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Published July 20, 2007

Selected Poems by Martín Espada
MRS. BÁEZ SERVES COFFEE ON THE THIRD FLOOR

It hunches
with a brittle black spine
where they poured
gasoline on the stairs
and the bannister
and burnt it.

The fire went running
down the steps,
a naked lunatic,
calling the names
of the neighbors,
cackling in the hall.

The immigrants
ate terror with their hands
and prayed to Catholic statues
as the fire company
pumped a million gallons in
and burst the roof,
as an old man
on the top floor
with no name known
to authorities
strangled on the smoke
and stopped breathing.

Some of the people left.
There's a room on the third floor:
high-heeled shoes kicked off,
a broken dresser,
the saint's portrait
hanging where it looked on
shrugging shoulders for years,
soot, trash, burnt tile,
a perfect black light bulb
to remember everything.

And some stayed. The old men
barechested, squatting
on the milk crates to play dominoes
in the front-stoop sun;
the younger ones, the tigres,
watching the block with unemployed faces
bitter as bad liquor;
Mrs. Báez, who serves coffee
on the third floor
from tiny porcelain cups,
insisting that we stay;
the children who live
between narrow kitchens
and charred metal doors
and laugh anyway;
the skinny man, the one
just arrived from Santo Domingo,
who cannot read or write,
with no hot water
for six weeks,
telling us in the hallway
that the landlord set the fire
and everyone knows it,
the building's worth more empty.

The street organizer said it:
burn the building out,
blacken an old Dominicano's lungs
and sell
so that the money-people
can renovate
and live here
where an old Dominicano died,
over the objections
of his choking spirit.

But some have stayed.
Stayed for the malicious winter,
stayed frightened of the white man who comes
to collect rent
and borrowing from cousins
to pay it,
stayed waiting for the next fire,
and the siren,
hysterical and late.

Someone poured gasoline
on the steps outside her door,
but Mrs. Báez
still serves coffee
in porcelain cups
to strangers,
coffee the color
of a young girl's skin
in Santo Domingo.

From ALABANZA: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1982-2002

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Bill Moyers talks with poet Martin Espada about the power of words to effect social change.

>Watch teacher and poet, Aracelis Girmay, read her poem.

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