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By Martín Espada

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours

at a printing plant

that manufactured legal pads:

Yellow paper

stacked seven feet high

and leaning

as I slipped cardboard

between the pages,

then brushed red glue

up and down the stack.

No gloves: fingertips required

for the perfection of paper,

smoothing the exact rectangle.

Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands

would slide along suddenly sharp paper,

and gather slits thinner than the crevices

of the skin, hidden.

Then the glue would sting,

hands oozing

till both palms burned

at the punchclock.


Ten years later, in law school,

I knew that every legal pad

was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,

that every open lawbook

was a pair of hands

upturned and burning.


Martin Espada, "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper" from City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. Copyright © 1993 by Martin Espada.  Used by permission of the author W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Source: City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993)

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Poet Bio

Martín Espada
The author of more than a dozen collections of poems, Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. Before joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he worked as a tenant lawyer for immigrants. Many of Espada’s poems arise from man’s inhumanity to man: racism against minorities of all kinds, civil liberties violations, and political persecution. One of poetry’s qualities, he has said, is to humanize. In the aftermath of 9/11, he noted, “Poetry gives a human face to a time like this. Poetry gives eyes and a mouth and a voice to a time like this. Poetry records a time like this for future generations who want to know about a time like this in terms of the five senses, and in terms of the soul.” See More By This Poet

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