Alabanza: In Praise!
By Gillian Kessler:
September is always a vibrant month. The air is growing cooler, and the days move a bit more quickly. There’s a hint of breeze, and the colors of the leaves begin their fabulous show. The slow, meandering pace of summer is replaced with a sense of organization, of goal setting, of potential reaching. In Montana, where I live, September brings a settling feeling. As a teacher, September also brings an incredible energy shift to my days. Long gone are the open-ended wonders of a summer day: Dip in the creek? Mountain bike down a local trail? Novel on the deck? Instead, I look at calendars and structure lesson plans, hoping to bring my love and energy for words to the vibrant middle school students that I am fortunate enough to teach.
September 11th seems to creep up on me each year. It’s a fine line to know how much to teach and discuss, how much to commemorate, as the story of what happened that morning can also evoke tremendous anxiety and fear, especially in young people. Thankfully, year after year, a piece of art helps lead the way. Last year, it was Martín Espada’s glorious poem, “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100.” Take a few moments to read his piece below.
Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100
Martín Espada, 1957
For the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Alabanza. Praise the cook with the shaven head and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye, a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo, the harbor of pirates centuries ago. Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea. Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua, for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes. Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up, like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium. Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations: Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana, Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning, where the gas burned blue on every stove and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers, hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans. Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime of his dishes and silverware in the tub. Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher who worked that morning because another dishwasher could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs. Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder, after the booming ice storm of glass from the great windows, after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs, after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen, for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo, like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face, soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations across the night sky of this city and cities to come. Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other, mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue: Teach me to dance. We have no music here. And the other said with a Spanish tongue: I will teach you. Music is all we have.
We read the poem together a few times and discussed how repetition and precise sensory imagery help guide the structure. From the get go when we see the cook with the shaved head and tattoo, we are grounded in the characters and sounds of that bustling New York City kitchen; we can taste, feel, see, hear all the distinct wonders within. I asked the children to gather their writer's notebooks and walk outside the classroom doors. I allowed them to take ten minutes to move in any direction through the hallways or the playground; the only rule was that they remain quiet and allow all of their senses to tune in to what they saw. They were to write notes in praise of our little school at the base of a Montana mountain. This is what they came up with:
Alabanaza: In Praise of Missoula International School, on September 11, 2018
Written by MIS 7th graders, class of 2020
Thank you to Martin Espada for the inspiration
Alabanza, the books on the bookshelf, words circling to create individual memories.
Praise Sabine, in her nook, ruling her domain, mind tumbling.
Alabanza, the colorful projects made by shaky little hands, doing all they could do to color in the small black lines.
Alabanza, to all who do jobs that others don’t want to do. Praise.
Praise to the preschool teachers who stand on chairs and put up squiggly masterpieces for all to see.
Praise the neon yellow of a highlighter, the word, “Wow!”, a shelf labeled FICTION.
Praise the flags of polka dots and hearts, flags of nations we’ve yet to discover.
Praise my school, always so colorful and bright, full of fun and positivity.
Alabanza, the whisper of my classmates, the footsteps of my teacher walking slowly
to take in every detail.
Alabanza, the scratch of a pencil recording every movement,
trying to grasp inspiration.
Alabanza. Praise the amazing teachers I have who have helped me with my personal issues,
the friends who make life worth living -- funny, kind and straightforward. That’s you, amigos!
Praise the quiet wind, not rustling a single branch.
Alabanza. Praise the fresh dew on the mountain, what makes me feel secure and grateful.
Praise the screaming children, their voices never to be silenced.
Alabanza, the little plastic house that waits for winter’s cold breath which sends children scurrying inside in hopes of warmth.
Alabanza. Praise the soft opening of a door as she steps into the light.
Praise the sweet song of the birds, that fill our ears with music. They know that while we take them for granted, we would surely long for them if they weren’t there.
Praise construction, the rebuilding of all things.
Alabanza to the ever glowing sun, present and true, the sun, the guardian of our secrets.
While the images and sentiments in the poem above express the world views and sentiments of thirteen year olds, they also bring forth a tremendous sense of gratitude. They show appreciation. One thing we can do to commemorate the lives lost on September 11th is to celebrate community, to show up for one another, to live without judgement or prejudice.
So . . . your task: think of a place that you want to celebrate. Perhaps it’s a spiritual meeting spot, a favorite place in nature, your workplace, the café where you meet your book club once a month, a dance studio, a park downtown. Take ten minutes to carefully observe and record your surroundings. Remember to tune in all of your senses, taking in nuance and detail as much as possible. Then using the word “Praise” or “Alabanza” or whatever else tickles your fancy ("Celebrate"? "Cherish"? "Bless"?), structure the images around that word, using it like a refrain in a song. Be sure to identify the location in the title of the poem and give a shout out to Mr. Espada for his fine inspiration.
*Fun and fabulous side note: I was so proud of my students’ rendition of “Alabanza” that I located Mr. Espada on the interweb and sent him a quick note of gratitude, including the poem written by my students. He then replied with a heartfelt thank you! We exchanged a few more emails from there, ending with his desire to come present a guest workshop at my little school in Missoula. Gratitude begets gratitude, friends! In praise!