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Old 11-06-2008, 09:42 PM
Leslie Monsour Leslie Monsour is offline
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SPECIAL NOTE: Rhina’s new poetry collection, "Her Place in These Designs," is due for publication THIS MONTH, from Truman State University Press.

Intro:
Rhina Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic in 1932. She was seven years old when her father, fearing that his political protests against the Dominican dictator, Trujillo, were endangering his family, moved them to New York City in 1939.

Upon graduating from Hunter College with a degree in English Literature, Rhina married the sculptor and teacher, Alfred Moskowitz, and set out to teach high school English in the public schools of Queens. After their retirement from teaching, Rhina and Alfred moved to Newburyport, MA. They have three sons and three grandchildren.

For fourteen years Rhina coordinated the Newburyport Art Association's Annual Poetry Contest. She is a member of the Powow River Poets, which she co-founded. She has been instrumental in bringing about bilingual poetry readings in the North of Boston area, and bilingual activities shared by the high school students of Lawrence and Newburyport. She is a frequent reader and speaker in the Boston area, and conducts workshops at colleges and universities out of state as well. She was one of the eighty writers invited to participate in the National Book Festival sponsored jointly by the Library of Congress and the First Lady, and held in Washington DC on October 4, 2003.

Rhina has published ten collections, including: Lapsing to Grace (Bennett & Kitchel, 1992); Where Horizons Go (Truman State University Press, 1998), which won the 1998 T. S. Eliot Prize; Rehearsing Absence (University of Evansville Press), which won the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award; "Mundo y Palabra/The World and the Word" (Oyster River Press); The Shadow I Dress In (David Robert Books, 2004), winner of the 2003 Stanzas Prize; Playing at Stillness (Truman State University Press, 2005); a bilingual collection of poems and essays titled Agua de dos rios (Water from Two Rivers) (Editora Nacional, 2006), published under the auspices of the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Culture (Editora Buho, Santo Domingo, 2006); and a bilingual collection of short stories titled El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory (CEDIBIL, Santo Domingo, 2007).

Her awards include the Sparrow Sonnet Prize; three yearly prizes from the Poetry Society of America; the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, the Barbara Bradley Award and the May Sarton Award from the New England Poetry Club; the Oberon Prize; the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award sponsored by The Formalist; the “Tree at My Window” Award from the Robert Frost Foundation (specifically for her Spanish translations of Robert Frost, and her English translations of Saint John of the Cross and the Dominican poet Cesar Sanchez Beras); the Dominican Republic's Salome Ureña de Henríquez Award for service to Dominican culture and education; a recognition award from the Dominican Studies Association and Division of Academic Affairs of Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College, and another from the Commissioner of Dominican Cultural Affairs in the United States; an award for services to Dominican letters, presented to her as one of the honorees at the Tenth International Book Fair held in Santo Domingo in 2007; a recognition as Distinguished Alumna from Hunter College, CUNY; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State College in 2008.

Like Tim Murphy, I, too, have had the unforgettable pleasure of Rhina’s Newburyport hospitality. I recounted the visit and discussed Rhina’s life and work in the article I wrote for Mezzo Cammin, Vol. 2, Issue 1, which may be viewed at: www.mezzocammin.com/iambic.phpvol=2007&iss=1&cat=criticism&page=monsou r

Rhina has written some of my vary favorite sonnets. The first two I include here have, as their protagonista, the “mother’s mother,” who seems to be a Dominican incarnation of one of Frost’s New Englanders.

“FIND WORK”

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
Emily Dickinson, #443

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.


BUTCHERING

My mother’s mother, toughened by the farm,
hardened by infants’ burials, used a knife
and swung an axe as if her woman’s arm
wielded a man’s hard will. Inured to life
and death alike, “What ails you now?” she’d say
ungently to the sick. She fed them too,
roughly but well, and took the blood away—
and washed the dead, if there was that to do.
She told us children how the cows could sense
when their own calves were marked for butchering,
and how they lowed, their wordless eloquence
impossible to still with anything—
sweet clover, or her unremitting care.
She told it simply, but she faltered there.


CONTINGENCIES

As if it mattered: still, you probe to trace
precisely when it was fate took and tossed
and overwhelmed you, find the very place
it was you stood on when you found—or lost—
the thing that mattered. When the envelope
slid through the slot, innocent as a stone;
what you were scrubbing when you wiped the soap
hastily on your apron, took the phone
and left the water running, out of breath
with interruptions, slow to grasp the news:
the baby’s birthweight, say, or time of death,
or diagnosis, casual as a fuse;
or in some public room, the stranger’s name
half-heard, and nothing afterward the same.


