Spotlight: Rhina P. Espaillat


The Gravity of Rhina P. Espaillat’s Levity

by Leslie Monsour

Over the years, it has been my privilege to praise Rhina P. Espaillat for being one of America’s most distinguished poets and translators. Now it’s my pleasure to praise her for being funny.

The English poet Wendy Cope, in her introduction to the anthology The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems, notes that genuinely funny poems often arise from misery and despair. What better place to start, then, than the genesis of all human misery and despair, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace? In Espaillat’s devilishly droll sonnet, “If You Ask Me” (Where Horizons Go), the enterprising serpent sizes up the clueless duo:

“If you ask me,” said the snake, “this couple’s doomed:
they started naked, not a thing to need,
a thing to wonder at since orders boomed
over the speaker. Every day they weed
a little, see what’s ripe and pluck it off,
eat this, no don’t eat that. Now I’m not blind:
I see her fidget with her hair and cough
that nervous cough; she’s bored out of her mind.
I see him gawk at birds and flap in vain;
then his blank eyes cloud over with the sky
and circle his estate, so green, so plain.
She’s ripe to risk herself; they need to die;
unbanished, he’s an ornament, a brute.
We’re neighbors; I’ll go visiting with fruit.”

Espaillat’s extraordinary facility for inhabiting the personality of the outsider, the exile, the intruder is on delectable display here, as the embittered snake reduces Eden’s creator to a Wizard of Oz-style phony, whose booming pronouncements and threats rely on the cheap effects of a loudspeaker. From start to finish, the poem’s end-rhymes and enjambments prove as subtle and wily as its lurking narrator. The closing couplet is keen-witted and crafty—signature elements of Espaillat’s humor—as she layers Satan’s disguise with a comical subterfuge of her own: the Welcome Wagon lady.

Comedy lurks slyly throughout Espaillat’s work. When she wants to be funny, her wit is seasoned and controlled. She isn’t principally known as a poet of light verse and rarely submits to outright word frolic, as she does in “A Monorhyme for Anna Karenina” (included in this issue). Customarily, Espaillat goes in for paradox, irony, and satire—along the lines of John Donne or the 16th and 17th Century Baroque Spanish poets, whose works she has translated exquisitely and extensively.

It isn’t a stretch to say the ancient art of poiesis may be found in Espaillat’s DNA. After all, she was born on an island in a warm sea to a father named Homer and a mother skillful at threadwork. Her earliest memories are of her grandmother’s living room in the Dominican Republic, where poetry recitations and musical performances were part of daily life. When her family ran afoul of the murderous dictator, Rafael Trujillo, they were forced to seek political asylum in the United States and settled in New York City. Thanks to her parents, Espaillat’s knowledge and appreciation of traditional poetry continued to thrive in their small flat in icy midtown Manhattan. As a result, she glides through her forms with the ease of a champion figure skater, while her rhymes seem effortless (be on the lookout for “iota” and “scrota,” or “fetus” and “unseat us”).

Funny or serious, Espaillat remains on intimate terms with her conscience. Even when the subject is intimate apparel, her instinct is to temper levity with gravity. The very title of her poem “Bra” is funny right off the bat, and its opening utterance, “What a good fit!” can make an audience laugh out loud; then, in almost the same breath, the poem turns serious: “But the label says Honduras.” The double-breasted garment serves as a conceit for both sides of the subject: one whimsical, the other political. Soon, Espaillat is pondering the harsh realities of cheap labor: “And oh, those pesos that may be pennies, and hard-earned.” By the end of the poem, she realizes “How burdened every choice is with politics, guilt / expensive with duty.” Yes, celebrating a bra’s perfect fit is good fun, but Espaillat’s natural inclination is to check the label and steady her vessel with the ballast of conscience.

Witty explorations of universally shared dilemmas are Espaillat’s specialty. From her 2001 collection, Rehearsing Absence, “Impasse: Glose” (named for the complex and challenging glosa, a Spanish form) examines the problem of inseparable opposites. It opens, “Between my reason and my heart / there is warfare without end: / neither calls the other friend, / and yet they cannot live apart.” At the end, the poem returns to the beginning, in more ways than one:

What’s to be done when every Yes
invites a No, entails a loss?
When saintliness incurs a cross
And certainties earn less and less?
The head works hard to sift the mess,
but since the rest is much less smart
it tends to tilt the apple cart
right back to Adam’s tiff with Eve:
she wants to know, he to believe.
And yet they cannot live apart.

