Dancing in a Box: A Look2 Essay on Rhina P. Espaillat
The Look2 essay series, which replaces our print book reviews, takes a closer look at the careers of accomplished authors who have yet to receive the full appreciation that their work deserves. Reviews of new books can still be found on our blog at blog.pshares.org.
The small tasks of daily life may sometimes be regarded as an impediment to the large task of literary creation. Novelist Philip Roth, living alone in Vermont, once boasted of having reached a kind of ideal solitude. With “no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with,” he enjoyed total control over his schedule. Biographer Judith Thurman attests to the writer’s peculiar happiness; divested of “[c]omplicated domestic arrangements, and the needs and conflicts of family life,” all that remained was “this one thing: the work.” Roth affirmed with pride, “I rule everything else out of my life. I didn’t always, but I do now.”
There is, however, another kind of writer, one who embraces the responsibilities that come with human interdependence. When such writers produce art—and it is often slowly, and late in life—there can be a richness that comes from the long period of being devoted, willingly and joyfully, to other matters.
The poet Rhina Polonia Espaillat is the second kind of writer. An American poet born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York, she achieved early stardom as a teenager writing in Manhattan, but then her creative efforts slid into dormancy. Her marriage to then-teacher and now respected sculptor Alfred Moskowitz in 1952, and the dual task of raising a family and teaching English in New York City public schools, took priority.
After thirty years devoted to teaching and raising her three sons, Espaillat began writing poetry again and published Lapsing to Grace, her first collection of poetry, in 1992 at the age of sixty. Since then, she has published several other collections, including Where Horizons Go in 1998, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize that year.
Her late blossoming raises the question of the poems that may have been lost during the four decades of silence between her early literary celebrity and her first collection. Espaillat, however, considers it no sacrifice, and her attitude shows a very different philosophy from Roth’s notion of art as solitary work to which one must be fanatically devoted. Instead, Espaillat celebrates patience and the value of keeping one’s footing in the everyday. Of her years spent caring for her children, she remarks, “Of course raising them took time, but was time well spent and worth any number of poems. I think that the things a woman does that keep her from writing may frustrate her in the short run, but in the long run they contribute to the poems that she may eventually write. They provide the roots in daily living that keep poetry—all writing—from being self-referential and esoteric.” As friend and fellow poet Alfred Nicol observes, “She resists the commonly held belief that domestic responsibilities have an oppressive and entirely negative effect on the creative spirit.”
Espaillat’s poetry, to date, despite achieving critical acclaim, is still too little known to the American reading public. This is simply a matter of exposure, because her work is deeply approachable and filled with both intelligence and emotion—a valuable counterweight in a poetic landscape that has become, at times, too abstract for many ordinary readers to navigate. In the words of poet and editor X. J. Kennedy, who awarded Where Horizons Go the T. S. Eliot prize, “All in all, it’s a collection likely to persuade readers who think they don’t like poetry that they do, after all.”
Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo in 1932. She was the only surviving child of diplomat Carlos Manuel Homero Espaillat and Dulce María Batista, a couple with cultivated tastes as readers of literature and a deep appreciation for their Hispanic heritage. Espaillat credits her paternal grandmother with fostering her early love of language. Apolonia Brache Ramírez (Mama Pincha) was a midwife by trade but also a poet who created an ambience in her household that celebrated literary and musical creativity, often inviting guests with artistic interests to come to her home for impromptu recitals and readings. The ambience nurtured in Rhina an early love for the written word. Before she could even write, the young girl would speak her poems and Mama Pincha would transcribe them for her.
Her maternal grandmother, Mama Julia, however, was a subservient and downtrodden woman, whose repressed silences and compulsive caretaking of others emerge with searing economy in the sonnet “Find Work,” first published in Poetry in 1999 and later reprinted in Her Place in These Designs (2008):
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.
Mama Pincha, affectionately called “the woman with silk hands” by her clients, energized herself through creative hobbies and the company of life-affirming friends, while Mama Julia threw herself into the work of the home. Espaillat dedicated Her Place in These Designs, a woman-centered collection, to her two Dominican grandmothers who, according to the dedication, conferred to their granddaughter “clear and complementary notions of [her] place.”
Espaillat seems aware that she inhabits the center portion of a Venn diagram created by these two matriarchs, willingly putting aside her own ambitions for numerous years while attending to domestic duties, but never relinquishing the attraction to art and its capacity—like a midwife—to usher forth new life.
