y grandson says I'm too tidy," Rhina laughed, showing me through the small, neatly organized rooms of her house in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she and her husband, the sculptor Alfred Moskowitz, were putting me up for two nights. I'd made the journey to the East Coast at the invitation of the Powow River Poets to read at the Newburyport Art Association that evening, and the giddiness of arriving after a long journey impaired what little presence of mind was needed to associate
She employs family photos not as still objects, but as living transmissions of time.
her remark with one of her early poems. It wasn't until I was back in California, and re-examined the five collections of poetry Rhina has published since 1992, that I fully appreciated the natural elegance and ease with which Rhina has clothed her life in poems, and clothed her poems in life--a suitable set of metaphors for the daughter of a master seamstress and dressmaker.

      "For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy," appears in Where Horizons Go, Rhina's second full-length collection (after Lapsing to Grace in 1992), winner of the Truman State T.S. Eliot Prize, published by New Odyssey Press in 1998. The poem opens with the poet wincing at her grandson's accusation:

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.

      Rhina, who has developed the Burnsian gift of seeing herself as others see her, is uniquely non-egocentric in her seasoned and balanced response to her subjects. Here, she notes the grandson's impatience at his grandmother's attentions while she acknowledges her own aging "gray prudence" and the tediousness of its accompanying sobriety.

      The poem goes on to number with simplicity and grace the practical comforts traditionally provided by women, often at the expense of their own artistic achievement. The irony is that, while she does this with one hand, Rhina achieves art with the other:

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.
In the end, she shrugs off the grandson's complaint with a confident defense of order and the sly triumph of self-acceptance:
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.

      In his review (Poetry, September, 2002) of Rhina's third book, Rehearsing Absence (Richard Wilbur Award, University of Evansville Press, 2001), Robert Shaw wrote,

The integration of life and art is a widely-prized ideal…Yet it is an enterprise that many have found hard to maintain with consistency. We easily succumb to what Stevens called "the malady of the quotidian." To Rhina Espaillat the quotidian is no malady…it is the source of inspiration. Hers is a voice of experience, but it is neither jaded nor pedantic. She speaks not from some cramped corner but from somewhere close to the center of life.

      Shaw's comments on Rhina's work in Rehearsing Absence are especially suitable when applied to her poem, "Workshop," and its reference to Rhina's life as a new mother, when, for several years, she withdrew from teaching and writing pursuits to raise her two boys. The narrator, on answering an "old friend the poet," who asks, "Where have you been?" and "What have you been doing?" feels the weight of these inquiries "like an unpaid bill," then launches into a response which revisits the earlier critical estimate of tidiness:

Well, I've been coring apples, layering them
in raisins and brown sugar; I've been finding
what's always lost, mending and brushing,
pruning houseplants, remembering birthdays.
It's a restrained comeback to a careless question. Who's been doing that for you? I hear between the lines. The last lines of the poem, "I've been putting a life together, like / supper, like a poem, with what I have," suggest the resourcefulness and artistic invention which inspired our grandmothers to fashion, out of the chores of living, such long-lasting, useful masterpieces as patchwork quilts--or, more immediately, in Rhina's case, the handsome apparel her mother put together with what she had.

      While Rhina stayed home to raise her two sons, Philip and Warren, Alfred continued as wood and metal shop instructor at the same Queens middle school he taught in for thirty years. In 1968, when her sons were eleven and fourteen, Rhina and Alfred's third son, Gaston W. Dubois (better known as Bill) came to live with them at age sixteen as a foster child. He'd been a student in Rhina's sophomore English class at Jamaica High School in Queens. Today, the two younger sons are physicists and the third, the eldest, is a photographer. All three are well into happy second marriages, which have bestowed on Rhina and Alfred four grandchildren, two step grandchildren, and a step great-grandchild.

      We'd barely begun our tour down Rhina's hallway photo gallery, and I was already halfway finished with the generous glass of chilled wine she had convivially poured for me upon my arrival at 2 p.m. Rhina, who is not much of a drinker, had poured herself a glass, too, in keeping with her father's dictum of never letting a friend drink alone. In the review I referred to above, Robert Shaw arrived at the adjective, "companionable," to describe Rhina's work. It clearly extends to her company as well.

