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Old 03-13-2003, 01:25 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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"Here! Here!"

What bird are you, repeating "Here! Here! Here!"
and later, "What to do!" as if distraught,
and "What to do!" again? And yet it's clear
you're neither calling me nor overwrought,
but occupied, and singing quite by chance.
Almost unseen, your feathered self, aware
of nothing but each pressing circumstance--
each straw for your light carpentry midair--
tosses out songs in passing, line by line
not consciously, but idly thrown away
on strangers' ears as ignorant as mine.
And still I hear you say the things you say,
swear I could almost knock on your green door,
as if you meant it and I knew what for.

--Rhina Espaillat

What further introduction does our Mother Superior need? Thanks to everyone for sending sonnets; we'll be at this for two weeks, so there's plenty of room for more. In response to some people's frustration over the mollycoddling of established poets, sonnets will appear without attribution. I expect the authors to be plain to everyone, but let's maintain the fiction that these poets have no recognizable voice. By no means do I pretend that I can sort through every sonnet by every member of the Sphere and make some Solomonic choice. No, these are all just sonnets that I love and wish Rhina to discuss outside the workshops where some of them have appeared, outside of Mastery where not a one of them would disgrace that distinguished forum. Starting Saturday I'll post two sonnets every other day, and I look forward to Rhina's comments, as well those from our members.
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Old 03-14-2003, 12:15 AM
Joseph Bottum Joseph Bottum is offline
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A constant amazement to me is how Rhina Espaillat gets away with enormously complicated sentences without losing the air of grammatical simplicity. I keep thinking it's a trick, that one has simply to see through it, like a man who knows how the conjuror works. Except it isn't a trick. It's actually her unique voice--and nobody but she can do it

Look at the first of this sonnet's four sentences: "What bird are you, repeating 'Here! Here! Here!' and later, 'What to do!' as if distraught, and 'What to do!' again?" The question mark ought to be too far away for us to remember that this started as a question. The verb "repeating" shouldn't carry through to mean the bird's trilling "What to do!" later--and if the verb did somehow describe what the bird was doing later, then the "again" ought to be redundant.

Or look at the last sentence: "And still I hear you say the things you say, swear I could almost knock on your green door, as if you meant it and I knew what for." Either "hear" or "swear" ought to be a participle, and the singular "it" seems to refer to the plural "things."

Meanwhile, we get a sentence like the third: "Almost unseen, your feathered self, aware of nothing but each pressing circumstance--each straw for your light carpentry midair--tosses out songs in passing, line by line not consciously, but idly thrown away on strangers' ears as ignorant as mine." Who else do we know besides Milton who'd let 14 words slip between the subject and the verb?

It's funny to call Rhina a logic poet, but the secret of this verse has something to do, I think, with the straightforwardness of the thoughts she expresses. Not that the thoughts are simple, but she always puts the elements of those thoughts in the right order, and the logic carries the reader through the grammatical thickets without any sense that they actually are thickets.

Unless you examine it closely, you almost don't notice the complicated string of particles and conjunctions flying by: "and...as if...and...and yet...neither...nor...but...and...but...but...and still...as if...and"--just in this poem. Classical Greek poetry works this way, too. In Rhina's work, as in Greek, a great deal of work is being done in the particles and conjunctions--as it always is in logic (which the Greeks invented, too, for that matter).

For my money, that makes the second sentence archetypal: "And yet it's clear you're neither calling me nor overwrought, but occupied, and singing quite by chance." Only the most delicate balancing of conjunctions could fit all that into one sentence, and because they are delicately balanced--which is to say that all the elements of the thought are in the right order--we slide without even noticing through the chiasmus of present participle, past participle, past participle, present participle: "calling...overwrought...occupied...singing." The comma after "occupied" is the only weak moment here, for it is a breathing comma and actually weakens the balancing act. But I see why she did it: It sets off the phrase "singing quite by chance," and I can hear in my mind Rhina reading that phrase, with the hint of a pause after "singing" and that little rising pitch of accent she uses to hit the word "quite."

What she'd have us believe, of course, is that she's the one who's singing quite by chance, with that note of ingenuous simplicity she often sounds. But those who've read her know better. The complexity of simplicity is what she always pulls off.

Jody
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Old 03-14-2003, 12:29 AM
Jerry Wielenga Jerry Wielenga is offline
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Wonderful analysis, Joseph, of a wonderful poet.