I love the little “shrug” at the end of this poem:
FOR EVAN, WHO SAYS I AM TOO TIDY

On grandson’s lips, “tidy” is pretty dire:
it smacks of age and tameness, of desire
banked by gray prudence, waiting for commands,
forced to endure the scrubbing of both hands.

But tidy sets the table, mends the toys,
lays out clean bedding and such minor joys
as underpin contentment and at least
nourish with daily bread, if not with feast.

Tidy’s been blamed for everything we suffer
from guilt to prisons. But free-wheeling’s rougher,
less wary not to fracture laws and bones,
much less adept with statutes than with stones.

True, tidy seldom goes where genius goes,
but then how many do? And heaven knows
there’s work for us who watch the time, the purse,
the washing of small hands. I’ve been called worse.


If Robert Burns had been a car mechanic and his mother, a poet:
RAT IN THE ENGINE

This is the story, as you tell it, flat,
in few words: he’d made a nest in some warm
nook of your engine, sensed you meant no harm,
and learned to watch you do the things you do
with wires; you liked his whiskers; then the fan
belt caught him, broke his neck, and that was that.

We trade more news, love’s noise, across the phone’s
thin, gritty bridge, and then the miles clang down
again between us. But I hear you still,
your voice warm in my ear that leaned to you
before you had a voice. Sifting the tones,
the words, I find you, son, a gentle man
wiser than books have made you, or the town
with its clipped hedges and its grid of streets.
In these hard times not every man one meets
mourns for his one involuntary kill,
or moves with care, like you, my grown-up child,
to share what room he has with something wild.


BIENVENIDA, RHINA! What makes women's poetry tick?




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Old 11-07-2008, 11:28 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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Gracias, Leslie! This is going to be fun!

As for what makes women's poetry tick--when it does--I suspect it's the same factors that make the poetry of guys tick, when that does. But I also think we've been at it longer--at least lyric poetry, anyway--and all of that very personal, plangent early stuff by Anonymous supports that notion.

I'm thinking of the "Mother, I cannot mind my wheel" kind of thing that turns up not only in English but in just about every language, in which women--often nameless--engage in "trouble talk" about the guy who ran off, or the guy away at war, or the child who died, or the cruelty of rules and traditions that curb personal ambition, or the pregnancy that will now have to be explained to stern parents....so forth and so forth.

I've been reading a wonderful collection titled "Women Poets from Antiquity to Now," edited by Alike Barnstone and Willis barnstone. The section on Spain alone is worth the whole book, but there are also poems from various African languages, the Middle East, Asia, and all of Europe.

Of course a lot of it has the sound of women's "trouble talk" today, because that's part of what our lives have always given us. It's not that women are "built that way," but that our circumstances have encouraged those precise
preoccupations. It will be interesting to see how--if-- the poetry of women as a group changes now that some of us are CEOs and prison inmates and candidates for high public office, among other things.

The other point to remember is that theme and subject are not the same thing. A writer's subjects--the pots and pans or test-tubes or weapons or flowers that comprise his/her metaphors--may be limited by the circumstances of that writer's life, but the themes are not necessrily so limited. Any poet may use an entire range of subjects, drawn from almost any context, to evoke very different
themes. Think of all the poems--by both men and women--that pretend to be about trees but are really meditations on memory, or the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature, or the passage of time, or...the list goes on.

Whether you use a steamshovel or a garden trowel or an old spoon, it's all digging, and it's the same earth.
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Old 11-07-2008, 02:27 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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"Rat in the Engine" is a favorite of mine, Leslie.

Here are two more Espaillat poems I admire enormously for their playful and probing metaphysics, for their understanding of the fickleness not only of ephemeral consciousness but of all articulation of dogma, if not of articulation itself.

Negations

Sermons the seasons preach that never quite,
and yet almost persuade, almost deceive--
migrations, the fidelity of light,
those steady habits--want you to believe;

as if the mockingbird set out to say
one thing, but changed its tune and took it back,
as if the wind crossing the pond half way
lifted its sequined veil to show the black,

as if your days were plates of summer fruit
that you may wash and quarter, core and pare
for guests, until you notice they've gone mute,
gone home for good, if they were ever there.