      Although we both began attending the West Chester University poetry conference in 1998, I didn't actually meet Rhina until 2000, after she had joined the conference faculty. Rhina told me she was first persuaded to enroll by Len Krisak, who, because she was shy and unwilling, guided her through the event for the first two sessions. They both signed up for Dana Gioia's workshop on experimental forms. Of course, Dana, the co-founder and director of the conference, would recognize the extraordinary accomplishment of Rhina's work. Two years and two books later, he invited her to join the faculty, where she has remained ever since.

      I introduced myself to Rhina after she had delivered her first faculty reading, in which she included a poem about learning English as a Spanish-speaking child in New York City. When Rhina speaks, I can hear, in the core of her accent, its broad New York tone, and around the edges, the musicality and grace of its Spanish provenance. I told her I had experienced the reverse of her linguistic upbringing, having learned Spanish as an English-speaking child, growing up in Mexico City.

      Now, Rhina and I lapse in and out of Spanish whenever we're together, as we might have done, proceeding down the hall of family photos toward the guest room, with Rhina pointing out, "That's my grandmother, that's our younger son, here's my father…"

      Photographs figure more prolifically in Rhina's body of work than any poet I know of. She employs family photos not as still objects, but as living transmissions of time. Examining the faces captured in a snapshot, she reveals the journey of generations as she passes through the surface of a snapshot like Alice going through the looking glass; except that Rhina finds herself not in a backwards world, but in a world of subtle, emotional connections between past and present, a feat tellingly demonstrated in "Variations" (Rehearsing Absence):

Family faces modulate
like variations on a theme,
so that in chordal passages
the decades shift without a seam,

the living echoing the dead
to dress themselves in borrowed grace.
I like to find my father's look
safe in my son's unwounded face.

      Rhina is well aware of the influence photographs have on her work, as well as their power to invigorate memory. Samuel Johnson didn't know about family photos when he wrote, "The true art of memory is the art of attention." For Rhina, who says of memory, "it's all we have, all we are," photos preserve, enhance, and deepen her attention. They offer indispensable assistance, both practical and inspirational, as illustrated in "To Make a Photo Wall" (The Shadow I Dress In):

First, print each name across the back
while you still can, while you still know,
quickly, before they drift and blow
nameless down some diminished track.
Then, stroke the cousin who died young;
wave to your father in his prime;
comfort the friend capricious time
has stripped of all she lives among.
Bind words and music, name and face,
the living and the dead together
into one shallow, changeless place,
all they had done and meant to do
caught in the light of vanished weather.
Now, let them print their name on you.

      Proceeding along the hallway photo gallery, I paused at a pair of black-and-white snapshots of Rhina and Alfred on their wedding day. Rhina, who is now seventy-five, was twenty, and Alfred twenty-seven, when the couple were married in New York City in 1952, the year before Rhina

graduated from Hunter College with her degree in English literature. Five years earlier, in 1947, while attending the Julia Richman School in Manhattan, one of her instructors, Catherine Hayden Jacobs, had the wisdom to submit Rhina's poems to The Ladies' Home Journal, which resulted in Rhina's first publication as a poet. The following year, the same teacher submitted Rhina's published poems to the Poetry Society of America, back in the days when members were selected on the basis of published work, and Rhina became the youngest poet ever to be admitted to that once selective group. So, Rhina was already a published and recognized young poet when, after their modest nuptials and Rhina's graduation, the young couple embarked on teaching careers in the public schools of Queens.

      In the wedding photos, Rhina, in her white wedding gown, is a graceful, dark-haired beauty. The memory of that image resonated later on when I returned home and found this poem, published in the on-line journal, Botteghe Oscure, in which the poet reflects on a photograph taken when she was an eighteen year-old girl. In the poem, Rhina addresses the tradition, practiced by the mothers in her family, of steering their daughters away from the sin of forming a high opinion of their beauty, in order to prevent them from becoming dependent on their looks rather than their accomplishments:


Clearly, this is no Helen: not one skiff
would have been launched by the pinched smile, the stiff
hand shading one eye from summer sun,
and one eye tearing: it is fifty-one,
I guess, when this was taken. And I knew--
my mother warned me--that it would not do
to count on beauty, or what looks procured.
Luckily, love came early, and endured.

