Aug. 7, 2003

Watch Me Swing

by Martin Espada

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Poem: "Watch Me Swing" by Martin Espada from Alabanza (W.W. Norton).

Watch Me Swing

I was the fifth man hired
for the city welfare cleaning crew
at the old Paterson Street ballpark,
Class A minor leagues.
Opening Day was over,
and we raked the wooden benches
for the droppings of the crowd:
wrappers, spilled cups, scorecards,
popcorn cartons, chewed and spat hot dogs,
a whiskey bottle, a condom dried on newspaper.

We swung our brooms,
pausing to watch home runs sail
through April imagination
over the stone fence three hundred feet away,
baseball cracking off the paint factory sign
across Washington Street.
We shuffled and kicked,
plowed and pushed
through the clinging garbage,
savoring our minimum wages.

When the sweeping was done,
and the grandstand benches
clean as Sunday morning pews,
the team business manager
inspected the aisles,
reviewed the cleaning crew
standing like broomstick cadets
and said:
We only need four.
I was the fifth man hired.

As the business manager
strode across the outfield
back to his office,
I wanted to leap the railing,
crouch at home plate
and swing my broom,
aiming a smacked baseball
for the back of his head,
yelling watch me swing, boss,
watch me swing

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of writer and editor Anne Fadiman, born in New York City (1953). She wrote The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997), about a culture clash between the American medical system and the family of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy.

It's the birthday of anthropologist and archeologist Louis Leakey, born in Kabete, Kenya (1903). The fossils that he and his family discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania made him world famous; they proved that humans were older as a species than people thought, and that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, not Asia.

On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. In 1920, a literary magazine called The Little Review published an episode of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom, the hero, masturbates while getting a glimpse of a young woman's undergarment, as fireworks go off over a beach. It was not difficult for a person to find real pornography in 1920, but Ulysses stood out to officials for its highbrow aura and the publicity it attracted as the newest, most advanced thing in literature. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought The Little Review to trial under the state's obscenity law. The episode was ruled obscene, and Ulysses was banned in the United States. In 1933 Random House decided to import a single version of the French edition of Ulysses, and the company had people wait at the New York docks for the book's arrival. It was a hot day and the U.S. Customs inspector didn't want to be bothered with another inspection, but the Random House people made sure that one book was seized. A second trial, "United States v. One Book Called Ulysses," was held over the fate of that single copy of Ulysses. Judge John Woolsey ruled that the book had no "dirt for dirt's sake" and was not, in fact, pornographic. His ruling changed the standards for literary obscenity. He disregarded the traditional standard for obscenity -- whether the work would "deprave and corrupt" a vulnerable young reader -- and said that the proper test is whether it would "lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts" in the average adult. Woolsey pointed out that the book was so difficult to understand, people would be unlikely to read it for titillation. The Court of Appeals agreed and called Ulysses "a sincere portrayal" and "executed with real art." Ulysses was safe to sell in the United States.

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