When Rhina was five, the comfortable life of the Espaillat family in La Vega province ended. They left home to serve in the Dominican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Soon, her diplomat father’s fall from grace with Generalissimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo would cause the family to settle permanently in New York City two years later. Living in Manhattan, her father was now consigned to such jobs as mannequin assembler and porter, while her mother worked as a dressmaker.
Once in the metropolis, as her parents rebuilt their lives as working-class immigrants, Espaillat abided by her father’s stern language policy that forbade anything but fully grammatical Spanish at home. Even so, she quickly excelled in English, producing her first Anglophone poem at age ten, a still extant text that meditates on nature, one of the favorite topics of her later verse.
As a result of her family’s cultural pride and domestic language policy, however, Spanish never became for Espaillat a lesser language. She remembers that for Don Homero “the words in his own language were the ‘true’ names for things in the world,” and that “if it could be said at all, it could be said best in the language of those authors whose words were the core of his education.” Espaillat, of course, did not inherit her father’s linguistic fundamentalism; her education brought her into contact with more nuanced thinking about the nature of language. But she does uphold his conservative sense of language as a legacy requiring protection from contamination: “I mean by bilingualism…what my father meant by it,” she writes, “the complete mastery of two languages, with no need to supplement either one by injecting into it words from the other, either orally or in writing.”
The recollection of her father’s position on language has occupied Espaillat in two memorable texts, one a poem and the other an essay. Both entitled “Bilingual/Bilingüe,” they appear in her second book of poems, Where Horizons Go. The poem is as follows:
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.
When her first poetry books appeared and she began to accrue recognition from various critics, Espaillat could not count on a significant number of Spanish speakers among her readers. As she never lived in a Hispanic ethnic enclave, her closest cultural tie to her ancestral culture was largely her periodic attendance at the Spanish Repertory Theatre. She did retain fluency in Spanish, her mother tongue, and continued to enhance her command of it for the sake of “treating the language well.” Readers of her first poetry collection, Lapsing to Grace, whom one would assume to be primarily monolingual native English speakers, may have been at a loss for what to do with “Nosotros,” “Resignación,” “Quise olvidarte, Dios,” and “No le entristece al ruiseñor su suerte,” four Spanish-language poems that appear in the book unaccompanied by corresponding English translations.
Subsequently, reading about the publication of a Spanglish dictionary and “wondering what could be the need for such a book, and what might result from it,” Espaillat immediately thought of what her father would say, and the musing resulted in a third text dedicated to her father’s views on language. Entitled “An Imaginary Dialogue,” the piece evolves as a conversation between Don Homero and his daughter. It repeats the belief that indiscriminate mixing of words from two languages has an inevitably impoverishing effect on both by causing “words in one to drive out perfectly good equivalent words in the other. The habitual speaker of such a mix ends by speaking not two, or even one complete language, but fragments of two that are no longer capable of standing alone.” Espaillat’s father in “An Imaginary Dialogue” bewails the mistreatment of both languages that occurs with the flourishing of Spanglish. The young particularly will lose out, he claims, for they will “finally find themselves without mastery of a single language, having wasted the magnificent opportunity to master two. The language of Cervantes, of Neruda, of Darío and Borges and Sor Juana, and yes, of Don Pedro Mir, deserves better treatment; and so does the language of Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost.”
Espaillat’s literary trajectory began at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan in 1947, when her English teacher, a published poet named Catherine Hayden Jacobs, played a mentoring role. Known by her students as “Miss Jones,” Jacobs successfully submitted some of Rhina’s poems to The Ladies’ Home Journal, enabling the fifteen-year-old to break into print. The following year Espaillat became the youngest member ever inducted into the Poetry Society of America after Jacobs, a member, showed a batch of her student’s compositions to the organization. Subsequently, Espaillat’s short poem “The Pigeons” was published as part of an interview in the January 4, 1950, final edition of the New York Sun. In its musicality, prosodic dexterity, thematic predilection for family matters, and use of animals to convey emotion and ironical humanity, this early poem foreshadows Espaillat’s poetic maturity:
A lady, proud in poverty,
Fine but underfed,
With wary and disdainful eye,
Scans my gift of bread.
A cautious hop from sill to sill,
A peck, a warning note—
Love draws the lady back to fill
Two small and raucous throats
Her success continued while at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where, an English major, she studied poetics under Marion Witt, a brilliant and dynamic professor whom Espaillat remembers fondly as someone who “made every poem she discussed feel as if it had just been written that moment, specifically for us.”
