The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances

- 1957-
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.

 

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Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World

                    For the community of Newtown, Connecticut,
                    where twenty students and six educators lost their
                    lives to a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary
                    School, December 14, 2012

 

Now the bells speak with their tongues of bronze.
Now the bells open their mouths of bronze to say:
Listen to the bells a world away. Listen to the bell in the ruins
of a city where children gathered copper shells like beach glass,
and the copper boiled in the foundry, and the bell born
in the foundry says: I was born of bullets, but now I sing
of a world where bullets melt into bells. Listen to the bell
in a city where cannons from the armies of the Great War
sank into molten metal bubbling like a vat of chocolate,
and the many mouths that once spoke the tongue of smoke
form the one mouth of a bell that says: I was born of cannons,
but now I sing of a world where cannons melt into bells.

Listen to the bells in a town with a flagpole on Main Street,
a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House,
the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence.
Here the bells rock their heads of bronze as if to say:
Melt the bullets into bells, melt the bullets into bells.
Here the bells raise their heavy heads as if to say:
Melt the cannons into bells, melt the cannons into bells.
Here the bells sing of a world where weapons crumble deep
in the earth, and no one remembers where they were buried.
Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language
of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation
from island to island, the song rippling through the clouds.

Now the bells chime like the muscle beating in every chest,
heal the cracks in the bell of every face listening to the bells.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the moon.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the world.

The Trouble Ball [excerpt]

for my father, Frank Espada


In 1941, my father saw his first big league ballgame at Ebbets Field
in Brooklyn: the Dodgers and the Cardinals. My father took his father's hand.
When the umpires lumbered on the field, the band in the stands
with a bass drum and trombone struck up a chorus of Three Blind Mice.
The peanut vendor shook a cowbell and hollered. The home team
raced across the diamond, and thirty thousand people shouted
all at once, as if an army of liberation rolled down Bedford Avenue.
My father shouted, too. He wanted to see The Trouble Ball.

On my father's island, there were hurricanes and tuberculosis, dissidents in jail
and baseball. The loudspeakers boomed: Satchel Paige pitching for the Brujos
of Guayama. From the Negro Leagues he brought the gifts of Baltasar the King;
from a bench on the plaza he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball,
The Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz,
The Thoughtful Stuff. Pancho Coímbre hit rainmakers for the Leones of Ponce;
Satchel sat the outfielders in the grass to play poker, windmilled three pitches
to the plate, and Pancho spun around three times. He couldn't hit The Trouble Ball.

At Ebbets Field, the first pitch echoed in the mitt of Mickey Owen,
the catcher for the Dodgers who never let the ball escape his glove.
A boy off the boat, my father shelled peanuts, waiting for Satchel Paige
to steer his gold Cadillac from the bullpen to the mound, just as he would
navigate the streets of Guayama. Yet Satchel never tipped his cap that day.
¿Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players?
No los dejan, his father softly said. They don't let them play here.
Mickey Owen would never have to dive for The Trouble Ball.

It was then that the only brown boy at Ebbets Field felt himself
levitate above the grandstand and the diamond, another banner
at the ballgame. From up high he could see that everyone was white,
and their whiteness was impossible, like snow in Puerto Rico,
and just as silent, so he could not hear the cowbell, or the trombone,
or the Dodger fans howling with glee at the bases-loaded double.
He understood why his father whispered in Spanish: everybody
in the stands might overhear the secret of The Trouble Ball.

At Ebbets Field in 1941, the Dodgers met the Yankees in the World Series.
Mickey Owen dropped the third strike with two outs in the ninth inning
of Game Four, flailing like a lobster in the grip of a laughing fisherman,
and the Yankees stamped their spikes across the plate to win. Brooklyn,
the borough of churches, prayed for his fumbling soul. This was the reason
statues of the Virgin leaked tears and the fathers of Brooklyn drank,
not the banishment of Satchel Paige to doubleheaders in Bismarck,
North Dakota. There were no rosaries or boilermakers for The Trouble Ball.

