In Brooklyn days, I wanted to be Carlos Ortiz, lightweight champion
of the world from Ponce, Puerto Rico. I gazed at the radiance
of the black and white television till it spoke to me in tongues,
a boy spellbound by the grainy spirits who stalked each other in the ring.

I wanted to be Carlos Ortiz when twenty thousand people
at Shea Stadium chanted his name. For fifteen rounds the jazz
percussion of his punches beat the sweat from Ismael Laguna,
El Tigre de Santa Isabel, who lurched off the ropes,
backpedaled and swallowed blood till the last bell.

I wanted to crouch and dip into the arc of my uppercut
like Carlos Ortiz on the cover of The Ring magazine,
where they called him a pugilist with clever hands.
I wanted to be a pugilist with clever hands. My father
bought me boxing gloves and I reddened my brother’s face.
I shadowboxed all the way down the hall.

I wanted something from the clever hand of Carlos Ortiz.
My mother and my father’s sister, dressed for the dance floor
at the Club Tropicoro, tracked the champ to the men’s room
and offered him a cocktail napkin to sign for me.
He grinned like the general of a people’s army
greeting the crowd from a balcony at the presidential palace.

I told everyone in the streets of Brooklyn I wanted to be
a Puerto Rican fighter like Carlos Ortiz. Every day I sparred
in the schoolyard until a boy I did not know waved his hands
in a circle, mesmerizing as a hypnotist, then kicked me
with his hard-soled shoe in a place I could not bring myself to name.
The blood crusted between my legs. I threw away my underwear.

Years later, I met Carlos Ortiz stirring milk into his coffee
at a McDonald’s off the New York Thruway.
The black curls on his forehead had disappeared, along
with the Club Tropicoro and the eighty thousand dollars
he counted out in cash to build his palace of trumpets in the Bronx.

Year by year, the whiskey and the beer wore away the levees
of his brain till he walked like a man underwater. One night
at Madison Square Garden, unable to move his arms or legs,
he stared at the canvas and quit on his stool. Carlos Ortiz drove
a cab on graveyard shift to keep away from all the bars on the avenue,
far from the backslappers who wanted to buy the champ a drink.

Carlos Ortiz is sober now. He thinks of Ismael Laguna, who cannot
pry open his hands, selling souvenir newspapers with headlines about
El Tigre de Santa Isabel. Carlos Ortiz says: People like us are dangerous.

Espada on Brooklyn Bridge (hi-res)_80.jpgMartín Espada has published seventeen books as a poet, editor, and translator. His collection of poems entitled The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006) received a Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His next collection of poems, The Trouble Ball, is forthcoming from Norton in spring 2011. His fellowships and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award.

Poet’s Recommendations:

Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers by Jack Agüeros.

The Moon Reflected Fire by Doug Anderson.

Teeth by Aracelis Girmay.

Homepage photo via Flickr by Benjamin Chan

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