The Revolutionary Art of Failure

Against the Current, No. 184, September/October 2016

Benjamin Balthaser

Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
By Martín Espada
New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2016, 96 pages, $15.95 paperback.

IN THE UNITED STATES we are accustomed to the idea of mourning as a private matter, a purely psychological event in which the public gaze and even more the political sermon have no place. “Politicizing” a tragedy is considered bad form, and we reinforce this idea by shielding the bodies of dead U.S. soldiers from the gaze of the camera, as well as the dying moments of executed prisoners — even as war and state-sanctioned murder are, one could argue, the most visible forms of public power.

This is equally true on the left. Unlike other countries, such as the Turkish practice of naming their children after socialist martyrs, or the Yiddish revolutionary dirges, Americans do not do make much of the death of their martyrs.

Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a book that explores through verse the public and private life of revolutionary mourning. Opening with a cycle of sonnets that chronicle the Paterson Silk strike of 1913, the book closes on a series of elegies for Espada’s late father, Frank, who lived and died as an activist, artist, and photographer of New York City’s Puerto Rican community.

In some ways it would seem these events, the passing of a father and a crushed strike, would have little to do with each other — separated as they are by a century as well as by ethnicity, geography, and the division between public and private. But this is precisely the power and purpose of Espada’s collection: to pose the act of grief and mourning as a political question.

For all its tumultuous history, Espada picks up on the irony that perhaps the greatest central action of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) silk strike was a public funeral for a murdered bystander, an immigrant by the name of Valentino Modestino. The poem describing the murder and funeral encompass the logic of the collection:  “he was the other Valentino” Espada describes him, not the famous “romantic sheik/and bullfighter” of Hollywood, but just an ordinary person, “standing on his stoop to watch detectives/hired by the  company bully the strikers.”

Yet it is precisely Modestino’s anonymity that makes his death such a symbol. The procession “flooding/the avenue like the river that lit up the mills” becomes a nameless human tide, one for a moment equal to and perhaps greater than a force of nature, or more to the point: the mill that powers ton upon ton of dyed cloth.

Espada describes how the strikers “dropped red carnations and ribbons” that “evaporated” Modestino’s coffin “in a red sea.” In a single dialectal image, Modestino is both erased and yet elevated into a symbol of struggle — a death that begets new life.

The dialectic of failure and rebirth is borne out through the sonnet cycle. The opening poem, “The Red Flag,” describes how a worker responds to the accusation that he would raise “the red flag of anarchy” by going out on strike: he raises his hands stained red to the bone by years of corrosive red dye, “skin and fingernails boiled away for six dollars a week in the dye house.”

One might be tempted to think it is a poem of redemption. Buoyed by his comrades, “The strikers/shouted the only praise he would hear,” suggesting perhaps that while anonymous, the worker’s mangled body is recovered through an act of solidarity.

But the cycle raises the question of what redemption might look like. To be clear, the workers did not win — “strikers without shoes lose strikes.” And thus perhaps victory is not the point. “Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river,” a line that brings to mind Langston Hughes’ famous river that moves backwards and forwards through time, from building pyramids to living in huts to freedom that is not freedom — finding meaning in the ebb and flow, rather than the straight line of progress.

Becoming the River

The final cycle of poems is far more personal, meditating on the meaning of Espada’s father’s recent death.

The poet demands that his father “haunt me,” a strange ambiguity to say the least. A haunting is by its definition an incompletion, something that follows without resolution or end. Isn’t this the ontology of failure? The idea that there no teleological end-point of social movements, or even of life. To adopt mourning and failure as part of revolutionary practice is to acknowledge, even celebrate, that we are without the ideological and material power of narrative closure. To be working class, to be disenfranchised, to be racially subordinate, is to experience failure and incompletion. The American emphasis on “success” as a measure of one’s worth to history is, by definition, to take the world-view of the powerful.

Espada’s final metaphor is the moriviví — the Puerto Rican fern that appears to die with nightfall only unfurl again with daylight. “There was a moriviví sprouting from my father’s chest” Espada’s final poem insists, a death-life that emerged as Frank Espada was sent to jail, shot at by police, and dodged stones thrown at him at protests.

Frank Espada’s life is fused with the dying body of Malcolm X, “blood leaping from his chest as he fell.” Espada sees his father, and the metaphor of the moriviví as less a tale of Christian rebirth than of acknowledgment of failure and death as part of unseen fabric of a life embedded in social movements and radical activism. This is not to say that Frank Espada was assassinated, or that Malcolm X wanted to die — but rather that facing one’s possibility of failure and the ever-presence of mourning is the job of the revolutionary.

“Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?” Whitman asks in Leaves of Grass. “I also say it is good to fall,/battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”

It is the job of the poet to remind us of how every life committed to struggle must first confront the life of mourning. The poet may recover the voices of those who have failed, not insist on their celebration — to rather insist that we too may become anonymous like them, to “become the river.”

September-October 2016, ATC 184