My father would return to baseball on 108th Street. He pitched for the Crusaders,
kicking high like Satchel, riding the team bus painted with four-leaf clovers, seasick
all the way to Hackensack or the Brooklyn Parade Grounds. One day he jammed
his wrist sliding into second, threw three more innings anyway, and never pitched again.
He would return to Ebbets Field to court my mother. The same year they were married
a waiter refused to serve them, a mixed couple sitting all night in the corner,
till my father hoisted him by his lapels and the waiter's feet dangled in the air,
a puppet and his furious puppeteer. My father was familiar with The Trouble Ball.

I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, when the Dodgers packed their duffle bags
and left the city. A wrecking ball swung an uppercut into the face
of Ebbets Field. I heard the stories: how my mother, lost in the circles
and diamonds of her scorecard, never saw Jackie Robinson accelerate
down the line to steal home. I wore my father's glove until the day
I laid it down to lap the water from the fountain in the park. By the time
I raised my head, it was gone like Ebbets Field. I walked slowly home.
I had to tell my father I would never learn to catch The Trouble Ball.

There was a sign below the scoreboard at Ebbets Field: Abe Stark, Brooklyn's
Leading Clothier. Hit Sign, Win Suit. Some people see that sign in dreams.
They speak of ballparks as cathedrals, frame the pennants from the game
where it began, Dodger blue and Cardinal red, and gaze upon the wall.
My father, who remembers everything, remembers nothing of that dazzling day
but this: ¿Dónde están los negros? No los dejan. His hair is white, and still
the words are there, like the ghostly imprint of stitches on the forehead
from a pitch that got away. It is forever 1941. It was The Trouble Ball.

Of the Threads that Connect the Stars

Did you ever see stars?  asked my father with a cackle. He was not
speaking of the heavens, but the white flash in his head when a fist burst
between his eyes. In Brooklyn, this would cause men and boys to slap
the table with glee; this might be the only heavenly light we'd ever see.

I never saw stars. The sky in Brooklyn was a tide of smoke rolling over us
from the factory across the avenue, the mattresses burning in the junkyard,
the ruins where squatters would sleep, the riots of 1966 that kept me
locked in my room like a suspect. My father talked truce on the streets.

My son can see the stars through the tall barrel of a telescope.
He names the galaxies with the numbers and letters of astronomy.
I cannot see what he sees in the telescope, no matter how many eyes I shut.
I understand a smoking mattress better than the language of galaxies.

My father saw stars. My son sees stars. The earth rolls beneath
our feet. We lurch ahead, and one day we have walked this far.

Related Poems

A Far Cry from Africa

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
"Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Puerto Rican Discovery #3: Not Neither

Being Puertorriqueña-Dominicana
Borinqueña-Quisqueyana
Taina-Africana
Born in the Bronx. Not really jíbara
Not really hablando bien
But yet, not gringa either
Pero ni portorra
Pero sí, portorra too
Pero ni qué what am I? Y qué soy?
Pero con what voice do my lips move?
Rhythms of rosa wood feet dancing bomba
Not even here. But here. Y conga
Yet not being. Pero soy
And not really. Y somos
Y como somos–bueno,
Eso sí es algo lindo. Algo muy lindo.

We defy translation
Ni tengo nombre. Nameless
We are a whole culture once removed
Lolita alive for twenty-five years
Ni soy, pero soy Puertorriqueña cómo ella
Giving blood to the independent star
Daily transfusions
Into the river
Of la sangre viva.

the independence (of puerto rico)

English translation from Spanish

we are fiercer than melted snow;
we are bigger than storage cemeteries;
we are more rabid than mired winds;
we are immenser than rivers in sea;
we are wider than wasted tyrannies;
we are more tender than roots with earth;
we are more tender than rain in moss;
we are more tender than downpour’s tremor;
we are stronger than overworked years;
we are braver than stalking anguish;
we are more beautiful than universal monarchies;
we are more jevos than the dreamt good life;
we are richer than stolen ports;
we are more pirates than federal governments;
we are more justice-seeking than armed gods;
we are more more than the minimum
and more more than the most.
we are insularly sufficient.

