This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the poet Martín Espada reading his poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Fighting for justice is a constant theme in Martín Espada’s poetry. Here, in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”, a seemingly good situation (a young man working his way up from factory work to law school) is undermined by the injustice built into every aspect of society, right down to the paper he writes on.
For a biography of the poet Martín Espada please visit the Poetry Foundation Web site.
A young boy, sixteen years old, works nights in a paper factory. We are immediately taken into his world, a normally hidden world where we see how the things we use are made. His job is to insert hard cardboard backs between sets of paper to create legal pads. He can’t wear gloves to protect his hands from paper cuts because the gloves would make him unable to feel if the cardboard back has been put on crooked. He has to be able to feel the stacks of glued boards and paper to make sure they are even, and to fix them. As the night wears on, the boy starts to get paper cuts that the glue irritates, and by the time he clocks out his hands are burning.
“Ten years later” the boy is in law school; he has worked his way up from factory work. Whenever he uses a legal pad, he knows some other boy working is in the factory, cutting his hands, and suffering so the pad the narrator uses is perfectly straight. We get the feeling the narrator is the only person who notices the “perfection” of his legal pad, who sees that it is an “exact rectangle.” He is the only one who appreciates what it takes to get perfect paper in a store. Can he somehow break a cycle of suffering through law or writing poetry? Does each law book as “a pair of hands/upturned and burning,” represent a reminder that laws are created through suffering and conflict as well as a literal reminder of inequitable job conditions and the poet’s experience in different worlds?
Read a biography of the poet Martín Espada at the Poetry Foundation Web site.
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