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Martín Espada



    Ok, I’m gonna go ahead and ask…have ya’ll ever seen floaters this

    clean. I’m not trying to be an a$$ but I HAVE NEVER SEEN

    FLOATERS LIKE THIS, could this be another edited photo. We’ve all

    seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things.

    –Anonymous post, “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook group


Like a beer bottle thrown into the river by a boy too drunk to cry,

like the shard of a Styrofoam cup drained of coffee brown as the river,

like the plank of a fishing boat broken in half by the river, the dead float.

And the dead have a name: floaters, say the men of the Border Patrol,

keeping watch all night by the river, hearts pumping coffee as they say

the word floaters, soft as a bubble, hard as a shoe as it nudges the body,

to see if it breathes, to see if it moans, to see if it sits up and speaks.


And the dead have names, a feast day parade of names, names that

dress all in red, names that twirl skirts, names that blow whistles,

names that shake rattles, names that sing in praise of the saints:

Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.

See how they rise off the tongue, the calling of bird to bird somewhere

in the trees above our heads, trilling in the dark heart of the leaves.


Say what we know of them now they are dead: Óscar slapped dough

for pizza with oven-blistered fingers. Daughter Valeria sang, banging

a toy guitar. He slipped free of the apron he wore in the blast of the oven,

sold the motorcycle he would kick till it sputtered to life, counted off

pesos for the journey across the river, and the last of his twenty-five

years, and the last of her twenty-three months. There is another name

that beats its wings in the heart of the trees: Say Tania Vanessa Ávalos,

Óscar’s wife and Valeria’s mother, the witness stumbling along the river.


Now their names rise off her tongue: Say Óscar y Valeria. He swam

from Matamoros across to Brownsville, the girl slung around his neck,

stood her in the weeds on the Texas side of the river, swore to return

with her mother in hand, turning his back as fathers do who later say:

I turned around and she was gone. In the time it takes for a bird to hop

from branch to branch, Valeria jumped in the river after her father.

Maybe he called out her name as he swept her up from the river;

maybe the river drowned out his voice as the water swept them away.

Tania called out the names of the saints, but the saints drowsed

in the stupor of birds in the dark, their cages covered with blankets.

The men on patrol would never hear their pleas for asylum, watching

for floaters, hearts pumping coffee all night on the Texas side of the river.


No one, they say, had ever seen floaters this clean: Óscar’s black shirt

yanked up to the armpits, Valeria’s arm slung around her father’s

neck even after the light left her eyes, both face down in the weeds,

back on the Mexican side of the river. Another edited photo: See how

her head disappears in his shirt, the waterlogged diaper bunched

in her pants, the blue of the blue cans. The radio warned us about

the crisis actors we see at one school shooting after another; the man

called Óscar will breathe, sit up, speak, tug the black shirt over

his head, shower off the mud and shake hands with the photographer.


Yet, the floaters did not float down the Río Grande like Olympians

showing off the backstroke, nor did their souls float up to Dallas,

land of rumored jobs and a president shot in the head as he waved

from his motorcade. No bubbles rose from their breath in the mud,

light as the iridescent circles of soap that would fascinate a two-year old.


And the dead still have names, names that sing in praise of the saints,

names that flower in blossoms of white, a cortege of names dressed

all in black, trailing the coffins to the cemetery. Carve their names

in headlines and gravestones they would never know in the kitchens

of this cacophonous world. Enter their names in the book of names.

Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez; say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.

Bury them in a corner of the cemetery named for the sainted archbishop

of the poor, shot in the heart saying mass, bullets bought by the taxes

I paid when I worked as a bouncer and fractured my hand forty years

ago, and bumper stickers read: El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.


When the last bubble of breath escapes the body, may the men

who speak of floaters, who have never seen floaters this clean,

float through the clouds to the heavens, where they paddle the air

as they wait for the saint who flips through the keys on his ring

like a drowsy janitor, till he fingers the key that turns the lock and shuts

the gate on their babble-tongued faces, and they plunge back to earth,

a shower of hailstones pelting the river, the Mexican side of the river.

Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet


   When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs.

   They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

    -Donald Trump, June 16, 2015


They woke him up by pissing in his face. He opened his mouth

to scream in Spanish, so his mouth became a urinal at the ballpark.


Scott and Steve: the Leader brothers, celebrating a night at Fenway,

where the Sox beat the Indians and a rookie named Rodríguez spun

the seams on his changeup to hypnotize the Tribe. Later that night,

Steve urinated on the door of his cell, and Scott told the cops why

they did it: Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.


He was a Mexican in a sleeping bag outside JFK station on a night

in August, so they called him a wetback and emptied their bladders

in his hair. In court, the lawyers spoke his name: Guillermo Rodríguez,

immigrant with papers, crop-picker in the fields, trader of bottles

and cans collected in his cart. Two strangers squashed the cartilage

in his nose like a can drained of beer. In dreams, he would remember

the shoes digging into his ribcage, the pole raked repeatedly across

his cheekbones and upraised knuckles, the high-five over his body.