"Hard Sciences"

That's what we call them when we choose, instead,
Botany, soft as Easter after Lent,
which promises translation of our dead
into one green, perpetual testament;
Zoology, that clever joke on time
whose intricate, obsessive play on form
links past and future through the almost-rhyme
of flipper, fin, and finger, swim and swarm.
Those others measure scattered light not ours
to read our fortunes by; they will not bend
maternal over us like funeral flowers.
Those are hard sciences; they never mend
what living breaks. Except as headstones may,
by naming, standing up for what they say.




[This message has been edited by Terese Coe (edited November 07, 2008).]
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Old 11-07-2008, 03:58 PM
Janice D. Soderling's Avatar
Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
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What I especially admire in Rhina's poetry is her ability to make me forget I am reading a poem. So often I will literally enter her poem, sit beside her on the subway, stand beside her in the kitchen. Only a master craftsman can do that. I think the word is "transported".
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Old 11-07-2008, 05:38 PM
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Gail White Gail White is offline
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I'm going to give my two favorite Rhina poems, too.
There's one for the beginning of life and one for the closing.

THEIR ONLY CHILD

I am the one who didn't get away.
Their blood tumbled with promise, teeming
quicksilver too luminous to stay;
I am their whole catch, landed and streaming

rainbows. Those others they dreamed of - the charmer,
the saint, the tall magnificent son -
circled the wormed hook, but sensing harm
slid on forever. I am the one

who trailed their bait through the film of the ideal
and rose to the flawed light. No more, no less
than actual, like death, I am the real
one, the waking, the caress.

SONG

From hair to horse to house to rose,
her tongue unfastened like her gait,
her gaze, her guise, her ghost, she goes.

She cannot name the thing she knows,
word and its image will no mate.
From hair to horse to house to rose

there is a circle will not close.
She babbles to her dinner plate.
All gaze and gaunt as ghost she goes -

smiling at these, frowning at those,
smoothing the air to make it straight -
from hair to horse to house to rose.

She settles in a thoughtful pose
as if she understood her fate,
her face, her gaze, her ghost. She goes

downstream relentlessly, she flows
where dark forgiving waters wait.
From hair to horse to house to rose,
her gaze, her guise, her ghost, she goes.
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Old 11-07-2008, 08:12 PM
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Julie Kane Julie Kane is offline
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I feel tongue-tied even in the (virtual) presence of Rhina, whose grace and elegance I admire so much. But I love what you said about themes and subjects not being the same, Rhina. You are so right--each of us works with the images that have meaning and resonance to us, and our themes flow through those images into our words.
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Old 11-08-2008, 08:43 AM
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Kate Benedict Kate Benedict is offline
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Gotta echo Janice here. The poems I like best--and want to write--are those that are not just read but experienced. Maybe the good lyric poem was the first virtual reality! How would you say you accomplish that, Rhina? I'd also be interested in learning more about your personal arc. Did you write all your life or did you come to it late?
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Old 11-08-2008, 09:57 AM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Gail,

"Song" is one of the most lyrical poems I've ever read--by anyone! I've been totally in awe of it since I first laid eyes on it. BTW the two I posted are examples of Rhina's great talent for the metaphysical, but I can't say they're my two "favorites" b/c Rhina has too many moving poems for me to call it that way. And "Song" transports me, is something Ophelia-like and yet far beyond Ophelia.
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Old 11-09-2008, 12:14 AM
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FOsen FOsen is offline
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This was the poem that got me hooked on reading Rhina:

Reservation

As if he has decided on a nap
but feels too pressed for time to find his bed
or even shift the napkin from his lap,
the man across the table drops his head
mid-anecdote, just managing to clear
a basket of warm rolls and butter stacked
like little golden dice beside his ear.
The lady seems embarrassed to attract
such swift attention from the formal stranger
who leaves his dinner, bends as if to wake
the sleeper, seeks a pulse. Others arrange her
coat about her, gather round to take
the plates, the quiet form, her name, her hand.
Now slowly she begins to understand.

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Old 11-09-2008, 05:06 PM
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Catherine Chandler Catherine Chandler is offline
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There are so many of Rhina's poems that I absolutely LOVE and read over and over again, that I'm afraid it would take up too much "cyberspace" to reprint them in my response. Suffice it to say that, had it not been for Rhina Espaillat's poetry and generous encouragement a few years back, I would not have persisted in my writing and certainly would not have had the courage to submit my poems for publication. One of the thrills of my life was meeting Rhina in Newburyport in July 2006.

I was delightfully surprised to see that Leslie had included "Butchering" in her introductory remarks. It is one of my favorites. Others are "Almost", "Through the Window", "Cuttings", "Theme and Variations", and "Unto Each Thing." I could go on an on. Thank you, Rhina!
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