A Few Words about a Beloved American Poet
by Rhina P. Espaillat
Reader, are you tired of being told what is supposedly good for you to hear? What will presumably make you a better person, or at least a more tractable person? What best assures the achievement of this or that noble goal? Have you been hankering for the sound of language saying just what it means, saying it well, and maybe even singing it, without regard for its impact on your next choice of action, candidate or purchase, or how it may alter your view of the speaker?
Seek no further: I have what you need. No, not strong drink—although what I have in mind often has the same disquieting, oddly liberating effect—but poetry, and some very specific poetry at that. I mean, of course, the national treasure that is the work of Gail White.
By the time I finally met Gail in person one lucky year at the West Chester Poetry Conference, I had been reading—and delighting in—her work for decades, corresponding with her, and occasionally even appearing with her in the same issue of some literary magazine, an honor that always brought with it a rush of pride. Meeting her confirmed what I suspected: that the woman behind the poems is not only intelligent but wise, not only verbally witty but intellectually daring, not only unconventional but honest to the point of clear-eyed self-incrimination.
What a Gail White poem does is gaze steadily at what well-behaved people normally pretend is not there, and then convey it, as if indifferent to whatever risks that entails to popular belief, foundational institutions, or personal standing. For instance, here she is on what is probably the most sacred of subjects: family and its corollaries—intergenerational affection and duty, the sweetness of motherhood, and the innocence and blessedness of childhood:
They’re coming, a relentless tide—
babies that sweep my life aside!
Youth can’t be stopped—no law nor creed
will stultify this urge to breed.
But to the last I can refuse
assent to lives I did not choose,
refuse to cry, “How soft, how cute!”
(“The Cynic and the Baby”)
Children aren’t innocent, just new.
They can manipulate and lie
as handily as I and you,…
(“The Last Illusion”)
One thing the Puritans were right about:
Children are savages. They have no mind
or morals, and their art-work doesn’t count.
(“For My Niece as She Enters Her Teens”)
Somewhere inside my mother’s head
beyond the reach of conscious thought,
there lived the girl she might have had,
the charming daughter I was not.
When I went home to watch my mother die—
solely because grown children do such things—
The undying nature of love? Try “Post Diagnosis” or “In Praise of Routine,” among others.
The comforts of faith? See “First Death,” or “Updating Housman,” or “Advice to Apprentice Ascetics,” in which said ascetics are urged to “Serve God—but do not trust Him much.” One stunning four-liner, or five-liner, counting the title, goes like this:
The Gothic Cathedrals
lie across France
like God’s love letters:
something He can read and say
Anyway, they loved me once.
And so on, right through variations on the male-female relationship, the writing life (and, in particular, the place of poets in the world), literary conventions, the present culture: always a fresh look; a conclusion that surprises, sometimes by turning against itself; and the sound of what rings true for the reader because it is so clearly the poem’s truth, whether the reader’s experience confirms it or not.
That much—Gail White’s capacity to secure our belief in, and understanding of, experience we may not know first-hand—is, of course, the poet’s gift and passion. To do it as well as she does it, in clear, economical language that sings much more than it says, would be praiseworthy all by itself. But she does more: she makes us laugh. Sometimes it’s outright belly-laughing with no strings attached, but more often than not the laughter comes at a price, and we also gasp, or even wince, as we get to the bottom of such poems as “Rosetti’s Wife,” or “Teacher and Students,” or “Houseburning,” or “Dead Armadillos,” or “Sea-Child.”
Gail White’s work consists of precisely that contradiction between matter and manner—a contradiction she shares with Shakespeare, who also makes us laugh just before or just after, or even during, some discovery that hurts as it is acknowledged, and that we can neither deny nor ignore. That laughter, in the face of just about anything human clearly perceived, is this poet’s priceless gift to American poetry. How grateful I am for it, and how glad I am to salute it, and her, in this issue of Light!
Rhina P. Espaillat has published poems, essays, short stories, and translations in numerous magazines and over sixty anthologies, in both English and her native Spanish, as well as three chapbooks and eight full-length books, including three in bilingual format. Her most recent are a poetry collection in English, Her Place in These Designs (Truman State University Press, Kirksville, 2008), and a bilingual collection of her short stories, El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory (Ediciones CEDIBIL, Santo Domingo, D. R., 2007).
Her honors include the Wilbur Award, the Nemerov Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry, the Robert Frost “Tree at My Window” Award for Translation, the May Sarton Award, a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from Salem State College, and several prizes from the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Culture, the New England Poetry Club, and the Poetry Society of America.
Espaillat lives in Newburyport, MA with her sculptor husband, Alfred Moskowitz; there she is active with the Powow River Poets, a well known literary group she co-founded some twenty years ago. She also performs with a group known as Melopoeia—comprised of poet Alfred Nicol, guitarist and composer John Tavano, and vocalist Ann Tucker, which has presented numerous and varied programs that combine poetry and music—most recently at West Chester University and the House of the Seven Gables.