Much has happened since my last missive. I lost a job, found a better job, and moved into a new house. As I was unpacking my books, I grabbed one to write about, but after carrying it around for a few weeks, I realized I really couldn’t recommend it. I was reluctant to admit it, because I have met the poet, and we had a wonderful conversation. But I would much rather focus on books you should read, books that have impressed and influenced me. So I chose another one–this time by Andrew Hudgins, and greatly enjoyed rereading it. But I have already discussed the work of Hudgins in these pages, and much though he deserves all the attention I could give him, there are still many worthy poets who have not been mentioned here. Which brings me at last to the real subject of today’s column: Rhina Espaillat. Anyone who shares my poetic sensibilities will probably already know her work. She is strongly associated with the modern formalist tradition, and is proof that formalist poets are more diverse than many would believe.
Espaillat hails from the Dominican Republic, one of the Spanish-speaking nations in the Caribbean chain of islands that includes Cuba and Puerto Rico. Though she emigrated as a child, Spanish is her first language. Many of the poems in Where Horizons Go deal directly with the difficulties, ambiguities, and opportunities of straddling two languages and hence two cultures. “Bilingual/Bilingüe” is an obvious place to start. The poem describes both the thrill and shame of learning English as a second, soon to be dominant, language. Thrill, of course, because the new language is associated with a new world and new life; I don’t know much about the Dominican Republic in the late ‘30s, but I’d bet it was a far cry from the perpetual frenzy of New York. Still, that part is largely assumed; the shame is more directly portrayed. Learning–and learning to love–English was something of a betrayal of her father, who would never master the language as well as she. As such, she is essentially leaving him behind, and postulates his own dual emotions–the one that recognizes the need for his daughter to navigate the English-speaking world, and the one that fears the English-speaking part of her identity will always remain inaccessible to him, and that she would “lock the alien part… with a key he could not claim.” Interestingly, Spanish words are initially encased in parentheses, literally cordoning them off from the surrounding English, but by the last couplet, the parentheses disappear: “he stood outside mis versos.” In that simple device, Espaillat cleverly marries the two languages and reaches the synthesis of the two conflicting positions.
Of course, the conflict between English and Spanish is especially complicated, given the connections to colonialism and imperialism. Though we typically think in terms of American/English imperialism with regard to Latin America (Monroe doctrine, anyone?), Espaillat is acutely aware that Spanish was also the language of invasion. Columbus never actually reached the mainland U.S.–he first set foot upon Hispaniola, the island now occupied by the Dominican Republic (and Haiti). Espaillat addresses Columbus directly in “Six of One,” but although she describes, bemusedly, his many errors and ultimate neglect, she can not quite condemn him outright. “Should you regret the trip? Well, that depends.”
The imperial and colonial legacy is also examined to wonderful effect in “Bra,” a poem that I love even more because it is one that I could never have written. In it, Espaillat works through the quandary of finding the perfect bra that happens to be made in Honduras. Here, she must weigh her needs and desires against her principles and ideals. Was the bra made in a sweat shop, using child labor? How do these practices undercut living conditions in the United States? Is it ethical to purchase such items? On the other hand, how would the Hondurans survive without the wages, however paltry, that they earn? A further complication stems from the connection she feels, knowing that the seamstress “speaks that language that I dream in,” i.e., Spanish. I love the way Espaillat condenses the split personality of the American consumer: we want cheap stuff, but we don’t want to support the practices that result in cheap stuff. Or as Groucho might’ve put it, “I’d never buy anything that I could afford.”
The poems in this book are, as I mentioned, generally formal. But while they are by no account elitist (as I hope I’ve shown), they do exhibit much of the precision and delicacy that is often used to discredit formal verse. Espaillat acknowledges as much in several poems. For example, “For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy,” is on the surface a defense of ordinary neatness and organization; but it is also a defense of Espaillat’s poetic sensibility. “Tidy’s been blamed for everything we suffer,” and “tidy seldom goes where genius goes.” Ultimately, though, she embraces the label, noting that a solid consistency, and the commonplace tasks that consume our daily lives, is what connects us all. As with most formalists, Espaillat seems well aware of her tradition, and her debts are well acknowledged–directly through epigraphs or with a stylistic wink and nod. Several poems carry epigraphs from Dickinson, while others (including the introductory poem) are written in a style suggestive of Dickinson’s work. Others, such as “Poetry Reading” and the final “‘Why Publish?’” are reminiscent of the apologias of Herrick and the Cavaliers. I’m sure you can find echoes of Wilbur in there, too, if you look for it.
One final note. Where Horizons Go won the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State. Espaillat was born in 1932, according to the bio on the fly sheet. That means she was more than 65 when it was published (there is a delightful poem about being 65 years old, but I can’t say for sure that the speaker is the poet in this case). The book bio says nothing about an earlier book, though I did find mention of another one published in 1992, though it seems rather obscure. In any case, this arguably marked her debut into the broader poetry community. I find it remarkable, and encouraging, that she was just hitting her stride after six decades. Perhaps that’s why many of these poems speak with such unruffled wisdom and compassion. I hope I can achieve the same in my time.