The warning, I learned later-many years
after the girl I was had dried those tears--
had been pro forma, issued to prevent
the sin of vanity. The same intent
had led my mother's mother to the lies
that kept her, also, dim in her own eyes,
told not from malice, but in virtue's name.

The series closed with me: no daughters came
to be kept modest at a price so steep.
Lucky, since what we're taught is what we keep,
if we're taught early. I have handsome boys;
telling them so is one among my joys.

      It would have been easy to end the poem here; but Rhina, like a true explorer, as is typical in her work, persists, in search of further discovery:

Another is discovering--though late--
how not to credit words that devastate,
if they are spoken by misguided love
that once endured what it is guilty of.
And yes, one more: the pleasure, long deferred,
of finding my young face, of which I heard
such painful things, deserving of no less
than any face we would not curse or bless.
I wonder--having cursed it long ago--
what else would have been comforting to know.

      Resentment at denying one's beauty notwithstanding, a modest disposition and "an absence of self-importance" (in Robert Shaw's words), were instilled in Rhina at an early age, and have remained. She did manage, however, to snatch from the jaws of what could have resulted in defeatism and timidness, a blithesome sense of irony, profound reverence for memory, and unapologetic self-knowledge.

      A photograph of Rhina and her mother hung in the guest room, and it took my breath away. In the photo, Rhina's mother looked like Natalie Wood. She was wearing a stylish chapeau of the sort that might have been designed by Edith Head for Audrey Hepburn. (Later on, Rhina told me an anecdote in which her mother, while attending a ladies' tea party in New York City, felt patronized when asked about her life in the Dominican Republic by one of the tea-sipping ladies, "What do they wear in your country?" Rhina's mother responded, "Nothing, just hats.")

      "That's my mother," Rhina said, while I kept staring at the photo. Next to her mother's, Rhina's teenage face with its shy smile, was slightly darker in skin color, an observation that occurred to me again later on, when Rhina remarked that no one born in the Dominican Republic is without slave blood in her genes.

      Born January 20, 1932 in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, Rhina was the only child of Carlos Manuel Homero Espaillat, a diplomat, and Dulce María Batista, a dressmaker. Thanks to the influence of her paternal grandmother, Apolonia Brache Ramírez, whose home was a haven of music, art, and poetry, and the spontaneous recitations by her father of his favorite poets, Rhina was composing verses by the age of five. While she recited her poems out loud, her grandmother lovingly transcribed them to paper.

      That idyllic childhood ended at the age of seven, when her family was forced out of the country in 1939, not long after the Dominican dictator, Trujillo, sent his army to slaughter several thousand impoverished Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. "Many of them were illegal immigrants looking for agricultural work," Rhina related, "and Trujillo hoped that by blaming them for poor economic conditions in the country he could keep critics from noticing the corruption and rampant dishonesty of his government. Many among those Haitians were Dominican by birth, including infants, who were slaughtered along with helpless old people."

      At the time, Rhina's father was working as secretary to a legation on a diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., led by his uncle, Rafael Brache, Rhina's great uncle. Brache wrote a strong letter to Trujillo, denouncing the massacre and

There is an enduring sense of sorrow in Rhina's poems about her father, who, after losing his country, clung furiously to his language.
calling his regime "criminal," for which Trujillo declared him "an enemy of the fatherland." He went into exile, along with Rhina's father, who brought his wife and daughter to the United States, where they settled in New York City. "Papa never saw his mother again," Rhina told me, "or many elderly relatives and friends who died before Trujillo was killed in 1960, after 30 years of one of the continent's most brutal and repressive dictatorships."

      There is an enduring sense of sorrow in Rhina's poems about her father, who, after losing his country, clung furiously to his language. In her revelatory essay, "Bilingual/Bilingüe" (published in Where Horizons Go), Rhina writes,

…no English was allowed in that midtown Manhattan apartment that became home after my arrival in New York in 1939. …[English] was banished from family conversation: …among ourselves, only Spanish was permitted, and it had to be pure, grammatical, unadulterated Spanish. …His theory was simple: if it could be said at all it could be said best in the language of those authors whose words were the core of his education. But his insistence on pure Spanish made it difficult, sometimes impossible, to bring home and share the jokes of friends, puns, pop lyrics, and other staples of seven-year-old conversation. Table talk sometimes ended with tears or sullen silence.