In 1952, one year before her graduation from Hunter College, Espaillat wed Alfred Moskowitz, a junior-high industrial arts teacher and the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania. Because her father was a “card-carrying atheist” and her mother more inclined toward Buddhist philosophy than the traditional Catholicism that dominates the Dominican Republic, Espaillat did not encounter family resistance to her interfaith marriage. Moskowitz had served in World War II, returning in the spring of 1946 with memories of the Battle of the Bulge, and was actually the fourth man to propose to Rhina. Two she had rejected “easily,” but the third, a pen pal from South Dakota, expressed reluctance at having a wedding in New York; he preferred to marry and settle in his home state, making the poet nervous about maintaining her close family ties. On the other hand, Moskowitz was not only supportive of her family and her art, being an artist himself, but he also encouraged her to keep her maiden name because it was the one with which she had established her reputation up to that point.
After receiving her degree, Espaillat taught junior high school English. In 1954, the first of her two biological sons, Philip, was born. In 1956 came another son, Warren; both grew up to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became physicists. She wrote very little during this time, but she did return to school to earn an MSE from Queens College in 1964. In 1968, a foster son, Gaston (“Bill”) Dubois, whose photograph of a busy Grand Central Station graces the cover of Espaillat’s fourth book, The Shadow I Dress In (2003), came to live with the Moskowitz family. From then on, parenting and homemaking would coalesce into her primary occupation.
For fifteen years, she taught English at Jamaica High School, a position she held until she left the profession to return to poetry in 1980. Her domestic duties grew increasingly complicated by the task of adult caregiving as well, since the growing dependence of her Alzheimer’s disease-stricken mother necessitated a move from New York to Massachusetts where her now adult children resided.
In “Workshop,” a poem written in 1985, Espaillat explores the tension between the demands of the craft and the extratextual world. The poem, she has explained, provided a vehicle for her to undertake “a reexamination of [her] life, and an assessment of the relationship between any creative pursuit and the time-consuming daily human experience out of which, after all, art is made.” It begins with “‘Where have you been… / ‘and what have you been doing?’” questions asked by an old friend who remembered her from the literary circuit decades earlier. Experiencing each question as one that “weighs and measures” her like “an unpaid bill,” she lists a few of the tasks that have kept her busy:
Well, I’ve been coring apples, layering them
in raisins and brown sugar; I’ve been finding
what’s always lost, mending and brushing,
pruning houseplants, remembering birthdays
The poem’s fourth stanza captures the way the concentration required by the job of parenting shaped her way of knowing the world:
Spoon-fed to me each evening, history
puts on my children’s faces, because they
are the one alphabet all of me reads
The closing of the poem seamlessly connects the exigencies of daily life with the art of writing. Life is a sort of “workshop” that contributes to literary training, imaginative engagement, and final execution, all on one’s own terms and in one’s own time:
I’ve been setting the table for the dead,
rehearsing the absence of the living,
seasoning age with names for the unborn.
I’ve been putting a life together, like
supper, like a poem, with what I have.
Returning to the craft of poetry after retirement from teaching, she felt “glad to discover that the ability to write is as enduring as the desire.” Almost sixty at that point, Espaillat produced copiously and with equal vigor sent out work, especially to venues that had shown a taste for rhyme and meter, such as Sparrow, The Formalist, Orbis, Blue Unicorn, The Lyric, The American Scholar, and Plains Poetry Journal, among numerous other literary journals and magazines.
She also realized the wisdom of creating communities as a way to catalyze poetic activity. Collaboration, criticism, and mutual support marked her creative methodology; she chose interpersonal experiences over isolation. The Fresh Meadows Poets is a group that Espaillat cofounded in Queens in 1986, which very actively organized readings and workshops, and in so doing, helped increase Espaillat’s contact with fellow artists. Leaving a lasting impression on that literary scene, Espaillat had already relocated to Newburyport, Massachusetts, by the time Lapsing to Grace was released in 1992. In that seaside city, she had also started an organization with the mission “to unite local poets and provide a supportive environment for them.” Named after “a tributary to the Merrimack River that flows through extensive wetlands where birds and wild mammals abound,” the Powow River Poets run a monthly reading series and a poetry competition under the auspices of the Newburyport Art Association, an institution that had not made much noise in the city before Espaillat arrived in 1990. When the group published The Powow River Anthology, edited by Nicol, a chorus of twenty-four poets who had participated in its activities over the fifteen years of its existence, it seemed natural to dedicate the volume to the vivacious and generous Espaillat.