we owe no one shame.

we owe no one smallness.

they tell us for a whole centuried
and quintuplentaried life that we are
the smallest of the upper,
that we are much of the less
and too little of the more,
but we are more than what they say,
more than what they imagine
and more than, to this day,
we have imagined.

we are home libraries
gathered in a data strike
that miss their bowels
of historied flesh.

we are a latitude of tied belts,
serpents who shed their punishing skins,
make a tape to measure the globe
and know if the world can
expand by opening chests.

we are that calculation that traces today
and hits rock bottom.

we are the fortaleza without spaniards,
the rib cage that expires the old empire
where before they housed crusades.

we are fatal, meaning,
the death of trenches
and the governments that induce them.

we are high-and-mighty on the coast
and humble in the mountains.
we gather coffee and plant it
in the buildings we build,
the children we raise,
and the exponential applications
we complete.

and in all things we are independent,
even in the most colonized hole of our porous fear;
even in the panadería most packed with papers that cover ads;
even in the corrosive act of saying we are only an island;
even that we have done looking each other in the face,
gathering cement blocks,
arming the neighbor’s storage rooms;
even from afar, it has been us
who has gone to the post office
and sent cans and batteries.

don’t fear what you already know.
we’ve spent a lifetime fearing ourselves
while getting robbed by strangers.
look at us. look closely.
don’t you see we are
beauty? 

 

 


 

la independencia (de puerto rico)

 

somos más fieros que la nieve derretida;
somos más grandes que un cementerio de vagones;
somos más rabiosos que los vientos atascados;
somos más inmensos que los ríos en el mar;
somos más amplios que las tiranías gastadas;
somos más tiernos que las raíces con la tierra;
somos más tiernos que la lluvia en el musgo;
somos más tiernos que el temblor del aguacero;
somos más fuertes que los años fajones;
somos más bravos que la angustia acosadora;
somos más bellos que las monarquías universales;
somos más jevos que la buena vida soñada;
somos más ricos que los puertos robados;
somos más piratas que los gobiernos federales;
somos más justicieros que los dioses armados;
somos más más que lo más mínimo
y más más que lo más mejor.
somos insularmente suficientes.

no le debemos a nadie la vergüenza.

no le debemos a nadie la pequeñez.

nos dicen por toda una vida siglada
y quintuplegada que somos
el menor de las mayores,
que somos mucho de lo menos
y muy poco de lo más,
pero somos más que lo que dicen,
más de lo que se imaginan
y más de lo que hasta hoy
nos hemos imaginado.

somos las bibliotecas de las casas
juntadas en una huelga de datos
que añoran sus entrañas
de carne historiada.

somos una latitud de correas atadas,
sierpes que mudaron su piel de castigo
por una cinta de medir el globo
para saber si el mundo puede
expandirse abriendo pechos.

somos ese cálculo que traza hoy
y toca fondo.

somos la fortaleza sin españoles,
la caja torácica que expira el viejo imperio
donde antes se almacenaban cruzadas.

somos fatales, es decir,
la muerte de las trincheras
y los gobiernos que las inducen.

somos altaneros en la costa
y humildes en la cordillera.
recogemos café y lo sembramos
en los edificios que construimos,
los niños que cuidamos,
las solicitudes exponenciales
que completamos.

y en todo somos independientes,
hasta en el hueco más colonizado del temor poroso;
hasta en la panadería más llena de periódicos de anuncios;
hasta en el acto corrosivo de decir que somos isla solamente;
hasta eso lo hemos hecho mirándonos las caras,
juntando los bloques de cemento,
armando los almacenes de los vecinos;
hasta en la lejanía, hemos sido nosotros,
nosotros los que llegamos al correo
y enviamos latas y baterías.

no temas lo que ya conoces.
llevamos una vida temiéndonos
mientras nos roban extraños.
míranos bien.
¿no ves que somos
hermosura?