Review of Rhina P. Espaillat’s Mundo y Palabra: The World & Word by Charles Ries
Beneath the form, tone, and themes of all poets is geography. The kettles and moraines of this undulating landscape are their words. This geography is the childhood, parents, language, city and culture of each poet. These are the surfaces on which their words fall. After reading Mundo y Palabra / The World & The Word, I felt a comfort in Rhina P. Espaillat’s geography. It was a clear, kind and familiar place to visit.
“This is a chapbook centered largely on the exploration of bilinguality,” she told me, “as an experience that alters your perception of language and thought. The theme, for me, is intimately tied to family, early conversation, learning between generations, the links of language and memory that join—or may join—the generations. That’s why my parents and grandmother are pictured on the cover, and why several poems are about parents and children, and the ties between them.”
This central theme is well illustrated in her poem “Map Lesson”:
My grandson takes my hand and puts it down
on one coast, then the other. Let’s go east
to west, I tell him, starting from our town:
straddle the Mississippi, shaggy beast
back dull with flood silt; here’s where the plains
spill out to scrubby foothills, rise to looming
mountains that snag clouds and keep the rains
from – touch this patch – desert; beyond, consuming
California tide by tide, another ocean.
He tries the route alone now, finger, eye
transmuting letter into highway, motion
of water, hum of cities wheeling by.
I watch him take possession, claim the land
perilous inch by inch. I take his hand.
Mundo y Palabra / The World & The Word is this Dominican Republic-born poet’s fourth book of poetry. Her previous collections have won her the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize in 1998 and Richard Wilbur Award in 2001. Born in 1932, she says, “I began writing so young that I don’t remember ever not writing. My first poems were in Spanish, of course, and they had to be written down for me by my grandmother, because I made them up before I could write. But after I arrived in NYC at the age of seven, I learned English quickly and began writing in my second language when I was eight. My first published poems appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal when I was sixteen, still a junior in high school.”
There is a gift that some Spanish language poets have of being able to embroider silk on water. Their immersion into this language which is so innately of song and rhyme and fantasy allow these same qualities to appear in their writing. It is never too sweet, or too sentimental. And while I love the Spanish language and many of its poets, I have never found an attraction to what is called formal poetry (rhymed and metrical). To me such poetry lacks immediacy and surprise, and it creates distance between the reader and the words. Yet Espaillat surprised me and slowly guided me into her gentle, wise terrain bounded by meter and rhyme. Here, in “Gravida”:
Look how she tilts, self-loving and sedate
as a small ship riding a painted storm:
forward and back at once she bears her freight,
tentative in big boots. I picture, warm
in her young body, how the child is curled,
oblivious of December, traffic, sleet,
the blown useless umbrella, night, the world,
as she maneuvers both across the street.
I make the effort – less of memory
than of old muscle – to remember how
the same blood-heavy wisdom once taught me
to love my body more than I do now,
to move for what I carried day by day,
to tilt into the storm a while, her way.
Not shocking, but perfect—like a clear, clean note. This is a skilled, mature writer. I asked her if she was academically trained and she told me, “If by academically trained you mean, did I first learn prosody in college, no, I didn’t. I picked up the fact that poetry has a beat, like music, from hearing it read aloud by the people I grew up with. When I heard free verse, I picked up the fact that other things were being done with sound to create a different kind of music, but that, in each case, the poet was trying to reach my ear first, and simultaneously my imagination, through visual language and appeals to the other senses, and through the music and imagery, to reach my mind and heart. By the time I learned the names of the poetic feet and other prosodic devices in high school, I knew how to use them, if I wanted to.”
Still, I see almost no poets working in a formal style published in the majority of the non-academic small press poetry magazines I read. I wondered if they were prohibited admission by editors favoring a more organic poetry, or if poets who wrote in form found the content of such magazines too scruffy and cluttered for their liking? I wondered if poetry was divided into two great clans, one being academic and measured, the other being free-spirited and passionate. I asked Espaillat about this: “I don’t break down what I read into ‘academic’ or ‘outsider’ or ‘formal’ or ‘informed’ or any other kind of poetry, I simply read it as a human utterance that may or may not speak to me. One of the joys of poetry is the way it has, sometimes, of speaking intimately to strangers about one another so that the ancient and the current meet, and distance disappears. I’ve loved poetry all my life, and can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of my life. It’s too old a love, too ingrained a habit to be disturbed at all by the ‘poetry wars,’ or literary politics, or wrangles over how it ‘should be done,’ as if the poet decided that, when most of us know that poems decide that, one by one, if we listen.”
Mundo y Palabra / The World & The Word is wise and perfect and modulated. It sings and dances just as does its author. It mirrors Espaillat’s love of family, culture and diversity. And while I highly recommend this collection of poems, I more strongly suggest you meet Rhina P. Espaillat, the way she intends you to, through her written words.
Oyster River Press
Paper, 19 poems