In 2011, Martin Espada came to Howard Community College to read at the Blackbird Poetry Festival, co-sponsored by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. I had the honor of picking up the poet from the hotel and driving him to campus for the reading. Boy, was I star-struck dumb. Of all things, I talked about the weather. Go figure. No one should have trusted me with such a job.
At the Festival, Espada read one of my favorites poems, “Imagine the Angels of Bread.”
In the last stanza of the poem, the keywords are vision, imagination, and idea.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
The poem reminds us that any version of the future is a possibility, no matter how impossible they may seem, if we have vision, imagination, and idea. In order to propel ourselves into a different, new direction, we must be able to imagine and believe in a life, a world that’s different, new.
And note, too, that the poem’s first stanza is that vision. He begins the poem with a declaration of this new world: “This is the year”. Then he follows this by reminding us of the world that used to be, the world that changed because people had vision, imagination, and idea. In the poem, Espada practices what he preaches.
This is also the poem that Espada reads at the end of his commencement speech at Hampshire College in 2007, but first he tells the graduates this:
This is Eduardo Galeano on the subject of utopia: “She’s on the horizon…I go two steps closer, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.”
A century ago, when your father’s grandfather was a child, the eight-hour workday was utopian; the eradication of polio was utopian; the end of lynching and segregation in the South was utopian. The next generation writes the poetry of the impossible.
Espada assures them, “You will make the impossible possible. Yet, no change for the good ever happens without being imagined first.”
Here is his reading of the poem on Def Jam Poetry.