      Her poem of the same name, "Bilingual/Bilingüe," is one of the best-known and frequently anthologized of Rhina's works. In 2006, when she was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to judge the Poems Out Loud competition, so many high school students had chosen "Bilingual/Bilingüe" as their performance piece, she was forced to step down and become a guest-of-honor instead.


My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter's heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was-his memory, his name
(su nombre)--with a key he could not claim.

"English outside this door, Spanish inside,"
he said, "y basta." But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
Proud (orgulloso) of his daughter's pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

      Rhina's mother became her principal ally in adapting to English, "this rich, electric language with its heavy beat and its flavor of violence," so different from the gentle undulations of her father's beloved Spanish. Rhina fondly recalled, while we conversed, how, all through his life, though a non-believer, her father would regularly recite the poetry of St. John of the Cross. She also recalled, somberly, how he never became a U.S. citizen, and "on discovering he had cancer, insisted on returning to his hometown, to die among memories of his childhood and be buried where his ancestors rested." Her mother, on the other hand, "fell in love with English, with laws that are equal for all, with the kind of education that encourages optimism and faith in one's personal destiny…and discovered by herself…the treasures in store for her in the public library and night school."

      Even though she quickly and fully embraced her new home in the U.S., Rhina's native country never faded from her imagination. Impressions of her Dominican childhood are preserved in numerous poems, portraying that irretrievable time and place as vividly unchanged, sealed in the bubble of memory and dreams, recaptured here, in the poem, "Where Childhood Lives."

In my home town the nights are warm
and flies are watchful at the net,
as if Remember posted guards
along the borders of Forget.

And all night long in slow exchange
a dialogue of plunk and plink
from leaky roof to rusty basin
echoes what the raindrops think.

Along the wall where lizards hunt
mosquitoes urge their long complaint
and pious photographs commingle
the dead, the living, and the saint.

One rooster, two, then five or six
from hill to valley rout the night,
and maids sigh up from creaky springs
to morning prayer and kitchen light.

Along my narrow shuttered street
trot little donkeys gray as dust,
stopping to nuzzle here and there
at orange peel and cracker crust.

And morning takes the river road
down to the bank where childhood lives
where stones and water know my name
and stroke me with diminutives.
"Diminutives" refers to the habit, so prevalent in Spanish-speaking countries, of adding diminutive suffixes as an expression of affection when addressing a loved one.

      These writings appear in a bilingual edition of Rhina's work, entitled Agua de Dos Ríos, (Water from Two Rivers), published in 2006 in Santo Domingo. The translations are all done by Rhina, including, at the end of the book, translations into Spanish of poems by her fellow Powow River Poets, Len Krisak and Alfred Nicol.

      Rhina's work as a translator is prodigious, something many of her readers may not be aware of. I was given a glimpse, during my tour, of the shelves in her office, holding the volumes of neatly typed pages of originals and translations, some into English, some into Spanish, all catalogued and labeled in smart, and, I daresay, tidy three-ring binders. An archivist's dream. She has translated almost 150 poems from Spanish to English from the work of some four dozen Spanish and Latin American poets, chiefly, St. John of the Cross, Miquel Hernandez and Federico García Lorca (Spaniards); Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Miguel de Guevara (Mexicans); Manuel de Cabral, César Sanchez Beras, and Juan Matos (Dominicans). From the Portuguese, she has translated Luis Vaz de Camoes, Francisco Rodriguez Lobo, Tomás de Noronha, and Antero de Quental.

      She selects mainly the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets for her translations, not only because they wrote sonnets and other formal, rhyming poems, but because they are in the public domain, free and clear. Also, their subjects of romantic love, life's ironies, and the inevitability of loss and change are timeless, as engaging as ever when brought up to date in contemporary English. Rhina is expert at fluently preserving their rhyme schemes and nuances, particularly in the case of Sor Juana, whose elements of chiasmus and paradox suit Rhina's playful insights and limber bilingualism.

      The suppleness of her bilingual background has given Rhina a philosophy of universality when it comes to the language of poetry. In her essay, "Bilingual/Bilingüe," she wrote,

Anybody who has ever gone hunting for that one right and elusive word knows what bilingualism feels like, even if he's never left his native country or learned a word in any language but his own. There is a sense in which every poet is bilingual, and those of us who are more overtly so are only living metaphors for the condition that applies to us all.