Donald Trump was right, said Scott. And Trump said: The people

that are following me are very passionate. His hands fluttered

as he spoke, a demagogue’s hands, no blood under the fingernails,

no whiff of urine to scrub away.  He would orchestrate the chant

of Build that Wall at rally after rally, bellowing till the blood rushed

to his face, red as a demagogue in the grip of masturbatory dreams:

a tribute to the new conquistador, the Wall raised up by Mexican hands,  

Mexican hair and fingernails bristling in the brick, Mexican blood

swirling in the cement like raspberry syrup on a vanilla sundae.

On the Cinco de Mayo, he leered over a taco bowl at Trump Tower.


Not for him the fiery lake of the false prophet, reddening

his ruddy face. Not for him the devils of Puritan imagination,

shrieking in a foreign tongue and climbing in the window

like the immigrant demons he conjures for the crowd.

Not even for him ten thousand years of the Leader brothers,

streaming a fountain of piss in his face as he sputters forever.


For him, Hell is a country where the man in a hard hat

paving the road to JFK station sees Guillermo and dials 911;

Hell is a country where EMTs kneel to wrap a blanket around

the shivering shoulders of Guillermo and wipe his face clean;

Hell is a country where the nurse at the emergency room

hangs a morphine drip for Guillermo, so he can go back to sleep.

Two thousand miles away, someone leaves a trail of water bottles

in the desert for the border crossing of the next Guillermo.


We smuggle ourselves across the border of a demagogue’s dreams:

Confederate generals on horseback tumble one by one into

the fiery lake of false prophets; into the fiery lake crumbles

the demolished Wall. Thousands stand, sledgehammers in hand,

to await the bullhorns and handcuffs, await the trembling revolvers.

In the full moon of the flashlight, every face interrogates the interrogator.

In the full moon of the flashlight, every face is the face of Guillermo.



The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances

                                                -Mayagüez, Puerto Rico 1856


I. The First Horse

Cholera swarmed unseen through the water, lurking in wells and fountains,

squirming in garbage and excrement, infinitesimal worms drilling the intestines,

till all the water and salt would pour from the body, till the body became a worm,

shriveling and writhing, a slug in salt, till the skin burned blue as flame, the skin

of the peasant and the skin of the slave gone blue, the skin in the slave barracks blue,

the skin of ten thousand slaves blue. The Blue Death, face hidden in a bandanna,

dug graves with the gravediggers, who fell into holes they shoveled for the dead.

The doctors died too, seeing the signs in the mirror, the hand with the razor shaking.


II. The Second Horse

Doctor Betances stepped off the boat, back from Paris, the humidity of the plague

glistening in his beard. He saw the stepmother who fed him sink into a mound

of dirt, her body empty as the husk of a locust in drought.  He toweled off his hands.

In the quarantine tents there was laudanum by the bitter spoonful, the lemonade

and broth; in the dim of the kerosene lamps there was the compress cool against

the forehead, the elixir of the bark from the cinchona tree.  For peasants and slaves

moaning to their gods, the doctor prescribed chilled champagne to soothe the belly.

For the commander of the Spanish garrison, there was silence bitter as the spoon.


III. The Third Horse

At every hacienda, at every plantation, as the bodies of slaves rolled one by one

into ditches all hipbones and ribs, drained of water and salt, stripped of names,

Doctor Betances commanded the torch for the barracks where the bodies would

tangle together, stacked up as if they never left the ship that sailed from Africa,

kept awake by the ravenous worms of the plague feasting upon them. Watching

the blue flames blacken the wood, the doctor and the slaves saw another plague

burning away, the plague of manacles scraping the skin from hands that cut

the cane, the plague of the collar with four spikes for the runaways brought back.


IV. The Fourth Horse

The pestilence of the masters, stirred by spoons into the coffee of the world,

spread first at the marketplace, at auction, the coins passing from hand to hand.

So Doctor Betances began, at church, with twenty-five pesos in pieces of eight,

pirate coins dropped into the hands of slaves to drop into the hands of masters,

buying their own infants at the baptismal font. The secret society of abolitionists

shoved rowboats full of runaways off the docks in the bluest hour of the blue night,

off to islands without masters. Even the doctor would strangle in the executioner’s

garrote, spittle in his beard, if the soldiers on watch woke up from the opiate of empire.


V. The Fifth Horse

The governor circled his name in the name of empire, so Doctor Betances

sailed away to exile, the island drowning in his sight, but a vision stung

his eyes like salt in the wind: in the world after the plague, no more

plague of manacles; after the pestilence, no more pestilence of masters;

after the cemeteries of cholera, no more collar of spikes or executioners.

In his eye burned the blue of the rebel flag and the rising of his island.

The legend calls him the doctor who exhausted five horses, sleepless

as he chased invisible armies into the night. Listen for the horses.

-from Floaters (WW Norton, 2021) selected by Spring 2021 Guest Editor Cyrus Cassells. 

Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new book of poems from Norton is called Floaters. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and reissued by Northwestern. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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