Through me Many Long Dumb Voices: The Poet-Lawyer

Written by

Martín Espada
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Year

2011
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I am a poet-lawyer.

The phrase poet-lawyer conjures up the image of a half-human, half-beast from ancient mythology, a peculiar creature with the head of a poet and the body of a lawyer. Poet-lawyer Archibald MacLeish reflected on this dilemma:

Although a Law Review editor might reasonably be expected to end up as president of a bank or head of the Natural Gas Association, he has no right to turn himself into a poet. Why? I don't know, though I have often asked. People shuffle their feet and light a cigarette and look away and you walk back to Harvard Yard wondering if you really are queer after all.

According to another poet-lawyer, Tim Nolan, poets are considered "bohemian, irresponsible, free, flighty, subject to brilliant inspiration, aloof, poor, garroted, soulful, irrelevant," whereas lawyers are considered "masterful, composed, certain, needling, dogged, practical, insistent, combative, annoying, overdressed." (I am all these things.)

These two quotes appear in the foreword to a book called Off The Record: An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, which weighs in at 732 pages. (I argued with the editor that any anthology of poetry by lawyers should be called On the Record, to no avail.) Clearly, there is common ground between bards and barristers which goes beyond a fascination with language or the use of words as weapons. In my experience, that common ground is advocacy.

The tradition of advocacy in North American poetry goes back to Walt Whitman. In #24 of "Song of Myself," Whitman declares himself an advocate, but also insists on the primacy of other voices, long silenced:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of
   thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are
   down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts…voices veiled and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.

One of Whitman's greatest disciples was a poet-lawyer: Edgar Lee Masters. Masters was not only a lawyer, but an accomplished lawyer. From 1903 to 1908, Masters was the law partner of Clarence Darrow. (Darrow was a devotee of poetry himself; he published essays on Whitman and Omar Khayyám, among others.) Like Darrow, Masters often represented the poor, the powerless, and the unpopular.

As a poet, Masters labored in the shadow of his law practice, in part because he would sometimes publish under a pseudonym: Webster Ford. All that changed with the publication of Spoon River Anthology in 1915. For years it was the most widely read book of poetry in the United States.

Spoon River Anthology is a series of 244 poetic monologues, in nineteen linked narratives spoken by the dead of Spoon River cemetery. Masters took names and other information from the Spoon River and Sangamon River cemeteries in Illinois where he grew up, combining fact, fiction, imagination, and speculation. Spoon River reveals the underside of small-town Midwestern life, a rebuttal to the idealized fable of small-town America still packaged and sold today in one political campaign after another. Here there is greed, lust, betrayal, corruption, poverty, addiction, war, rape, and murder. The rich dominate the poor; men impose their will on women; white people brutalize the few who aren't white.

Through it all, Masters is the advocate. He subscribes to Whitman's decree that the duty of the poet is to "cheer up slaves and horrify despots," identifying with the most marginalized and despised citizens of Spoon River, condemning the powerbrokers.

These persona poems were clearly written by a practicing lawyer. The language is often similar to that of an affidavit: written in the first person, direct and clear, telling a story, attempting to persuade. In the practice of law, an affidavit is a sworn statement in the voice of the witness, but the statement is frequently written by the lawyer. The poet-lawyer of Spoon River must speak in 244 voices.

Many of these are Whitman's "long dumb voices"; those who were silent in life speak in death. There is the voice of "Yee Bow":

They got me into the Sunday-school
in Spoon River
And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus.
I could have been no worse off
If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for
   Confucius.
For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,
And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley,
The minister's son, caved my ribs into my lungs,
With a blow of his fist.
Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors
   in Pekin,
And no children shall worship at my grave.

There is advocacy here, but no consolation: Yee Bow is as lonely in the graveyard as he was in the schoolyard, as lonely in death as in life.