      On April 21 of this year, Rhina was invited to speak at the Hispanic Society on Park Avenue in New York City for a conference on translation, sponsored by the Hudson Review. In May, after the second annual Newburyport Poetry Festival (which Rhina participated in last year, and resulted in an attendance of over three thousand), she and Alfred flew to Santo Domingo for the International Book Fair, and the Dominican launching of her bilingual book, Agua de dos ríos. Last October, the Book Fair was held in New York City, and Rhina was honored with a standing ovation for her work as a translator. This year, the Fair in Santo Domingo was dedicated to her and a street named after her.

      On the wall of Rhina's office, which, at the time, she was sharing with Alfred (she has since moved to a room of her own in the basement), I noticed a plaque from the Robert Frost Foundation hanging beside Alfred's Bronze Star Award for his injuries in World War II. Rhina's reads: "Robert Frost Foundation/ 2004/Tree at My Window Award/Presented this year to the extraordinary poet, Rhina Espaillat, who, having set a new standard of excellence in translations of Robert Frost, Saint John of the Cross, and Cesar Sanchez Beras, has returned this harvest of language to the Merrimack Valley in her support of poetry." That same year, Rhina received the Dominican Republic's Salome Ureña de Henriquez Award for her service to Dominican culture and education.

      Many of Rhina's translations of Robert Frost into Spanish have been published in the University of Georgia journal, Literary Imagination. In addition, the Frost Foundation has given her an open invitation to translate Frost's poems. In the next year, ten of her translations will be placed along the Robert Frost Trail on the Lawrence Common, and she's already completed a Spanish translation of "The Death of the Hired Man," entitled, "La muerte del jornalero." In her Spanish version, Rhina has changed Warren's name to Rubén, because Warren has no equivalent in Spanish, the "w" being foreign to any Spanish word. Rubén is a good substitute with its uncomplicated, rural resonance.

      I asked Rhina what made her focus her energies on Frost, and she said, "What appeals to me is the challenge of reproducing his quintessentially American sound in my native language." A daunting task, to be sure, yet Rhina takes it on with a shrug of humble confidence. In "La muerte del jornalero" she meets the challenge with virtuosity, maintaining Frost's punctuation and line breaks throughout, while carrying on the hushed conversational tone of the dialogue. In addition, it is as close to English blank verse as anything I've ever seen in Spanish. Here, for example, is the famous exchange about "home":

"Tu casa es donde tienen que ampararte,
si tienes que pedirlo."
                                "Yo diría,
donde no es necesario merecerlo."

      In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Rhina manages Frost's "quatro rima" stanzas perfectly. In the final stanza, she adds "alluring" (halagüeño) to "lovely, dark and deep," in order to carry the rhyme over from the preceding stanza. However, because so many of the vowel endings elide with the vowel openings of succeeding words, the result is not an overly long line, but a slight sense of lingering before going on to the promises that need keeping:

El bosque es bello, oscuro, hondo, halagüeño,
Pero di mi palabra, y tengo empeño,
Y hay millas por viajar antes del sueño,
Y hay millas por viajar antes del sueño.

      Leaving her office, we finished the house tour in the little sunroom where Rhina showed me her night-blooming cereus, a species common to the coasts of her native Hispaniola, winding its exotic, primitive branches among other potted specimens. Tending to these plants, Rhina told me, is her salvation during the prolonged New England winters when gardening is nothing but a dream of past summers. I suspected that memories of her tropical childhood were nurtured here, too.

      The small conservatory with its imported flora struck me as a device for maintaining the illusion of time and place, a Zen-like paradox, which Rhina addresses in one of her most Dickinsonian poems, "Snow" (Playing at Stillness):

Deception underfoot,
deception on the bough:
it covers bud and root
to state the naked now

as the full-flowered tree
would charm this out of mind.
All presence seems to be
deception of a kind.

      After Rhina served us dinner and packed up the brownies and refreshments for the evening's event, we drove to the Newburyport Art Association for my reading with Alfred Nicol. Deborah Warren made flattering and witty introductions, and Alfred Nicol and I did our best to live up to them. Afterwards, I was treated to abundant calamari, whiskey, and laughter at the pub next-door with the Powow River Poets, including Michael Cantor, Alfred Nicol, Deborah Warren, Bill Coyle, Robert Crawford, Midge Goldberg, Don Kimball, and Len Krisak.

