On the Avenue
I said to God (It was a windy day
and we were waiting for the light to change
on Fifty-ninth Street, where black coaches wait
for tourists, and dejected horses pay
little attention to the passing scene)
I said to God, “Look at these creatures: fate—
that is, Your will—stranded them on the dung
heap of this life. I’m sure You could arrange
something more suited to their speed and grace
than midtown tours and lunch out of a bag.
And while I have Your ear…”
(The light was green
and we strolled on, The Plaza on our right,
and on our left, breakdancers)
“…that gray hag
there, with her entourage of pigeons, face
like a map of madness, ankles blue
with body’s riot thick in every vein,
is this what living earns, is this Your view
of what old age deserves? That boy, delight
miraculous in every move, performs
for shifting crowds, and having danced and sung
his hours away, scoops up his change and moves
along. Is this Your plan for us, the end
I tell You as a friend,
but there are those who say the cosmos proves
You have grown callous to our sort of pain
and have, perhaps, forgot Your own. Or worse,
never did know the fleeting thing that warms
us wearers of flesh, and rule us from above
without the common hurt that couches love.
This is no way to run a universe.”
God mulled His answer as we ambled south
in silence, past the shops, Bendel to Saks,
and then He turned to face me, and His mouth
released a spate of starlings, and a peal
of bells, and tiers of dressy shoes, and stacks
of books on sale at Doubleday, and rows
of steaming carts with shish-kebabs, meat pies
and every meretricious face The Good
has ever worn.
Ah, slippery old eel,
I thought, and laughed, what politician knows
how to embroider pseudo-argument
out of non-sequiturs like You?
be angry with You: Oh, the friends You take
like books borrowed forever, laws You make
and fail to keep, injuries You invent
to justify returning each sad prayer
to us unopened! But what’s friendship for
if not forgiveness?
So I let it pass,
indulged Him as He uttered fountains, grass,
Johann Sebastian on steel drums, and more
We resumed our walk,
trading impressions through the darkening air,
to the amusement of some two or three
who, disbelieving what the eye can’t see,
missed God in the clear robe of His disguise
and, skeptical of solitary talk,
enjoyed my gestures, thinking me alone
above those skaters on their lake of stone.
Damn the neighbors’ cats that every day
slip through our fence to prowl after their prey,
the little birds that loved our seeds and suet!
We’re civil to the owners, but we rue it,
and hate their cats much more than words can say.
They’re ugly beasts. One is a dingy gray,
one dingy white. And what foul stuff they spray
during the rutting season, when they “do it”—
Damn the neighbors’ cats!—
under our bedroom window. Why not spay
and neuter them? Or—wait—kitty soufflé,
anyone? Shall I pan-fry or stew it?
Shall I filet and run a skewer through it,
and save the pretty birds they scare away?
Damn the neighbors’ cats!
The Feminist Responds to a Wit from the Far Right
You say we’re really lucky to have grown up
where mouthy women’s labia don’t get sewn up.
True; and abusers get to keep their scrota.
Why does that not surprise you one iota?
A Monorhyme Sonnet for Anna Karenina
Anna, if you should meet Count Vronsky
flashing those medals that he’s wonsky,
forget he dances, has great bunsky,
is suave, and good at clever punsky.
God knows you haven’t had much funsky
with old Karenin, but … to runsky
off with the Count? Think of your sonsky,
and poor sad Kitty like a nunsky!
Of course, it’s true, what’s done is donesky:
it’s too late now for knife or gunsky.
Though you’re the outcast all will shunsky,
why should you care? You’re young, there’s tonsky
ahead for you and for Count Vronsky,
especially with nothing onsky!
Mary had a little lamb,
And then complained, “How full I am!”
The Poet’s Husband Engages in Gourmet Cooking
My better half, who’s in the kitchen,
has summoned me—again—to pitch in,
clear out the sink, take down two bowls.
He’s proud he can reverse our roles,
nurture his skill for fancy cooking.
I wish he’d nurture skill at looking—
no, better still—genius for finding
where things are kept, without reminding;
for wiping, sweeping, washing, drying,
removing grease from earlier frying.
But no, in half an hour twelve times
I’m called from soon-forgotten rhymes,
from perfect metaphors chewed up,
to point out pan and eight-ounce cup
and colander there on their hooks,
where one may find them, if one looks.
At times like these, one’s thoughts embark
on reveries forbidden, dark,
whose very joy invites distress:
the phrase No Forwarding Address,
life in some distant not-quite-hovel
with someone working on his novel
wholly immersed in Chapter Three,
living on cake and cheese, like me.
To you who feed on what I scrub away
I say, Bon appétit! As you all may,
to lesser feeders who ingest your parts
to nourish their own livers, lungs and hearts,
assuming such in customers so small
they wear that last disguise: nothing at all.
Nothing doesn’t exist, of course: what’s there
is always Something, hiding everywhere,
stalking its prey, or waiting in the drain
for what may bless it if it prays for rain.
Something posing as Nothing draws me out
of my warm water, almost makes me shout
into the void eternally receding,
“You there, busy at once serving and feeding,
what feeds the need that drives the servers too?
What eats whatever eats what feeds on you?”
“Nasty Rondeau,” “Shower Talk,” “On the Avenue,” and “The Poet’s Husband Engages in Gourmet Cooking” first appeared, respectively, in SpinDrifter, Measure. and Espaillat’s collections Playing at Stillness and Her Place in These Designs.
Rhina P. Espaillat has published 10 full-length books and three chapbooks, comprising poetry, essays and short stories, in both English and her native Spanish, and translations from and into Spanish. Her work appears in numerous journals, over 70 anthologies, and dozens of websites, and has earned national and international awards, including the T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry; the Richard Wilbur Award; the Howard Nemerov Prize; the May Sarton Award; the Robert Frost “Tree at My Window” Prize for translation; several honors from the New England Poetry Club, the Poetry Society of America, and the Ministry of Culture of the Dominican Republic; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State College. Espaillat’s most recent publications are two poetry collection in English titled Playing at Stillness and Her Place in These Designs. She has also published a book of Spanish translations titled Oscura fruta/Dark Berries: Forty-two Poems by Richard Wilbur, and a book of Spanish translations titled Algo hay que no es amigo de los muros/Something There Is that Doesn’t Love a Wall: Forty Poems by Robert Frost, both available from Amazon.com. She is a frequently invited reader, speaker, and workshop leader, and is active with the Powow River Poets, a notable group she co-founded in 1992.