Some of these poems have a startling immediacy and relevancy. "Harry Wilmans" is a soldier fighting for U.S. occupation forces in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, convinced, perhaps, that the Yee Bows of the world were about to overrun the United States:

I was just turned twenty-one,
and Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school
   superintendent,
Made a speech in Bindle's Opera House.
"The honor of the flag must be upheld," he said,
"Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe
   of Tagalogs
Or the greatest power in Europe."
And we cheered and cheered the speech and the
   flag he waved
As he spoke.
And I went to the war in spite of my father,
And followed the flag till I saw it raised
By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
And all of us cheered and cheered it.
But there were flies and poisonous things;
And there was the deadly water,
And the cruel heat,
And the sickening, putrid food;
And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
And there were the whores who followed us, full
   of syphilis;
And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming
   swamp,
Following the flag
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now there's a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!

Harry becomes universal; he could easily be a soldier killed in Iraq. Our leaders still make a fetish of the flag, for the same purposes. Harry's voice echoes the many letters written home by U.S. troops during the war in the Philippines, a war that, according to historian Howard Zinn and others, left at least two hundred thousand Filipinos dead. Masters, who opposed the First World War as well, earned the wrath of right-wing patriots with poems like "Harry Wilmans."

Masters left the law for literature in 1920, and reserved his greatest contempt for a legal system at the service of the rich and powerful. Here is "John M. Church":

I was attorney for the "Q"
And the Indemnity Company which insured
The owners of the mine.
I pulled the wires with judge and jury,
And the upper courts, to beat the claims
Of the crippled, the widow and orphan,
And made a fortune thereat.
The bar association sang my praises
In a high-flown resolution.
And the floral tributes were many—
But the rats devoured my heart
And a snake made a nest in my skull!

John M. Church, for Masters, represents the worst elements of the system he left behind. Note the name Church, alluding to an entrenched social institution with its own laws, and the parody of legal language in the use of the word thereat. Of course, Masters has total control of this imaginative universe, which explains the presence of the rats in the heart and snake in the skull, cosmic retribution for a lawyer who was a rat and a snake in life.

The judges in Masters's universe fare no better. "Judge Selah Lively" is a prime example:

Suppose you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?
And then suppose by your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at
   your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became County Judge?
And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"—
Well, don't you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?

Judge Lively, who rises to his position of authority by serving the most powerful citizen of the town (Thomas Rhodes), abuses that authority by making decisions based on a laundry list of grudges rather than any sense of right and wrong under the law. The petty, bitter voice in the poem no doubt echoes voices Masters heard in the courtroom over the years.

In the world of Spoon River, there exists the possibility of redemption through compassion. This is true even for the most arrogant of lawyers, who believe in the rule of law at the expense of justice. Witness the epiphany of "State's Attorney Fallas," who says:

I, the scourge-wielder, balance-wrecker,
Smiter with whips and swords;
I, hater of the breakers of the law;
I, legalist, inexorable and bitter,
Driving the jury to hang the madman, Barry
   Holden,
Was made as one dead by light too bright
   for eyes,
And woke to face a Truth with bloody brow:
Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor's hand
Against my boy's head as he entered life
Made him an idiot.
I turned to books of science
To care for him.
That's how the world of those whose minds
   are sick
Became my work in life, and all my world.
Poor ruined boy! You were, at last, the potter
And I and all my deeds of charity
The vessels of your hand.

Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950, his reputation and finances in steep decline. Nevertheless, based on Spoon River Anthology, Masters—and not Wallace Stevens—can legitimately be called the foremost poet-lawyer of the twentieth century. (Stevens was a lawyer in the employ of an insurance company. He was not an advocate, either as a poet or a lawyer, and kept the two lives separate.)

My own poetry of advocacy bears the influence of Whitman and Masters, but also springs from my legal experience. I graduated from Northeastern University Law School in 1982, and eventually became a tenant lawyer, serving as supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Chelsea was the poorest city in the state, with the poorest housing stock. We handled eviction defense, conditions cases, injunctions to fix the heat or exterminate rats, and trained student from Suffolk University Law School to do the same.

I published three books of poems during my six years at Su Clínica. As with Masters, voices spoke first to me, then through the medium of the poems. While waiting for my cases to be called, I would sit on a staircase in the courthouse, scratching poems on a yellow legal pad. One day I encountered the following "found poem" on the bathroom wall:

Courthouse Graffiti for Two Voices
Jimmy C.,
Greatest Car Thief Alive
Chelsea '88
Then what
are you doing
here?

