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Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
Yellow paper
stacked seven feet high
and leaning
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
The glue would sting,
hands oozing
till both palms burned
at the punch clock.

Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open law book
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.

—Martín Espada

from City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, 1993
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY

Copyright 1993 by Martín Espada.
All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. from City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. Copyright 1993 by Martín Espada. For further permissions information, contact W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110.

Poetry 180

About the Poet

Martín Espada is the author of over a dozen poetry collections, including The Meaning of the Shovel (Smokestack Books, 2015).

Learn more about Martín Espada at The Poetry Foundation.