Martín Espada’s ‘Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper‘ shines a light upon different forms of labor, many of which are normally invisible to those not participating in them. Espada’s personal tone and reflective, poetic voice ensure the poem is moving as well as informative, especially for those readers who are unfamiliar with the experience of working-class life.
Explore Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper
‘Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper‘ juxtaposes two forms of work and ponders the lasting impact one’s upbringing can have on one.
Written over two stanzas, the poem begins with the narrator recalling their job making paper in the evenings after attending high school. The first stanza presents the job as physically demanding and emotionally draining, focusing on the physical scars it left on the narrator’s hands. The second stanza reveals the narrator has since attended law school, where they reflected on the paper used in their textbooks. This, in turn, reveals that the earlier job left an emotional mark on the narrator in addition to the many physical ones.
Martín Espada’s work as a poet, essayist, translator, and attorney has been motivated by his pursuit of social justice. Born in 1957, the Puerto Rican-American writer’s work is often preoccupied with immigrant and working-class perspectives, especially those of the Latin American diaspora. Since his debut collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero was published in 1982, Espada has gone on to release over two dozen collections of poetry and win several prestigious awards. ‘Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper‘ is among his best-known poems and was first published in his 1993 collection, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators.
Stanza One: Lines 1-10
At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
stacked seven feet high
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
The poem begins by outlining the relatively young age at which the narrator was already working a demanding job, all while managing his studies. This reflects the fact that members of the working class are forced to grow up more quickly than those who are more affluent, as economic pressures often force them into working life. The use of plosive alliteration in the second line creates a thudding effect, perhaps mirroring the sudden nature of having to get a job. The adjective “yellow” has connotations of illness and disease, implying that poverty is inherited from generation to generation, like certain health conditions.
The mundane nature of the descriptions of the narrator’s job captures their feelings of boredom while doing it. The seven-foot high stack could be hyperbolic, as it indicates the narrator’s view that the work was, seemingly, without end which is precisely the kind of impatient attitude one would expect from a teenager who would likely wish to be elsewhere.
Stanza One: Lines 11-21
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
till both palms burned
at the punchclock.
The use of caesura in line eleven encourages the reader to pause and reflect upon the significance of the fact that gloves were, apparently, not allowed to be worn. This, coupled with the narrator’s youth, invites a degree of sympathy because the gloves represent a small degree of safety that has been denied to the narrator. The poet uses plosive alliteration again in line twelve, this time evoking a sense of bitterness and anger as a result of the job the narrator has little choice but to complete, even if they would rather be elsewhere.
The use of sibilance when describing the paper cuts received by the narrator evokes a sinister atmosphere to reflect the unsettling environment in which young workers are injured at work due to seemingly non-existent safety procedures. Crucially, the narrator accepts these risks without question, as though the prospect of change has either not occurred to them or they consider it impossible.
Ten years later, in law school,
upturned and burning.
The poem’s second and final stanza leaps forwards by ten years, focusing on the narrator’s experience of law school, which offered the possibility of lifting them out of poverty. The narrator’s keen memories of their time making paper are demonstrated through the hyperbolic claim that “every legal pad was glued with the sting of hidden cuts.” This reminds the reader that, behind everyday objects, there are stories of pain and mistreatment, which the more privileged members of society are able to ignore most of the time.
The poem ends with the metaphorical claim that every lawbook “was a pair of hands // upturned and burning.” This emphasizes the brutal nature of the job that the narrator recalls, as well as implies it has left a permanent mark upon his personality, just as burns leave marks upon the skin. Finally, the fact that he conflates the workers with the item they produced suggests that members of the working class are defined only by their labor and are not treated as human beings.
The poem is written in free verse over two stanzas, each dealing with two juxtaposed periods in the narrator’s life. The second stanza is significantly shorter than the first, perhaps implying the narrator’s time working at a paper producer had a more significant impact on their life, even though law school would generally be considered more noteworthy.
The poem’s message appears to be that society needs to be more sympathetic to the plight of the working class, whose labor often goes unseen and unacknowledged. It also shines a light on the physical and emotional toll these forms of work can have on people.
The speaker is an unnamed individual, reflecting upon their time working as a paper producer as well as their later experience at law school. A lawyer himself, the narrator bears many resemblances to Espada.
The paper is a complex symbol in this poem, with many potential meanings. Firstly, the paper produced by the narrator was worth very little in its raw form, yet would go on to form textbooks, legal documents, and more, which become highly valuable. The paper, therefore, encourages the readers to reflect on the perceived value of different kinds of work. This has additional significance for Espada, who, as a poet, uses that same paper to produce his art, which is lauded and celebrated even though the paper itself is the same, interchangeable commodity it always was.
Finally, the symbolism of a blank piece of paper is, usually, possibility and the freedom to choose. However, in the case of the working class, Espada implies that they are not free to choose as their circumstances have been laid out for them. Nor are they entirely blank, as they are marked by scars and burns, both literal and figurative, from a young age.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:
- ‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper‘ by Oliver Wendell Holmes – This poem uses a sheet of paper to represent possibility and potential.
- ‘Tissue‘ by Imtiaz Dharker – Dharker’s poem explores modern society and questions our relationship to permanence through the symbolism of tissue paper.
- ‘Song of the Powers‘ by David Mason – Another poem concerned with power imbalances, expressed through the childish game ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors.’