- Fugwozzle
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Old 03-14-2003, 10:22 AM
Joseph Bottum Joseph Bottum is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Fugwozzle:
a wonderful poet
Isn't she? I could read her work all day.
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Old 03-14-2003, 07:16 PM
gp gp is offline
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Joseph

So that's her black magic!

I've been reading her (and listening) for years now, and your analysis has helped me further comprehend my astonishment.

Thank you.

And, of course, thank you, again, Rhina.

~Greg
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Old 03-14-2003, 07:47 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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It was a pretty big day here at the Sphere when Rhina joined our merry band. Len went over to help her fire up her coal-powered computer, and I posted the following welcoming remarks:

Introduction to Rhina Espaillat

Yesterday our own Len Krisak was to introduce this remarkable poet to the mysteries of the ‘Sphere. Rhina ascribes her technophobia to her being a contemporary of Thomas Wyatt. Actually, she’s a contemporary of Plath and Sexton, and the contrast between their shrill dementia and Rhina’s wry wisdom could not be greater. Born in the Dominican Republic, she came to New York aged seven; and she writes in both English and her native Spanish. A lifelong teacher, she is a skilled and tactful corrector of other poets’ errors (including my own); and she will be a great addition to the Metrical Board. She is master (mistress?) of many intricate forms, including the villanelle, the ballade, and her favorite: the sonnet in all its infinite varieties.

Lapsing to Grace, her first collection, was published in 1992. Where Horizons Go, her second, won the Eliot Prize in 1998. Her third, Rehearsing Absence, won the Wilbur Prize last week and will appear next year.

Her graceful verse is characterized by a bemused melancholy and serenity which are precious hard to find in American letters. Her experiences as a daughter, mother and grandmother, illuminate her best poems. She might iterate on iteration a bit much for my taste, but this being a poetry site, I’ll close these brief remarks with the final poem in Horizons, an exquisite sonnet entitled “Why Publish?”

Dusty and brown on some forgotten shelf
a century hence—or two, let dreams be grand!—
this wry and slanted gloss upon myself
has slipped into some stranger’s browsing hand.
A woman, maybe, growing old like me,
or a young man ambitious for his name,
curious about my antique prosody
but pleased to find our motives much the same.
He cannot know—nor she—what this one life
from the late twentieth craved, or cost, or found;
he will forget my name; but mother, wife,
daughter has struck a chord, sings from the ground
a moment to his ear, as now to yours,
for what is ours in common and endures.

The only other time I wrote anything about this woman I so revere was when Bill Baer asked me for a jacket comment on Rehearsing Absence. By then I'd gotten over my prejudice against iteration on iteration, and in fact, my comment focussed on "the light carpentry midair," from the sonnet first quoted on this thread. For all my love of wrath and death and sturm und drang, as I grow older I come more and more to value poets who have latched on to some corner of serenity, whose utterances have, in Wilbur's words, "the quality of something made, Like a good fiddle, like the rose's scent, Like a rose window or the firmament."
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Old 03-15-2003, 12:06 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Joseph, you've made good headway in setting out something of Rhina's creative history, and I would add that it's not only the "straightforwardness of the thoughts she expresses," and the "elements of the thoughts in the right order," but of course the quality and character of the thoughts on offer. Her originality, in a word, which comes so effortlessly (or seems to) along with her diction and natural strategies of placement. Thank you for your excellent post.

"for what is ours in common and endures": The wisdom and simplicity here do not prevent the opening out of a series of tacit questions about what we have in common and what endures, the quality of ownership, the qualities of ephemerality and permanence or quasi-permanence: questions in need of asking, yet not pronounced as questions.

Bienvenue, Rhina, as always.
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Old 03-17-2003, 07:24 AM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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Welcome, Rhina. I'm glad to see Tim hosting you here.

No one has remarked on the seeming reference to Wilbur's Barred Owl in the opening lines of your sonnet.

It will be interesting to see what surprises Tim has in store over the next few days.

Alan
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Old 03-18-2003, 09:07 AM
Anthony Lombardy Anthony Lombardy is offline
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A belated welcome to Rhina! I developed a high regard for Rhina's work when I first encountered it nine years ago, and, from year to year, her poetry only seems more brilliant and more essential.

Tony
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Old 03-18-2003, 12:44 PM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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Thanks so much, Tony, Alan, Terese, Tim--everybody! You're giving me the courage to give advice to dauntingly good poets on this "Bake-Off" caper. But here's a message from my Alfred: he says to please stop saying stuff like this to his wife, who is rapidly passing from difficult to impossible on the strength of all this praise.
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