There were voices in the courtroom too:

Mrs. López showed the interpreter
a poker hand of snapshots,
the rat curled in a glue trap
next to the refrigerator,
the water frozen in the toilet,
a door without a doorknob.
(No rent for this. I know the law
and I want to speak,

she whispered to the interpreter.)
Tell her she has to pay
and she has ten days to get out,

the judge commanded, rose
so the rest of the courtroom rose,
and left the bench. Suddenly
the courtroom clattered
with the end of business:
the clerk of the court
gathered her files
and the bailiff went to lunch.

Sometimes the Spanish voices spoke back with a few strong words in English, the language of the law:

She leaves the office
rehearsing with the lawyer
new words in English
for the landlord:
Get out. Get out. Get out.

Like Yee Bow, many of these voices belonged to silenced immigrants who one day could bear their silence no longer, and cried out:

The lawyer nodded through papers,
glancing up only when the girl awoke
to spout white vomit on the floor
Mi vida: My life, he said, then said again, as he bundled her
to the toilet.

I left the practice of the law in 1993, due to deep budget cuts in my program. I chose to leave rather than force our another attorney, a friend of mine who emigrated to this country from Chile after he talked his way out of being shot by a firing squad. He was born to be a lawyer.

I made a transition into the English Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. However, I never stopped being a lawyer. Still influenced by that way of seeing the world, I teach poetry workshops in various places using Spoon River Anthology. This usually involves bringing my workshop group to a cemetery and turning them loose amid the headstones.

Once, instead of bringing the workshop to the cemetery, I brought the cemetery to the workshop. This was the brainstorm of Rich Villar and Fish Vargas.

Rich Villar and Fish Vargas are the co-directors of an organization called Acentos in the Bronx. Acentos stages readings and workshops in places where poetry supposedly does not belong. In may 2009, we brought the Spoon River Anthology workshop to the Savoy Room at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. Vargas issued a memorable announcement ("If I hear your cell phone go off during this workshop, I will personally drag you out of this room by your hair"), and then the workshop began. Villar describes it in his Letras Latinas blog:

On the walls hung 112 photos of headstones from St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. Martín's workshop revolved around Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, a book of persona poems in the voices of the dead. Masters took the names from the headstones of Spoon River Cemetery. The Acentos workshop was about to do the same for St. Raymonds.

Espada started with a half-hour lecture on the life of Edgar Lee Masters, along with a reading of poems from the book itself. Some of the poems were in conversation with other poems. Most of them were highly speculative about the dead person's occupation, demeanor, relations, and relationships to the other dead people. So, taking these cues, and keeping in mind things like birth dates and death dates, names, proximity to other headstones, and a large dose of speculation, 78 workshoppers were sent wandering around the room in search of personae to write about, and through.

On this night, with Professor Espada, Latinos and Latinas were present in large numbers in the workshop…and on the headstones. This led to a great deal of poetry in Spanish, English, and code-switch: Investigations into the nature and results of machismo. Investigations into the youth of St. Raymond's Cemetery. Conversations among the dead and the living. Monologues. Speculation. And some unvarnished truth: twelve headstones were people Fish knew personally.

We ended the night with an open mic so large that we had to draw out participants from a hat (mine)…Surrounded by the denizens of St. Raymond's, with a fresh Bronx River Anthology in minds and in hands, a night of fellowship and goodwill among poets of all skill levels, all ages, all ethnicities, finished up a full hour behind schedule, and no one cared. Except, of course, for the intrepid cleaning crew at Hostos. (Yes, we helped them out.)

For Masters, this was a homecoming. In early 1944, he ended up in a Bronx nursing home after he was found suffering from malnutrition and pneumonia at the Chelsea Hotel. When the workshop poets of Hostos stood to read their poems, one by one, the voice of Masters could be heard through them. Now, however, the voice was Puerto Rican or Dominican. The voice spoke Spanish, or some combination of Spanish and English. The voice came from an immigrant grandparent, a forgotten actor, a drunk driver, or the driver's victim. The voice was the same. The voice had changed.

Edgar Lee Masters lives. In the Bronx. In Spanish.