books image

Getting to Know--Rhina Espaillat

Originally published at Mass Poetry to coincide with Getting to Know..., my 6 week lecture series at The Peabody Institute Library.



When I think of Rhina Espaillat I don’t think immediately about her wonderful writing accomplishments—how she published her first collection, Lapsing to Grace: Poems and Drawings, at age 60; how she’s published ten more collections since; or about her numerous prizes, which include: a Richard Wilbur Award, a T.S Eliot Prize, two Howard Nemerov Sonnet Awards, three Poetry Society Awards, a Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, a Robert Frost Foundation—Tree at my Window Award, and a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State University.


No. I think about her warmth. I think about the time I rushed into a sunny room at the Newburyport Public Library, late, and tucked into a large circle of chuckling poets gathered there. These folks turned out to be The Powow River Poets—core “members” of the New Formalist movement. But, what did I know? This was 2004 and I was miles away from my first publication, ignorant about form, yet starving for a poetry community. I shuffled my papers, looked around and saw an elegant and motherly woman speaking. Without force, yet with substantial strength, she’d quieted the crowd. She seemed the epitome of warmth and I liked her immediately. It didn’t hurt that later, when I passed around my free-verse lyric (the sole free-verse in the circle) she was kind with her critique.


Rhina founded the Powows when she and her husband Alfred Moskowitz moved to Newburyport from Long Island. And, since her arrival, Newburyport’s popular literary festival was revitalized. Poet X.J. Kennedy has rightly called her “a sparkplug” but I’d add to that: she is one of our strongest poetry advocates and community builders—and we can’t have enough of those!


About her work with form, Rhina has said: “Form came easily to me because I found it in the work of others and responded to it with my body, as children respond naturally to music, dancing, chanting and every other form of sound play. As an adult writer, of course, I soon learned that all of those devices can be used to work with, or pull against, the intellectual or emotional content of what you’re writing. Meter isn’t an ornament, but a tool, both useful and fun to use. And yes, I do especially love the strict forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, ballade and so forth.” In an interview with Rattle Magazine she said, “I’m not as secure with free verse as I am with formal verse, because I like dancing inside the box.”





My mother’s mother, toughened by the farm,

hardened by infants’ burials, used a knife

and swung an axe as if her woman’s arm

wielded a man’s hard will. Inured to life

and death alike, “ What ails you now?” she’d say

ungently to the sick. She fed them too,

roughly but well, and took the blood away—

and washed the dead, if there was that to do.

She told us children how the cows could sense

when their own calves were marked for butchering,

and how they lowed, their wordless eloquence

impossible to still with anything—

sweet clover, or her unremitting care.

She told it simply, but she faltered there.



This is an incredibly vivid rendering of a “hardened” woman! Rhina, whose family fled the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo regime in 1939, had spent much of her childhood in her grandmother’s care. She learned her love of poetry from her father Homero who, she said in a Mezzo Cammin interview, “was adamant that the two languages, English and Spanish, remain separate, in order to preserve the integrity of both cultures and uphold his pride in the literature of his own people.” She expresses this sentiment best in the following poem:





My father liked them separate, one there,

one here (allá y aquí), as if aware


that words might cut in two his daughter's heart

(el corazón) and lock the alien part


to what he was--his memory, his name

(su nombre)--with a key he could not claim.


"English outside this door, Spanish inside,"

he said, "y basta." But who can divide


the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from

any child? I knew how to be dumb


and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,

I hoarded secret syllables I read


until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run

where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.


I like to think he knew that, even when,

proud (orgulloso) of his daughter's pen,


he stood outside mis versos, half in fear

of words he loved but wanted not to hear.



Now, I’ve mentioned Rhina’s warmth, yet this is a decidedly dark poem. In her Able Muse review of Rhina’s book Her Place in These Designs, Julie Stoner calls some of Rhina’s work “dark and complicated.” Her poem “Bilingual/Bilingue” certainly qualifies! Though, in regards to assimilation, Rhina has said: “I think that those of us who have more than one identity, who have multiple languages and multiple loyalties, are not really divided people; they’re multiplied.” Well, this doesn’t sound dark—only buoyant.


I’ll end with one of my favorites because it’s a little cheeky as well as sensual—again, like Rhina—and it hits home about the writing life:





Look at the state of wild undress you've caught

me in, Poem, lying about, with all

the housework still untouched! God knows I've fought

you--but how hard? Or did I mean to fall,

and leave my thoughts unclothed, indolent out

of guile, my mind unlocked, so you could slip

right in and find me? That's what you're about,

I know: seduction, your insidious lip

pressed to my ear. I ought to sew and cook;

I ought to sweep and wash; I ought to dust.

But you have stirred my dust instead, and look

how duty yields to my peculiar lust,

your silky promise of some further bliss,

and not a thing to cover me but this.



If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone. 

~Thomas Hardy