      It's important to note that Rhina was instrumental in the founding of the Powow River Poets sixteen years ago. An excellent anthology of their work, edited by Alfred Nicol, was published last year, for which X.J. Kennedy wrote in his Introduction: "The Powow River Poets, not to be confused with Native American powwows, derive their name from a tributary of the Merrimack River that flows through extensive wetlands where birds and mammals abound. …Only four [of the Powow poets] live in Newburyport. 'It's amazing how cohesive the group is, when our homes are so scattered!' says Rhina P. Espaillat, who, without ever being elected to office, has long been a sparkplug of the group, a kind of bardic queen bee or aesthetic den mother, a teacher by vocation and by nature and, as many of her fellow poets will attest, a generous friend. At any rate, the Powow River Poets didn't exist before her time, nor had the Newburyport Arts Association made much noise until she, a former New York City teacher, and her husband, sculptor, Alfred Moskowitz, came to town in 1990."

      Rhina did not join us at the pub, saying to me, "I would if I were your age, but not anymore." She added the admonishment, "Do NOT bring up politics." I didn't.

      It was past midnight when Alfred Nicol kindly drove me home through the quiet, dark streets of Newburyport. Along the way, our headlights caught a raid of robust and beautiful skunks celebrating the contents of some curbside trashcans. Rhina and Alfred were still up and wide awake when I arrived back at their house. We stayed up another hour or so while I looked at Rhina's collection of Spanish dictionaries and some of the Spanish poetry Websites she has discovered.

      I was slow to revive myself in the morning and slept sinfully late. As I came to, I was vaguely aware of Rhina humming pleasantly and cheerfully throughout various rooms of the house. I thought of the gradual process of awakening Rhina defined with striking personal accuracy in her poem, "Morning Song" (Playing at Stillness):

Pulling back into daybreak
out of dream places,
whom should I meet but memory
wearing my faces:

Wearing the clumsy girl
and the clean bride,
and the listening child
who lives inside,

Wearing the one who broods
and the one who sings,
and the diamond-hard stranger
outside of things,

And the glad woman ragged
with busy giving,
all tumbling out of their lives
into my living.

Oh, what a slow fall, sifting
out of lost places,
gathering down to daybreak
with all those faces!

      After breakfast and a heavenly sway in the hammock installed on the screened porch (another living memory of the tropics), where I could have spent the entire day resisting gravity's pull, I was ushered into the passenger seat of Alfred's car for a tour of Newburyport and its environs. Rhina sat in back while Alfred drove and narrated.

      It was a dazzling day of greens and blues. Our first stop was at Waterfront Park where we strolled on the boardwalk alongside the Merrimack River. Sitting on a bench by a river is a Whitmanesque experience, in which one can remain stationary in the present, while the future flows unstoppably by. It was here Rhina recounted to me the sorrows of her mother's Alzheimer's disease. The first lines of her poem, "Alzheimer's" (The Shadow I Dress In), say everything:

Her look is like a doorway opening
into a scene of ruin so complete
that sense recoils as from the acrid air
of sickrooms after death, and no live thing
welcomes the eye or sniffs about the feet.

      The heartbreak is immense, as Rhina recalls the person her mother once was. In her essay, "A Recollection and Perhaps a Tribute" (Agua de dos Ríos), she writes: "If I search for the truth, it's because she taught me to sew straight…If I love books it's because she taught me the importance of dealing with the larger world, escaping one's narrow niche and reaching out with imagination…If I live for the word it's because she taught me, through the courage with which she hurled herself into the future, the importance of thinking into what lies ahead."

      When the disease became unmanageable, Rhina began to spend endless hours travelling back and forth to her mother's apartment. Relief came in 1990, when Alfred retired from school teaching, and their two sons, Philip and Warren, physicists living near Newburyport, convinced their parents to move from New York to the Massachusetts seaside town, where, they were certain, their grandmother's care would be less stressful for Rhina than New York City. The move to Newburyport changed everything for the better. Rhina's mother was able to live out her years, "her final exile on the Massachusetts coast," in a well-run facility, and only a short distance from Rhina's house.

