The federal death penalty has returned. Once, while I was in prison, I saw a man talk to a man on death row. The first man had no idea his friend would be executed. He asked, “When are you coming home?” The silence that followed has never left me. Martín Espada’s poem says that Bartolomeo Vanzetti was more than whatever the state chose to execute him for. This is the poem that asks us if it’s OK to name the date we’ll murder and bury another. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts
I Now Pronounce You Dead
By Martín Espada
for Sacco and Vanzetti, executed August 23, 1927
On the night of his execution, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrant
from Italia, fishmonger, anarchist, shook the hand of Warden Hendry
and thanked him for everything. I wish to forgive some people for what
they are now doing to me, said Vanzetti, blindfolded, strapped down
to the chair that would shoot two thousand volts through his body.
The warden’s eyes were wet. The warden’s mouth was dry. The warden
heard his own voice croak: Under the law I now pronounce you dead.
No one could hear him. With the same hand that shook the hand
of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Warden Hendry of Charlestown Prison
waved at the executioner, who gripped the switch to yank it down.
The walls of Charlestown Prison are gone, to ruin, to dust, to mist.
Where the prison stood there is a school; in the hallways, tongues
speak the Spanish of the Dominican, the Portuguese of Cabo Verde,
the Creole of Haiti. No one can hear the last words of Vanzetti,
or the howl of thousands on Boston Common when they knew.
After midnight, at the hour of the execution, Warden Hendry
sits in the cafeteria, his hand shaking as if shocked, rice flying off
his fork, so he cannot eat no matter how the hunger feeds on him,
muttering the words that only he can hear: I now pronounce you dead.
Illustration by R. O. Blechman
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Martín Espada, a former tenant lawyer, is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has published more than a dozen books of poetry, including the just-released “Floaters” (W.W. Norton).