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His Cardboard Heart

Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada has recently won the National Book Award for his collection of poems entitled Floaters, named after the famous photograph of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande swimming to supposed safety in Trump’s United States. One of the poems in that collection is the following prose poem:

Letter to My Father

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.

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