Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "Federico's Ghost"

Martin Espada has sought to write a "poetry of advocacy" for "those who do not get the chance to speak." In describing such a poetic project that inherently suggests an inseparable intertwining of his aesthetics and politics, Espada has explained that

I see not only history but personal experience as . . . dynamic rather than. . . sta[tic]. There is a dynamic between oppression and resistance, between victimizer and victim. There is not only struggle but triumph. And seeing that dynamic, that tension, that conflict, that's where I try to go for my poems, that place where those elements meet and combust. For me the essence of expressing our dignity, our defiance, our resiliency, our potential for solidarity is in the family.

Espada's 1990 poem, "Federico's Ghost," is an excellent example of a work that explores the political potential of this kind of familial context, as the innocent idealism of a child initiates the revolutionary action of an oppressed people.

The entitled Federico is a "skinny boy" who, like many others of his community, works the tomato fields in an effort to help his family earn a meager living. Whole families, from these school-age boys and girls to the "old women," inhabit these "camps" that are adjacent to the fields of furrows. One can probably assume that the stereotypical vicious circle is in place: children must work because miserably low wagesare only barely overcome by the collective labor of the entire family. But by working, the children, in effect, make themselves unprepared to do anything but continue this existence into the next generation.

Federico, however, is too young to embrace such fatalism, and he chooses to stand "apart," both in his location and in his expression. And it is here, "in his own green row," that he and his "obscene finger" hold his ground as a cropduster plane sprays (and re-sprays) a poisonous pesticide, despite the fact that the fruitpicking had not concluded. There is a certain irony in this moment of violence. Though the cropduster certainly is emblematic of the "growers" all too sovereign power over the lives of these people, the pilot himself is just another employee who is likely not that far out of the working class himself. It is "dusk." Neither the fruitpickers nor the cropduster have finished their day's work, and each are in the other's way. All of which makes the pilot's stupidly vicious act and Federico's defiance even more pathetic. Rather than fighting such working conditions together, they fight each other. And Federico becomes a casualty.

But, as Espada's poem makes clear, this is not where the "story" ends. This, in fact, is just the beginning. By sacrificing himself to martyrdom, Federico becomes stronger in death than he perhaps ever could have been in life. In effect, he is reborn in the emergent political consciousness of the fruitpickers, who eventually recognize who their real enemy is and collectively begin destroying the crop of tomatoes that they had been tending. The grower's "muttering" about "vandal children" and "communists" is ineffectual. Their "threatening to call Immigration" is, of course, not taken seriously, for where else could they get such cheap labor. And their "promising every Sunday off," though perhaps notable as a first concession, does not address any of the fruitpicker's real concerns. So the "smashing of tomatoes" persists.

The final stanza explains why. In a few short days, Federico has been transformed from a murdered "skinny boy" into an empowering myth:

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed in the dark, and the old women in the camp said it was Federico, laboring after sundown to cool the burns on his arms flinging tomatoes at the cropduster that hummed like a mosquito lost in his ear, and kept his soul awake.

The delicious irony of these last lines is that the "old women" are able to claim that Federico in fact is doing now what the growers surely always had wanted. He is continuing to labor even "after sundown." This increased productivity, however, is in the service of showing how to reverse the power relations in the tomato fields. And its effects are almost immediate. Formerly a symbol of the fruitpicker's powerlessness before the grower's omnipotence, the crop-duster is now a mere "mosquito" that reminds them of past acts of injustice. Though these people may still have to work "between the furrows," Federico's presence, in spite of his tragic death, will be an empowering force, never far away.

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull.

Ryan Cull: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

A "testimony" suggests evidence provided by an expert witness to a governmental or judicial hearing.  On the other hand, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it also could be indicative of a more personal account of an ecstatic or religious experience.  In either case, a testimony is fundamentally a truth claim of sorts, whether it appeals to evidence deemed objective, subjective or some combination thereof (and this poem's account certainly runs the gamut between such a polarities).   With such preliminary indications in the direction of truth-claims, Ai's subtitle, "a fiction," comes as a bit of a surprise.  The work is obviously fictional in the most basic sense that Oppenheimer himself did not write it.  But what is interesting, nevertheless, is the fact that the poet, at a rhetorical level, from the very start would appear to be teasing her readers in opposite directions with such generic indicators, leaving us in an epistemological no-man's-land.  These strains are only further accentuated by this fictional testimony's bold beginning which announces the "attain[ing of] enlightenment," a presumably blissful moment of intellectual resolution.  In this manner, Ai's dramatic monologue introduces itself as a kind of puzzle that eventually reveals the relationship between this epistemic crisis and the singular moment in history that she also is documenting.

The "enlightenment" described in the first two verse paragraphs is in fact a magical (albeit horrific) kind of elision between a creator and his creation, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb at the moment of its impact on Hiroshima.  In a moment of immense irony, we find Oppenheimer finally gaining a private sense of peace amidst great public destruction, finding his own desires for a kind of pre-natal "rest" fulfilled by the results of his weapon.  Thus, in a shocking enactment of Freud’s death drive, the "searing wind that swept the dead before it" is juxtaposed with a preternaturally peaceful "silence" in a "soothing baby-blue morning/ rocking me in its cradle . . ./ beyond the blur of mortality."

But beyond these private desires, the moment of the bomb's detonation is a kind of singularity separating all that came before it in human history and thinking and all that will come after - beyond the founding Creation myths (trees of life and death), beyond "Art and Science," beyond an early evocation of Western imperialism (Alexander).   Abdicating these "illusions," Oppenheimer's supposed "enlightenment" quickly spirals into a nightmarishly resigned pessimism as he decides it is better to "leap into the void" and "accept the worst in ourselves."  But how did he (we?) get to such a moment? And what does it mean?

The final two verse paragraphs provide something of an explanation.  Oppenheimer states that he was taught in "high school [that]. . . / all scientists/ start from the hypothesis 'what if.'"  From this point onward, he was driven "by a ferocious need to know," an "urge" that publicly was called science but privately was in fact a kind of all-consuming fervor for self-knowledge and, above all, control. It was an insatiable desire for "anything that gets you closer to what you are." According to the now disillusioned yet chastened Oppenheimer, the same Cartesian urges for epistemic control at all costs that sped along scientific and industrial revolutions now threaten the very existence of the human race.

The deep pathos of these final verse paragraphs, however, is in the fact that Oppenheimer is simply unable to think outside of these drives.  He explains that "all I know is that urge," which, in effect, has become his de-facto religion/meta-narrative.  He continues (in whatever infernal place that he seems to exist) "gnawed down by the teeth/ of nightmares/ My soul, a wound that will not heal."  Observing Western society moving forward, he falls into cynicism.   No better than "characters in funny papers," our national identity is founded upon "military readiness," a "constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride," and "endless" enemies.  The logical endpoint of our pursuits is that we continue to "tear ourselves down atom by atom,/ till electron and positron, we become our own transcendent annihilation" (another terrifying image of the death drive that also reminds one of Lacan’s suggestion that Freud's signal contribution was to describe the ultimate undoing of Descartes' cogito).

"The Testimony," thus, raises far more questions than it answers.  Can we think of "science" in terms outside of this Cartesian "urge"?   If not, must we forsake potential scientific gains in view of such dangers?   And is it possible to resist (or should we resist?) the self-corrosive cynicism that is so terrifyingly narrated through the persona of Oppenheimer?  It is not at all clear, in the end, that the poet believes we have found many answers to such crucial issues.  Instead, she leaves her readers with the dark realization that we also may still be caught, even 50 years hence, within the speaker's harrowingly ironic still-moment of "enlightenment."

Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull