September 11, 2012

A few years ago I had the incredible privilege of accompanying my son, Matthew, to Washington, D.C., where he was the Wisconsin representative for the national Poetry Out Loud competition.  The poem below was one of the poems we heard recited while at the event, and its powerful images have stayed with me.  Alabanza is Spanish for Praise.  Last year my husband, mother and I were visiting Newburyport, MA, when we came upon this lovely memorial to all the 9/11 victims at Bartlett Mall (park).
Alabanza:  In Praise of Local 100
By Martin Espada
for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head   
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,   
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,   
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.   
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle   
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.   
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap   
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane   
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,   
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.   
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked   
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish   
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,   
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.   
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen   
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:   
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,   
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.   
Praise the kitchen in the morning,   
where the gas burned blue on every stove   
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,   
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs   
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.   
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.   

Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher   
who worked that morning because another dishwasher   
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime   
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family   
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.   
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.   

After the thunder wilder than thunder,   
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,   
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,   
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,   
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us   
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,   
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations   
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.   
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.   

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul   
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,   
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:   
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:   
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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