Although an exception to her wider critical acclaim, a dismissive review of Espaillat’s collection Playing at Stillness (2005) in Poetry magazine by Dan Chiasson might indicate some reasons for her having received less attention than she deserves. While Chiasson alleges that the poems are filled with “small kindnesses,” he declares them not weighty enough, and that Espaillat’s “humble ‘answers’” fail to demonstrate the abstraction, experimentation, and high seriousness reflective of the Modernist legacy. With this review and others, we encounter a critical stance that construes Espaillat’s oeuvre to be “old-fashioned,” largely due to her deployment of received forms rather than free verse, and the assumption that such forms are arcane, conservative, and politically suspect. Espaillat’s output thus straddles the debates around New Formalism and the “Free Verse Establishment.” She scoffs at the idea that preset forms like the sonnet, villanelle, and sestina are reactionary or ideologically problematic, remarking in a January 2013 interview at her Newburyport home, “The fact is that you can find as many left-wing formalists as you can find right-wing free-versists.”
Suggesting that Espaillat’s work lacks seriousness is myopic. One simply needs to look closely at the harmony of content and form rather than focus on Modernist expectations. Lapsing to Grace, for instance, gathered a series of individual poems that dramatize moral quandaries of various sorts; a prime example, “Incident” (sharing the title of Countee Cullen’s 1925 poem of a child’s shattering confrontation with racism), has its speaker suspect herself of insensitivity when, in the subway, a stranger asks her for a coin and she reacts by taking another seat and looking resolutely away. Other works capture moments of everyday domestic experience, encounters that occur casually but have enormous significance. “Calculus,” for one, recalls a conversation with her youngest son, at the time a graduate student. When he tries to explain to her the rudiments of formulae using visual imagery, she realizes these were rhetorical devices close to her poetic way of knowing the world. She finally started to understand, recalling, “The pleasure of that quiet conversation, the affectionate humor of my son’s attempt to help me understand a difficult mathematical concept by means of visual imagery, became, for me, a metaphor for the nature of love, which reaches so tenaciously across distances of all kinds.”
Another major thematic strand in her larger body of work is to be found in a series of poems that enmesh the nature of craftsmanship and commitment to a particular art form. “Being the Ant,” drawing from Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” presents readers with the ambivalence that often comes from our comparing ourselves to those in possession of talents, resources, and circumstances different from (and usually better than) ours. The ant regards himself in contradistinction to the grasshopper, someone whom he perceives to be enjoying a greater degree of public affection. But the miniscule speaker squashes the temptation to concentrate too much on his imagined adversary:
To tell the truth, although I like his voice
I have no time for envy, having much
to do storing the nest against harsh days
from which sweet singers think themselves exempt.
Ultimately, we can never tell whether we have a better or worse bargain than a person brandishing a different kind of craft:
Do I regret my role in his demise?
Well, yes and no. Let’s say it’s what I do,
and what one does is what one is at last,
as bronze becomes the form in which it’s cast.
As a longtime mentor to other poets, Espaillat’s reflections on form and composition are of particular value. On the basis of his affiliation with the Powow River Poets, Kennedy described her as the “spark plug of the group, a kind of bardic queen bee or aesthetic den-mother, a teacher by vocation and by nature and, as many fellow poets will attest, a generous friend.” In a Truman State University interview in 1998, Espaillat offered an exhortation that reads as an eloquent ars poetica. It brings together an appreciation of recognized poetic structures with the individual’s talent:
Don’t be afraid of tackling formal structure, which is a challenge and a delight, like the arbitrary rules of any game worth playing: there would be no pleasure to any game if it didn’t entail the risk of losing, and if there were no obstacles to keep you from winning. It’s impossible to “think outside the box” unless you first have a box to get outside of! The pleasure of poetry is that you first get to make the box (by learning how to build it, with language) and then willingly climb into it, then tempt the reader into it with you, and then manage to get out of it without destroying it, all while dancing. It’s one of the oldest arts, after all, and art is the only activity I know of that can take a profound sorrow and turn it into an artifact that inexplicably provides comfort without changing anything.
