Last week I had the honor of participating in CantoMundo, a three-day retreat that develops, sustains, and supports a diverse community of Latina/o poets.
Being an introvert, I was a bit apprehensive of jumping into such a social gathering, my main concern being: What if they don’t like me? (I’m surprised by how much one remains in the sandbox no matter how old one gets).
Fortunately, the whole crew, including keynote speaker Sherwin Bitsui and Master Poets Lorna Dee Cervantes and Rafael Campo, were warm and welcoming. By the second night, this happened:
During Rafael Campo’s workshop, I was delighted to be introduced to the work of Rhina P. Espaillat.
The poem below belongs to the tradition of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem honoring the hard work of family. Espaillat’s masterful attention to the tension to be generated between narrative and measure really help drive home the heart of the poem.
The last two lines especially captivated me.
Both lines are five beats each, but note how much work the commas do: in the second to last line, three beats are held in place by a comma, then two more follow also held back, then the line break takes us into the next line where the first beat is reined in by another comma – all of this building tension (3-2/1-4 beat breakdown, respectively) allows the last phrase of the poem to really be sunk into while reading, the four beats driving home in rhythm what the words drive home in meaning.
“Find Work” – Rhina P. Espaillat
I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —
Life’s little duties do — precisely
As the very least
Were infinite — to me —
— Emily Dickinson, #443
My mother’s mother, widowed very young
of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,
moved through her father’s farm , her country tongue
and country heart anaesthetized and mute
with labor. So her kind was taught to do —
“Find work,” she would reply to every grief —
and her one dictum, whether false or true,
tolled heavy with her passionate belief.
Widowed again, with children, in her prime,
she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
her dishes, and how painfully they shone.
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