Martin Espada believes that the pursuit of social and political justice can and must be joined to the quest for art. These ideals are for him inseparable. He is a Latino poet who takes a cue from Whitman -- "Vivas to those who have failed!" -- and dreams of an inclusive democracy. He stands up for what Whitman calls "the rights of them the others are down upon" and writes a fiery, impure, earth-tinged, human-centered poetry.

"Alabanza," the title of Espada's new and selected poems, means "praise" in Spanish. It has a religious sense and derives from "alabar," to celebrate with words. Espada self-consciously uses poetry to celebrate those who don't usually find their way into literature -- the unsung and marginalized, the overlooked and forgotten. He finds his title in some moving anaphoric lines from the poem "Oubao-Moin" by the Puerto Rican poet Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908-1985), which serve as an epigraph and set the tone for Espada's work over the past two decades.

Gloria a las manos que la mina excavaran.

Gloria a las manos que el ganado cuidaran.

Gloria a las manos que el tabaco, que la cana y el cafe sembraran . . .

Para ellas y para su patria, {iexcl}alabanza! {iexcl}alabanza!

Glory to the hands that dug the mine.

Glory to the hands that cared for the cattle.

Glory to the hands that planted the tobacco, the sugarcane and

the coffee . . .

For them and for their country, praise! Praise!

Espada's poems are haunted by voices and memories. Refugees and immigrants call out to him. "I cannot evict them/ from my insomniac nights," he writes, "tenants in the city of coughing/ and dead radiators." He fantasizes that "this is the year that squatters evict landlords" and that "those/ who swim the border's undertow/ and shiver in boxcars/ are greeted with trumpets and drums/ at the first railroad crossing/ on the other side."

The title poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100," memorializes 43 restaurant workers who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. "Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,/ like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium," he declares in a poem that becomes a virtual roll call of poor countries. "Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen/ could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:/ Ecuador, Mexico, Republica Dominicana,/ Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh./ Alabanza."

Here is a villanelle that characteristically becomes a hymn to a group of Spanish-speaking prisoners incarcerated in upstate New York:

The Prisoners of Saint Lawrence

Riverview Correctional Facility,

Ogdensburg, New York, 1993

Snow astonishing their hammered faces,

the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, island men,

remember in Spanish the island places.

The Saint Lawrence River churns white into Canada, races

past barbed walls. Immigrants from a dark sea find oceanic

snow astonishing. Their hammered faces

harden in city jails and courthouses, indigent cases

telling translators, public defenders what they

remember in Spanish. The island places,

banana leaf and nervous chickens, graces

gone in this amnesia of snow, stinging cocaine

snow, astonishing their hammered faces.

There is snow in the silence of the visiting rooms, spaces

like snow in the paper of their poems and letters, that

remember in Spanish the island places.

So the law speaks of cocaine, grams and traces,

as the prisoners of Saint Lawrence, island men,

snow astonishing their hammered faces,

remember in Spanish the island places.

Editor's Note: Martin Espada will recite his poetry as part of an homage to Nuyorican poets at the Kennedy Center's Americartes Festival, Friday, Sept. 17, at 7:30 p.m.

( All quotations are from Martin Espada, "Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002." Norton. Copyright © 2003 by Martín Espada.)