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.

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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)

inspired by richard wilbur

The Beautiful Changes – Richard Wilbur

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

1280px-N3_Queen_Anne's_Lace
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I remember first reading this poem by Richard Wilbur and just holding my breath: those last lines speaking sundering “things and things’ selves for a second finding,” speak to what I see as the crucial gift of lyric poetry. How, for example, even the word beautiful, a word poets in general are wary of, is reclaimed, refreshed in this poem, made a thing in motion. This is what Wilbur means.

Richard Wilbur’s recent passing has me thinking again on his work, on the poems that mattered to me as I read his books. A great formal sensibility and nuance. He, alongisde WH Auden, Donald Justice, and Rhina P. Espaillat, inspired me to go inside forms and find a pulse. Moving a person to go and write, that is one of the greatest compliments to a poet, and one of the greatest gifts the reading of poetry has to offer.

Below is my own poem inspired after my first reading of Wilbur’s poem years ago. I don’t know if I give anything back or refresh the word beautiful. This poem came in one of my seasonal sprees of bad sonnets. I do know that I wrote it at a time where the friendship invoked was one of the few things keeping me going. Which is another way friendship works, even at a distance. Engaging in the creative space of poetry writing brings one in communion with others who have taken the time to catch something of how the world “changes.”
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The Beautiful Poems – José Angel Araguz
My friend set down to write the beautiful poems,
Set himself against lightning storms,
Against crowded rooms and bars where men belong
To each other and hold in an almost fist
Small shots of pain. In such a room, I lost him,
And he went on and became one among faces to remember.
The years have gone and I have yet to write
Much of anything myself; still, each night
I chase ghosts until the sky is an ember
And cracks, until I find myself thinking of him,
What he might be writing for the lovers who kissed
His eyes to visions. Tell me, is there no drink strong
Enough to unbolt proud hearts where only silence roams?
Tell me, are these the beautiful poems?

* finding work with Rhina P. Espaillat

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).

* scared poet is scared *
* scared poet is scared *

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:

* scared poet is (a little less) scared *
* scared poet is (a little less) scared *

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.

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“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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Happy finding!

Jose