Martín Espada’s “Imagine the Angels of Bread”

Imagine the Angels of Bread

by Martín Espada

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges,
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will that owns
the bedlam of the cannery;

this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

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.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.


“Imagine the Angels of Bread” from Imagine the Angels of Bread. Copyright 1996 by Martín Espada. Reproduced by permission of W.W. Norton.

Writing Prompt:
No change for the good ever happens without being imagined first, even if, at the moment we imagine this great change, it seems absolutely impossible. History teaches us, too, that we are the agents of this great change. It doesn’t come from the White House; it comes from our house.

My wife, the poet Lauren Marie Schmidt, has used the poem as a prompt everywhere from urban high schools to homeless shelters. She says: “Imagine your life or the world as you want it to be. Make the poem into a list, and let the image, the language of the senses, do the work. Use the device of anaphora, repeating a key phrase related to time (i.e. ‘this is the year’) at the beginning of every line or stanza, except for the end of the poem.”

Martín Espada

Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest collection of poems is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (W.W. Norton, 2016). Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza: New and Selected Poems: 1982-2002 (2003), all from W. W. Norton. He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (Northwestern University Pres, 2019). His many honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (South End, 1998; Northwestern University Press, 2016), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.