      After watching the river, it was time to see the ocean. When my hosts drove me to Plum Island on the Atlantic coast, I was hardly prepared for the pristine beauty of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Beach grasses stretched as far as the eye could see, leaning and whispering in the shifting breezes as we walked towards the water. When we reached the beach, Rhina told me that Tim Murphy, on his last visit, had stood on the sand, reciting Beowulf at full voice in Old English. I, coming from Southern California, where development has overtaken nearly every shore, stood in speechless wonder at the expanse of unspoiled coastal grassland. To me, it looked like a vast, clean page. I could envision the New World where my British ancestors landed more than three centuries ago-merchants, opportunists, clergymen, clerks, gunsmiths, jewelers, and, of course, quilt makers. All I could do was raise my camera to my eye and preserve the sight on film.

      Back home, Rhina and I had time before dinner for a leisurely stroll around her neighborhood, during which we talked of many things. I remember Rhina telling me that justice is the only abstraction worth fighting for. When our conversation turned to writing, she said that, in the act of writing, the person inside us whose voice we hear is not so closely identified with the grownup, the wife, the mother; rather, it is closest to the child's voice, the one that sees everything new. I told her how my notebooks are full of ideas and false starts. Her advice was to "mull it over before writing anything down. Have it well established in your head." She also told me that "poems are made by the body and understood by the mind. Poems communicate through the senses. They are seductive."

      We ate dinner on the screened porch in the purple twilight. With the after-dinner wine, I broke into song, and Rhina joined me. She has a fine musical ear and a sweet voice. We serenaded Alfred with several Spanish tunes. When the wine made me forget the words, Rhina chimed in. Afterwards, Alfred went to his computer and made CD copies for me of his vast collection of Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte albums from the Sixties.

      In the morning, before taking me to my bus back to Boston, we paused after loading my suitcase in the car to--what else?--take a photograph of Rhina and me in front of the house. Alfred kindly did the honors.

      There is always a sadness that overwhelms after a departure. On the bus, leaving Newburyport, observing the New England clouds and steeples as I passed under them, I thought of Rhina calmly and tidily putting up metaphors in her "root cellar," the name we gave to her new basement office. If there is one poem of hers I could have said to myself, one that could symbolize what I kept from my stay, it is this one from Where Horizons Go:


What the scale tells you is how much the earth
has missed you, body, how it wants you back
again after you leave it to got forth

into the light. Do you remember how
earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock
you in their arms, warm in the flow

that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began
to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick
at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,

and finally to stroke you, body, drumming
intimate coded messages through music
you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming

and your poems and your obedient blood.
Body, how useful you became, how lucky,
heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,

sometimes, imagining that greedy zero
you must have been, that promising empty sack
of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.

But look at you now, body, soft old shoe
that love wears when it's stirring, look down, look
how earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.


Literary Imagination 7.3 (2005): 306-11

Espaillat, Rhina. Agua de dos ríos. Poemas, prosa y traducciones: una colección bilingüe. Editora Nacional. Santo Domingo, D.N., República Dominicana. 2006

---. Where Horizons Go. New Odyssey Press. Thomas Jefferson University Press at Truman State University. Kirksville, Missouri. 1998

---. Rehearsing Absence. The University of Evansville Press. Evansville, Indiana. 2001

---. The Shadow I Dress In. David Robert Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 2004.

---. Playing at Stillness. Truman State University Press. Kirksville, Missouri. 2005.


Leslie Monsour's translations of sonnets by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz have appeared in Iambs & Trochees, and her latest collection, The Alarming Beauty of the Sky, was published in 2005 by Red Hen Press. Though raised in Mexico City, she was born in Hollywood, California, where she lives today. She is the recipient of a 2007 Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Leslie Monsour
The Art of Memory: My Visit with Rhina Espaillat
Judith Taylor: No one seems to disagree with me when I say there's something compelling about these images. Maybe it's because we're so inundated by the media with narrative that is manipulated and inflated that these honest little private struggles to say something touch us at the core. The eye with which we see them now is not the eye of the young writer, and that distance is interesting, surprising. Maybe the connection between the adolescent girl and the adult woman, or the diary page and the studio wall, is closer than I think.
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