idioma-ing with Rhina P. Espaillat

Reflecting upon my first year here of teaching at the faculty level, I find myself valuing the concept of visibility. I have been moved by students who have reached out to me and thanked me for bringing in poems that are in English and Spanish, or for having made the space to discuss issues of Latinx identity and marginalized communities in general. These interactions reaffirm what I feel is one of my responsibilities as both an educator and Latinx poet, that of being a visible presence of where I come from, who I am, and what I believe in.

I feel I have been doing this kind of work in my poetry for years. Since I could first sonnet and haiku, I’ve been mixing my two languages, letting them knock into each other on the page similarly to how they knock around in me day to day. I feel the experience of writing in two languages, often in the same poem, charges the written work with a further gesture of presence and visibility.

pexels-photo-69004Finding this week’s poem, “Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina P. Espaillat, was an experience filled with this charge and gesture that I speak of. Espaillat is a formidable formalist (pun intended) and what she accomplishes in this poem is a prime example of her virtuosity. In this poem, she takes on the heroic couplet, and strings a number of them down, rhyming the whole way, while also braiding together a dual narrative of language and family. The result is a reading experience that resonates with the precious human qualities that lyric poetry singularly evokes.


Bilingual/Bilingüe – Rhina P. Espaillat

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.

from Where Horizons Go (New Odyssey Press, 1998)

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