Jonathan Vincent: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.” In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists have elsewhere used to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very peoples Roosevelt fought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up dominant narratives of the state in something like what Donald Pease has called an “ahistorical supranational essence.[1]” He meditates on a statue of Roosevelt situated in the auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez. Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated military episode broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest and a masculinizing adventure aimed at overcoming any lingering “effeteness” of the late nineteenth century for white American men. Unable to reconcile the statue’s message with some narrative of benign statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war voices not only a condemnation of the war but also labors to contaminate the language and images of memorialization with the very contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal. As Walter Benjamin has famously quipped, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[2]

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses, or a podium to clatter with speeches glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating Roosevelt in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at their containment or submission. The destruction that he unleashed against the Brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish-singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.” The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution in paradoxical juxtaposition to Roosevelt’s hubristic testimonial to white nationalism.

Roosevelt is surrounded  by all the faces he ever shoved in eugenic spite and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race, hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the final satirical jab is thrust as the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors” by the brown faces which ominously “surround” it.

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that one of the most aggressive, imperialistic nations on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually overcomes some paralyzing dread to kick a thuggish bully’s ass. That is, a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing of the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses. The installation of belletristic icons like statues of Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of laughing Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his militant portraiture. As mongrels all, Espada seems to suggest, we spill over into each other.

 

[1] See “Hiroshima, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, and the Gulf War” in Cultures of United States Imperialism (Duke, 1993), co-edited with Amy Kaplan, p. 558.

[2] See “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Illuminations (HBJ, 1968), p. 256.

 
 

Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Vincent

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Criticism Overview
Title Jonathan Vincent: On "Bully" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jonathan Vincent Criticism Target Martín Espada
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Apr 2016
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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