Already past her eightieth year, on June 1, 2013, Espaillat attended a panel dedicated to her work within the program of the Latin American Studies Association Conference held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Her husband Alfred, celebrating his eighty-eighth birthday on that very day, took pictures of the proceedings and exuded unmitigated joy at the occasion. In the audience were conference participants who had chosen the session because of their admiration for Espaillat as a formalist and well-loved American poet. Others came attracted by her ethnic ties to the Hispanic and specifically Dominican-American subdivisions of American literature. The questions and comments that followed the presentations by the panelists led to an animated discussion of the dual place that she occupies in the United States’ literary landscape. They pointed to the composite facets of her literary persona: on the one hand, she enjoys distinction as a highly regarded voice of the New Formalists, a cohort of poets normally associated with a mostly white mainstream. On the other, she plays a key role as a Latina and a committed advocate of her ancestral cultural heritage.
Espaillat’s active engagement with ethnic advocacy has manifested itself primarily in a sustained effort to disseminate the writings of Hispanophone poets from all periods, as well as her undaunted support of Dominican immigrant writers, especially those from Massachusetts and New York. During the panel in the nation’s capital, Espaillat offered insights that readers of her work had no problem recognizing as part of a familiar credo. Overall, she articulated her integrative vision of culture, language, ethnicity, aesthetics, identity, and the power of poetry and the arts to build bridges of communication among humans across varying levels of difference. The relocation to Newburyport not only brought Espaillat into contact with a community of peers and her dynamic leadership in the Powow River Poets, it also brought her close to the Dominican immigrant enclave of nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts, where a group of cultural activists, with poets César Sánchez Beras and Juan Matos among them, regularly meet for readings and recitals, primarily in Spanish. She connected with them and began a relationship of productive collaboration that has included her participation as a founding member of the board of the Pedro Mir Literary Workshop, named after Pedro Mir (1913-2000), a revered poet from the Dominican Republic.
She has long been unequivocal about taking stock of her ancestral roots. Unlike William Carlos Williams, for instance, whose Puerto Rican mother and her tropical culture only surface after a close scrutiny of his biography and a search for clues in his poems, Espaillat easily conveyed her background from the outset. Dominican roots and a love of the Spanish tongue stand as vital aspects of her Anglophone poetics. Increasingly cultivating her skill as a translator over the last decade, she has produced stellar Spanish renditions of poetry by Frost and truly compelling English-language versions of the poetry by the Iberian mystic Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz). In terms of intergroup cultural advocacy, Espaillat has instituted the practice of having Anglo participants from Newburyport featured in the Hispanic programs organized by the Dominican immigrant writers in Lawrence. Conversely, Hispanic writers from Lawrence now occasionally appear in the mostly Anglophone readings of the Powow River Poets in Newburyport. It is a productive braiding of language, love of poetry, and regional communion.
Having spent the first six decades of her US experience in the mosaic-like boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, Espaillat had much to draw from when she urged her audience, during a 2006 speech at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, to think of identity “not as something we have, but as something that happens to us.” In one poem entitled “Cartography,” she recalls her grandfather’s family tree (“Spaniards, Africans, Frenchmen, nameless Arawaks”) and then grafts her affiliations onto the ancestors of her husband, Alfred (“blessed in Hebrew, beside Rumanian rivers”). Her imaginative canopy is one that covers the United States and encompasses generations, races, and religions, as well as degrees of closeness: “Children, asleep, breathe stillness, but in their bones / an endless knitting takes place, a long forgiveness: / slaver and slave, Jew, Christian, stranger and stranger.”
Comfortable with her layered identity, Espaillat upholds the most expansive vision of “Americanness.” She identifies this as being “a person with a foreign background who grew up speaking English and some other ‘mother tongue,’ who has relatives elsewhere and profound emotional ties to some other place, but who is mostly wholly ‘home’ in the United States, in its language and ideals.” Although brought up in the first half of the twentieth century, Rhina P. Espaillat has come into the twenty-first century uniquely equipped with the accoutrements required to speak eloquently about an ethos of integration. She inhabits her ethnicity, linguistic self, gender, aesthetics, individual relationships, community belonging, and biological being with a verve and confidence that fuse easily and yet with porosity. Her work points to a world of capacious coexistence where difference rarely interferes with the possibility of harmony.
Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Baltimore, is co-author with Silvio Torres-Saillant of the forthcoming book The Once and Future Muse: Poetry and Poetics of Rhina P. Espaillat. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American Review, Women’s Studies, and Canadian Literature.
Silvio Torres-Saillant, Professor of English at Syracuse University and Associate Editor of the journal Latino Studies, is the author of Caribbean Poetics (Peepal Tree Press, 1997, 2013), The Dominican-Americans (Greenwood, 1998), and An Intellectual History of the Caribbean (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006), among other books.