The Face on the Envelope

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator


The Face on the Envelope

                        For Julia de Burgos (1914-1953)


Julia was tall, so tall, the whispers said,

the undertakers amputated her legs at the knee

to squeeze her body into the city coffin

for burial at Potter’s Field.


Dead on a street in East Harlem:

She had no discharge papers

from Goldwater Memorial Hospital,

no letters from Puerto Rico, no poems.

Without her name, three words

like three pennies stolen from her purse

while she slept off the last bottle of rum,

Julia’s coffin sailed to a harbor

where the dead stand in the rain

patient as forgotten umbrellas.


All her poems flowed river-blue, river-brown, river-red.

Her Río Grande de Loíza was a fallen blue piece of sky;

her river was a bloody stripe whenever the torrent

burst and the hills would vomit mud.


A monument rose at the cemetery in her hometown.

There were parks and schools.  She was memorized.

Yet only the nameless, names plucked as their faces

turned away in labor  or sleep, could return Julia’s name to her

with the grace of a beggar offering back a stranger’s  wallet.


Years later, a nameless man from Puerto Rico,

jailed in a city called Hartford, would read her poem

about the great river of Loíza till the river gushed

through the faucet in his cell and sprayed his neck.  

Slowly, every night, as fluorescent light grew weary

and threatened to quit,  he would paint Julia’s face

on an envelope: her hair in waves of black, her lips red,

her eyelids so delicate they almost trembled.  Finally,

meticulous as a thief, he inscribed the words: Julia de Burgos.


He could never keep such treasure under his pillow,

so he slipped a letter into the envelope

and mailed it all away, flying through the dark

to find my astonished hands.


from The Republic of Poetry


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