For other entertaining struggles of the psyche, we need look no further than “To My Gall Bladder,” a sonnet in which the poet enjoys a string of puns while bidding a bittersweet farewell to the poem’s title subject on the eve of its removal:

Is this goodbye to you, who for so long
have shared my days and nights, so near my heart
I thought that we were one? But I was wrong.
What guilt—and whose—is tearing us apart?
Is it my long affair with cheese that grates
on you? My glass of wine—or maybe two—
with dinner? My refusal to lift weights
or do the treadmill thing? And yes, it’s true
I’ve had you tracked with cameras, to see
what you’ve been up to; but too late, no use:
too much has soured between you and me
that I can’t stomach. I must cut you loose.
Had we confided sooner…who can tell?
No more hard feelings, though: I wish you well.

(Light Winter/Spring 2015)

Food often serves Espaillat as an opportunity to dish up some wit, typically flavored with a healthy dash of salt and pepper. The 17th Century Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom Espaillat holds in high esteem and whose work she has translated with unequaled skill and perfection, once proclaimed, “How well one may philosophize while preparing dinner.” It’s no wonder, then, that when “The Poet Makes Chicken Soup” (Playing at Stillness), we find Espaillat contemplating the life of the barnyard fowl until, by the grace of broth, she discovers that what the soul needs isn’t inspiration, but chicken soup:

What good are you as metaphor? You don’t
fly or nest or sing like a bird, not really;
you strut and stagger, peer one-eyed, scratch, hunt
for grain while the light lasts, comment shrilly

on every barnyard crisis. Cloudburst, dog,
egg and farmer’s daughter are all the same
in your vernacular. Tied by one leg
to the pump, one day you shriek for the last time.

Now metamorphosis: at last we love you,
clear golden gospel we never bothered
to read: intimate as wine, we believe you,
who were never quite plausible when feathered.

When “The Poet’s Husband Engages in Gourmet Cooking” (reprinted in this issue from Her Place in These Designs), she seethes and tries to work while her husband takes charge of dinner. Finally, seething comes to a full boil, and drastic measures are considered.

For more philosophies of the kitchen, “Enjoy Your Meal!” (Rehearsing Absence) ponders the slogan printed on the poet’s new microwave. The poem then proceeds beyond the kitchen to meditations on a variety of civilities and niceties, which, though insincerely spoken, shine and wish us well: “mottoes once designed / to teach the very simplest to Be Kind.” (I had to press pause for a couple of seconds, in order to recall the “be-kind-rewind” days of Blockbuster video rentals.) In the end, the poet exhorts us to speak up and not keep kind words to ourselves, unfelt though they may be, “On the good chance that some of them are true.”

“The Way Things Are” (Playing at Stillness) guides us through the manner in which a poem of grandiose, abstract intention gets waylaid by a bunch of vegetables and a paring knife. The poem, which “set out to interview God, … came home with / carrots and radishes instead.” Add a few peppers and olives, then “punctuate these green meanderings / of lettuce,” and pretty soon, in a stroke of sheer mindfulness, a salad has been created, as well as a poem that “is not afraid // or ashamed to have squandered / twenty-four lines / on the contents of this dish.” (Don’t be dismayed by the unsuccessful attempt here at discourse with the deity. Espaillat more than makes up for it in “Just Stopping” (Light Summer/Fall 2014) and in this issue’s “Overheard on Mt. Sinai” and “On the Avenue.”)

Food preparation isn’t the only household chore rich in poetic opportunity. Espaillat finds poems and metaphors all over the house—with overpowering consequences on one occasion, when “She Resists, but Barely” (Her Place in These Designs):

Look at the state of wild undress you’ve caught
me in, Poem, lying about with all
the housework still untouched! God knows I’ve fought
you—but how hard? Or did I mean to fall,
and leave my thoughts unclothed, indolent, out
of guile, my mind unlocked, so you could slip
right in and find me? That’s what you’re about,
I know: seduction, your insidious lip
pressed to my ear. I ought to sew and cook;
I ought to sweep and wash; I ought to dust.
But you have stirred my dust instead, and look
how duty yields to my peculiar lust,
your silky promise of some further bliss,
and not a thing to cover me but this.

This sort of seduction is familiar among poets, past and present, as noted by Wallace Stevens in his journal entry for August 3, 1906: “Engaged at the office all day on a sonnet—surreptitiously.”

Neglected chores aren’t always the sign of a fruitful poetic fling. In Espaillat’s poem “Workshop” (Her Place in These Designs), she offers advice to a fellow poet by comparing his poem to squalid living quarters:

We’re in your poem, a large rumpled bed
in a cramped room; full ashtrays, underwear,
one window, sooty, small; above my head,
a dingy fixture; little clumps of hair
gathering underfoot. Advice, you say,
is what you want. Though I’m not sure you mean it,
here goes: Vacuum, do laundry, cart away
those furry dishes. Then after you clean it,
make the room say your life, as if it wanted
to keep your life a secret, but must tell
despite itself; as if the bed were haunted
by what you dreamt in it, by what befell
the dreamer of that dream, by what it knew.
How to perform such feats? That’s up to you.

