Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks

Martín Espada

for my son Klemnte
In 1898, with the infantry from Illinois,
the boy who would become the poet Sandburg
rowed his captain's Saint Bernard ashore
at Guánica, and watched as the captain
lobbed cubes of steak at the canine snout.
The troops speared mangos with bayonets
like many suns thudding with shredded yellow flesh
to earth. General Miles, who chained Geronimo
for the photograph in sepia of the last renegade,
promised Puerto Rico the blessings of enlightened civilization.
Private Sandburg marched, peeking at a book
nested in his palm for the words of Shakespeare.
Dazed in blue wool and sunstroke, they stumbled up the mountain
to Utuado, learned the war was over, and stumbled away.
Sandburg never met great-great-grand uncle Don Luis,
who wore a linen suit that would not wrinkle,
read with baritone clarity scenes from Hamlet
house to house for meals of rice and beans,
the Danish prince and his soliloquy—ser o no ser
saluted by rum, the ghost of Hamlet's father wandering
through the ceremonial ballcourts of the Taíno.
In Caguas or Cayey Don Luis
was the reader at the cigar factory,
newspapers in the morning,
Cervantes or Marx in the afternoon,
rocking with the whirl of unseen sword
when Quijote roared his challenge to giants,
weaving the tendrils of his beard when he spoke
of labor and capital, as the tabaqueros
rolled leaves of tobacco to smolder in distant mouths.
Maybe he was the man of the same name
who published a sonnet in the magazine of browning leaves
from the year of the Great War and the cigar strike.
He disappeared; there were rumors of Brazil,
inciting canecutters or marrying the patrón's daughter,
maybe both, but always the reader, whipping Quijote's sword overhead.
Another century, and still the warships scavenge
Puerto Rico's beaches with wet snouts. For practice,
Navy guns hail shells coated with uranium over Vieques
like a boy spinning his first curveball;
to the fisherman on the shore, the lung is a net
and the tumor is a creature with his own face, gasping.
This family has no will, no house, no farm, no island.
But today the great-great-great-grand nephew of Don Luis,
not yet ten, named for a jailed poet and fathered by another poet,
in a church of the Puritan colony called Massachusetts,
wobbles on a crate and grabs the podium
to read his poem about El Yunque waterfalls
and Achill basking sharks, and shouts:
I love this.  
"Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks," from Alabancza by Martín Espada. Copyright © 2003 by Martín Espada. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Poems by This Author

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100 by Martín Espada
Alabanza. Praise the cook with the shaven head
Niggerlips by Martín Espada
Niggerlips was the high school name
The Trouble Ball [excerpt] by Martín Espada
In 1941, my father saw his first big league ballgame at Ebbets Field

Further Reading

Related Poems
by Daniel Johnson
Poems about Sharks
Angel Shark
by Hailey Leithauser
Ants and Sharks
by Tomasz Rózycki
by Ernest Hilbert
At Shark Reef Sanctuary
by Eva Alice Counsell
Beach Walk
by Henri Cole
Coffee and Oranges
by Joel Brouwer
Flying Fish: An Ode [excerpt]
by Charles Wharton Stork
Haunted Seas
by Cale Young Rice
I Wonder What It Feels Like to be Drowned?
by Robert Graves
In a Breath
by Carl Sandburg
Murray Dreaming
by Stephen Edgar
No Place Like Home
by Stephen Cushman
Ode on Dictionaries
by Barbara Hamby
Plague of Dead Sharks
by Alan Dugan
by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Seal Lullaby
by Rudyard Kipling
Sharks in the Rivers
by Ada Limón
Sharks' Teeth
by Kay Ryan
Shoal of Sharks
by Richard O'Connell
Song of the Paddlers [excerpt]
by Herman Melville
Submarine Mountains
by Cale Young Rice
Summer [excerpt]
by James Thomson
The Bluefish
by Isaac McLellan
The Maldive Shark
by Herman Melville
The Ripple Effect
by Jamey Dunham
The Sea is History
by Derek Walcott
The Shark
by Lord Alfred Douglas
The Shark
by Isaac McLellan
The Shark
by William Henry Venable
The Shark
by Judith Beveridge
The Shark's Parlor
by James Dickey
The Sharks
by Denise Levertov
The Sirens
by James Russell Lowell
The Steel Rippers
by Patricia Carlin
Tiger Shark
by Hailey Leithauser
Untitled [There, by the crescent moon, the shark]
by Shido
Upon Shark
by Robert Herrick
What To Do About Sharks
by Vivian Shipley
White Sales
by Allen Grossman
World Below the Brine
by Walt Whitman