Guatemala is green and red,
green volcanoes, red birds,
green like rivers in rain,
red like coffee beans at harvest,
the river-green and quetzal bird-red
of his paintings,
perfiles del silencio.

Testimony of death-squad threats
by telephone, shrilled in the dark,
the flash of fear's adrenaline,
and family stolen with the military's greed
for bodies, all recorded by stenographers,
then dismissed:
Guatemala leaves no proof,
and immigration judges are suspicious
only of the witnesses, who stagger and crawl
through America. Asylum denied,
appeal pending.

As he waits, Jacobo paints
in green and red, verde y rojo,
and at night he cleans the office
of Adams and Blinn,
where Guatemala cannot be felt
by the arrogant handshake of lawyers,
where there is no green or red,
only his shadow blending
with the other shadows in the room,
and all the hours of the night
to picture the executioners.

Martín Espada

This poem opens in a Boston law office. The office will be a constant background presence, but the focus is really on one of the workers there: not one of the lawyers, just the man who comes in after hours to clean up this office on Beacon Hill. If you've been to Beacon Hill (I used to live there, on the "wrong" side, next to a burnt-out building), you may remember it as actually a pretty colorful place, filled with the deep blunt red of brick buildings, accented with brass fixtures and black shutters (and the occasional purple window pane) and, depending on the season, full leafy green trees, but here it is stripped of color and seems drab and forbidding. This is not the Beacon Hill that has a "wrong" side; it's an old-time nexus of political and social power. It's night, so the "antique gas lamps" are predominant; the description of them as "a private army" might at first make them seem almost quaint, almost like toy soldiers, but the poem is told from the point of view of a man without political and social power, and we come to realize he has reason to fear anything that reminds him of soldiers, even if a tourist might see, in the same thing, a quaint reminder of bygone days. For Jacobo, a night-time worker in an empty office, Beacon Hill does not look colorful – certainly not in comparison with the vivid colors of his native land, as he dreams them to life in the second stanza.

There is history in this office: in Beacon Hill itself, of course, the site of the Massachusetts State House, but also in the name of the founder: Adams is a name to conjure with in American history. We can assume that the law firm's founder is linked to the prestigious Massachusetts family of presidents and diplomats and distinguished writers. This long-dead founder (his firm now has its own lengthy history and its own Adams as a Founding Father, making it a bit of a microcosm of the United States) is still photographically hovering above the workers: history weighs on the present. He has a wire-rimmed "Protestant" face – another indication that we're seeing things from Jacobo's point of view; his own face is a mixture of Spanish and Indian features, and he is most likely Catholic; of course to him this eminent lawyer would signify mostly as an undifferentiated Protestant, that is, Anglo, establishment, authoritative, other. There is powerful history there, but it is only indirectly the history in which Jacobo finds himself trapped.

Jacobo performs his mundane job. He's bored, like most workers. But there's also a sense of unease: he is worried. He is waiting. There is a weight and heaviness to these feelings; they have not yet been attached to anything specific. While he works, he conjures up mental images of his native land: so lush, so alive, so appealing to the senses. We find out that this semi-anonymous office janitor is also a painter – like many who have had to flee to a foreign land, a land with a different language, he has to take menial, low-status work to survive economically. (This was as true of the Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848, and of each successive wave of refugees or immigrants, as it is today.)

At the end of the second stanza, right after we find out that Jacobo is an artist, right there in the middle of the poem, the language switches to Spanish: perfiles del silencio. You'll note that this poem does not follow the convention of setting foreign words in italic: which words here are "foreign"? Jacobo is suspended between his two languages. The title has suggested the equivalence of the two languages: Green and Red is immediately balanced by Verde y Rojo. This suggestion that the immigrant's language is equal to his employer's is subtly subversive: the poem makes us interested not in the high-powered lawyers of the prestigious firm, these worldly and assured dwellers in the historic halls of conventional success, but in an isolated, semi-anonymous man, someone they would most likely notice only if he failed to perform his maintenance work correctly.

Perfiles del silencio means profiles of silence. My Spanish is unfortunately pretty basic, but if I'm understanding correctly the definitions I looked up, perfiles is a very evocative word, implying a line marking the boundary of a thing seen from a certain point, and the general outline of something, and the set of qualities and traits that make up a person or thing, and the particular aspect with which something occurs. Some of these meanings are also possible in the English profiles; others hover just beyond our usual sense of the word. Perfiles del silencio may seem to refer to his paintings, which are of course "silent," and which are full of shapes and boundaries and an implied particular point of view – but the term also suggests the boundaries around the artist himself, and it suggests the distance between him and the alien world in which he's trying to survive, the usually overlooked point of view of this menial employee and his secret (to his employers) life as an artist. Right in the middle, in the heart of the poem, is a phrase in the janitor's native language (a "foreign" language), suggesting the silent boundaries (or the boundaries of silence) around him and in him.

The ambiguous, suggestive Spanish phrase is the hinge of the work. In the second half, the colorful (and perhaps, intentionally, just a touch overly picturesque, and distorted by love and nostalgia) Guatemela of bright birds and flowing rivers and volcanoes is balanced with a harsher view of the country, and we find out why Jacobo is burdened with fear and worries: his home is also a land of death-squads, the disappeared, the shrill shriek of a phone or a knock on the door that could mean danger and death to himself and his family. Legal bureaucracy and procedures appear in the second half of this stanza – the stenographers taking down evidence that disappears from sight (like the actual bodies of the victims), the mentions of proof and pending appeals and suspicious judges – and somehow in there we slip seamlessly from the death-squads of Guatemela to hostile American judges; just as the two languages are made equivalent, so the boundaries/perfiles are blurred between the Guatemalan and American mechanisms of order, suggesting a continuum between the death-squads and the legal system that sends a refugee back to face them. (You might be reminded of the charming street lamps, lined up like soldiers, piercing the night darkness like someone's private army.)

This is a night-time world: threats are made at night, and it's at night, when he won't be in the way of the more valued employees, that Jacobo works to support himself. He is a legal non-person (a refugee, his asylum denied, his appeal pending), working to clean up the empty offices of an old-line Boston firm. The lawyers who work there are confident – actually, arrogant – and connected, they get things done, their handshakes mean something. They see a janitor they hired, not the artist caught up in the crushing waves of history. He is dependent on the legal system not only for his marginal livelihood but for his very safety: his family is threatened; his existence precarious, subject to the arbitrary suspicions of an American judge who assumes the worst – not about history, or about life, but about the silent man in front of him. Who is a shadow among the shadows. Who waits, and who paints while he waits.

This is a poem for Labor Day, at a time and place when many seek to demonize low-level workers, and refugees, and immigrant workers (particularly if they are dark-skinned and speak Spanish). It's from For a Living: The Poetry of Work, edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick. You can check out Martín Espada's website here, and find a list of his books (with links for ordering them) here.


Shushu said...

I asked a friend of mine from Spain about the definition of "perfiles del silencio," thinking there might be an interesting idiomatic meaning, and he wrote back quoting your blog here as the definition!

Shushu said...

He asked me to tell you:

Well, I think it is a pretty darn good interpretation of “perfiles” in the context of that poem. Send him my sincere congratulation indeed!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Wow, thanks -- that is very reassuring!