“My reward for this life will be a thousand pounds of dirt shoveled in my face.”

Letter to My Father BY MARTÍN ESPADA October 2017

You once said: My reward for this life will be a thousand pounds of dirt
shoveled in my face. You were wrong. You are seven pounds of ashes
in a box, a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around you, next to a red brick
from the house in Utuado where you were born, all crammed together
on my bookshelf. You taught me there is no God, no life after this life,
so I know you are not watching me type this letter over my shoulder.

When I was a boy, you were God. I watched from the seventh floor
of the projects as you walked down into the street to stop a public
execution. A big man caught a small man stealing his car, and everyone
in Brooklyn heard the car alarm wail of the condemned: He’s killing me.
At a word from you, the executioner’s hand slipped from the hair
of the thief. The kid was high, was all you said when you came back to us.

When I was a boy, and you were God, we flew to Puerto Rico. You said:
My grandfather was the mayor of Utuado. His name was Buenaventura.
That means good fortune. I believed in your grandfather’s name.
I heard the tree frogs chanting to each other all night. I saw banana
leaf and elephant palm sprouting from the mountain’s belly. I gnawed
the mango’s pit, and the sweet yellow hair stuck between my teeth.
I said to you: You came from another planet. How did you do it?
You said: Every morning, just before I woke up, I saw the mountains.

Every morning, I see the mountains. In Utuado, three sisters,
all in their seventies, all bedridden, all Pentecostales who only left
the house for church, lay sleeping on mattresses spread across the floor
when the hurricane gutted the mountain the way a butcher slices open
a dangled pig, and a rolling wall of mud buried them, leaving the fourth
sister to stagger into the street, screaming like an unheeded prophet
about the end of the world. In Utuado, a man who cultivated a garden
of aguacate and carambola, feeding the avocado and star fruit to his
nieces from New York, saw the trees in his garden beheaded all at once
like the soldiers of a beaten army, and so hanged himself. In Utuado,
a welder and a handyman rigged a pulley with a shopping cart to ferry
rice and beans across the river where the bridge collapsed, witnessed
the cart swaying above so many hands, then raised a sign that told
the helicopters: Campamento los Olvidados: Camp of the Forgotten.

Los olvidados wait seven hours in line for a government meal of Skittles
and Vienna sausage, or a tarp to cover the bones of a house with no roof,
as the fungus grows on their skin from sleeping on mattresses drenched
with the spit of the hurricane. They drink the brown water, waiting
for microscopic monsters in their bellies to visit plagues upon them.
A nurse says: These people are going to have an epidemic. These people
are going to die. The president flips rolls of paper towels to a crowd
at a church in Guaynabo, Zeus lobbing thunderbolts on the locked ward
of his delusions. Down the block, cousin Ricardo, Bernice’s boy, says
that somebody stole his can of diesel. I heard somebody ask you once
what Puerto Rico needed to be free. And you said: Tres pulgadas
de sangre en la calle: Three inches of blood in the street. Now, three
inches of mud flow through the streets of Utuado, and troops patrol
the town, as if guarding the vein of copper in the ground, as if a shovel
digging graves in the backyard might strike the ore below, as if la brigada
swinging machetes to clear the road might remember the last uprising.

I know you are not God. I have the proof: seven pounds of ashes in a box
on my bookshelf. Gods do not die, and yet I want you to be God again.
Stride from the crowd to seize the president’s arm before another roll
of paper towels sails away. Thunder Spanish obscenities in his face.
Banish him to a roofless rainstorm in Utuado, so he unravels, one soaked
sheet after another, till there is nothing left but his cardboard heart.

I promised myself I would stop talking to you, white box of gray grit.
You were deaf even before you died. Hear my promise now: I will take you
to the mountains, where houses lost like ships at sea rise blue and yellow
from the mud. I will open my hands. I will scatter your ashes in Utuado.

Source: Poetry (March 2018)