There’s always the danger of taking neatness and orderliness too far. Espaillat easily shrugs off the accusation in “For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy” (Where Horizons Go), when, after carefully considering her grandson’s complaint, she concludes, “I’ve been called worse.” Meanwhile, poets such as the messy one addressed above often ignore the sound advice Espaillat offers in “Workshop,” and go on to victimize their audiences with their sloppy verses. “For the Lady in the Black Raincoat Who Slept Through an Entire Poetry Reading” (Rehearsing Absence) is an endorsement of nodding off on some occasions: “We’ve all been there, done as you do; / it may be rude, but not unlawful. / And then, while some are good, it’s true / some poems are awful.”

By its nature, Espaillat’s poetry is filled with social and political undercurrents, unspoken but present. She can’t help it. She was born in a third-world country, and politics changed her life. In 1937, her great uncle, a government diplomat of the Dominican Republic, was declared an “enemy of the Fatherland” after he wrote a public letter bravely speaking out against the ruthless brutality of Rafael Trujillo. (Look up the “Parsley Massacre.”) In order to avoid imprisonment—or worse—Espaillat (who was five years old at the time) and her parents fled their country, leaving many loved ones behind. Today, when the current U.S. President calls the free press “an enemy of the people,” the words are ominously familiar. Espaillat elicits grim laughter when she examines an unnamed figure’s rise to power and, in a suitably sarcastic primer of corruption, shows us “How It’s Done” (Light Winter/Spring 2017) with such easy-to-follow instructions as,

Rumors may not be true,
but if one works for you,
hey, that’s fine, it’ll do.
Facts are best when they vary.
Make the threats vague and scary,
then repeat and repeat them
till no truth can beat them.

“Nasty Rondeau” (in this issue) is slightly less dire but equally political with its refrain of protest and condemnation, “Damn the neighbor’s cats!” They’re “ugly beasts,” who “slip through our fence to prowl after their prey, / the little birds that loved our seeds and suet!” When Espaillat suggests “kitty soufflé,” one can’t help but imagine an ersatz Thyestean banquet served to the cat owners.

When it comes to capturing and interpreting the characteristics of animal behavior, Espaillat has uncanny powers. The tanka “Overheard at the Zoo” (Playing at Stillness) is the verbatim account of a bored seal’s interior monologue, while “Crab Poem” (Her Place in These Designs) is an unexpectedly heartbreaking little comedy:

Consider Mr. Crab, who after his
brief tenancy with us, saw fit to crawl
out of the tepid comfort of his tank
into our den, out of his life’s show biz
low comedy to his lone Grand Guignol.
Time was, after tapdancing up a bank
of leafy green, he’d take a curtain call,
one rosy claw flourished in jaunty thanks.
Now, on our knees, we search corner and crack.
Not easy this belief that sparrows fall,
that harmless clowns blunder toward doom like this,
while heaven sees and opts to turn its back
rather than shut a gate or switch a track
or whisper in some ear, Look, there he is!

Espaillat is no less discerning when it comes to human communications, as exhibited here by the fragments of “Undelivered Mail” (Playing at Stillness) she’s managed to rescue from the dustbin and preserve for the ages:

Dear Daughter,
Your father and I wish to commend you
on the wisdom of your choices
and the flawless conduct of your life

Dear Poet!
Where is the full-length manuscript
you promised us? Your check is waiting
The presses are ready
and bookstores are clamoring for delivery

This convention is tedious
beyond belief: the hotel is swarming
with disgustingly overexposed women
far too young to have dignity
or any minds at all

Dear Patient,
The results of your blood tests reveal
that your problem stems from
a diet dangerously low
in pizza and chocolate

And finally, Espaillat’s gift to mothers everywhere:

Dear Mom,
You were right about everything
and I was an idiot not to listen

Yes! What more can one say? Except, thank you, Rhina!

A native of Hollywood, California, Leslie Monsour grew up in Mexico City, Chicago, and Panama. She is the author of two poetry collections, The Alarming Beauty of the Sky (2006) and The House Sitter (2011), and has published poems, essays, and translations in such journals as Poetry, Measure, Able Muse, String Poet, First Things, and The Dark Horse. She is also the author of the Story Line Press monograph Rhina Espaillat. A Critical Introduction, as well as two essays for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project (one on Rhina P. Espaillat and the other on Sor Juana Inés del la Cruz), and an article entitled “The Art of Memory: My Visit with Rhina Espaillat,” which can be found in Mezzo Cammin Vol. 2, Issue 1.