2300-2200 BCE800-9001000-11001100-12001200-13001300-14001500-16001600-17001700-18001800-19001900-2000Mezzo Cammin
Rhina P. Espaillat
by Leslie Monsour

hina Espaillat (Eh-spy-yacht) is a gracefully intimate writer who, strongly influenced by 17th century poetry--the sonnet in particular--and the formal traditions of her bilingual background, applies a striking command of versification and metaphor to topics of everyday life. Her personal subjects characteristically embrace universal themes. She sizes up life's truths and uncertainties with nimble, womanly, often comic perceptions that are consistently sensual and humane. Observes poet Robert B. Shaw,

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. In speaking of her focus on the everyday, one must make a distinction: this is not diary poetry, as practiced by compulsively prolific poets in the manner of Williams or Ammons. It is less egotistical, more meditative. . . . Her most memorable pieces are triumphs of good nature.[1]

Since 1992, Espaillat has published six books of poetry and scores of translations, winning a number of national and international awards and honors in both areas. Her versions of Robert Frost's poems in Spanish, of which to date she has completed forty, including "The Death of the Hired Man," are highly successful, preserving Frost's measures and rhyme schemes and reproducing his quintessentially American sound with an equally idiosyncratic Spanish. In addition, Espaillat has translated her own Spanish writings into English and vice versa, including poems, autobiographical essays, and a collection of short stories. She has also rendered English versions of over 150 poems by some four dozen Spanish, Latin American, and Portuguese poets, including St. John of the Cross, Federico García Lorca, Luis Vaz de Camões, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, with the latter's elements of chiasmus and paradox particularly well-suited to Espaillat's limber bilingualism and flair for irony. For its profound political and socio-cultural significance and as a bridge of communication between the two linguistic communities she inhabits, translation plays an especially vital role in Espaillat's body of work.

She was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1932, when the capital city was named Ciudad Trujillo after the country's infamous dictator. The only child of Carlos Manuel Homero Espaillat, a minor diplomat, and Dulce María Batista, a dressmaker, Espaillat's upbringing in the lush, tropical setting of Hispaniola was a unique blend of the rustic, the exotic, and the conceptual. At an early age, her propensity for wordplay was enriched and encouraged by her paternal grandmother, Apolonia Brache Ramirez, who, recognizing the five year-old's incipient talent, recorded in handwriting her granddaughter's first orally composed verses. Through her grandmother, the young poet was also exposed to the influences of music, song, and art. In her grandmother's living room, Espaillat enjoyed an entertainment dating from antiquity, known as Melopoeia, in which poetry is recited to a background of musical interpretation. In ancient Greece, a lyre would have provided the musical accompaniment. In Spanish cultures, the poetry is recited to the instrumentations of classical guitar, as was the practice in the home of Apolonia Brache Ramirez. Her son, Espaillat's father, was a passionate poetry reciter himself, who went by his middle name, Homero. Of these combined early influences, Espaillat writes, ". . . The formal music of classic Spanish poetry my father loved followed me into English and draws me, to this day, to poems that are patterned and rich and playful."[2]

Events occurring during this period in Espaillat's childhood led to a two-year immersion in the artistic world of her paternal grandmother, when the evils of power, corruption, and brutality made a drastic intrusion into the lives of her family.

Espaillat was five years-old in 1937 when she and her mother, who was pregnant at the time, were accompanying her father and his uncle, Rafael Brache, on a diplomatic mission to Washington, D.C. When news came of the border massacre of thousands of impoverished Haitians by Trujillo's army, Brache, Espaillat's great uncle, wrote a courageous letter denouncing the dictator for the mass slaughter. For speaking out against Trujillo, Brache was punished with exile. The families were granted political asylum, and Espaillat's father, who had been working as secretary to the delegation, prepared his family for a move to New York City in search of work and a place to live. Espaillat's mother, meanwhile, had miscarried--probably as a result of stress and anxiety--the child who would have been the young poet's brother.

The story continues in Espaillat's own words, as related through a recent correspondence, "My mother was very frail and depressed, certain that she would die without seeing her mother again, and that they would encounter difficult conditions in New York City with a five-year-old child to look after. She did an amazing thing: She took me back to the Dominican Republic, left me with my paternal grandmother, where she knew I would be cared for and safe, visited her mother and siblings to say goodbye, and collected her sewing machine and returned to the U.S.A. within weeks, without having attracted official attention. She was right about the rough conditions they would encounter in New York City, which was still in the grip of the Great Depression. But, two years later, when I was seven, in the spring of 1939, they sent for me, having found steady jobs and an apartment, and having saved enough for my passage on the steamship, Leif Erikson. I traveled with a friend of the family to whom my aunt Rhina entrusted me, and who listed me as her little niece. My mother never did see her mother again, as my father never saw his."

Though only seven when she was thrust into the English-speaking world, Espaillat remained highly fluent and literate in her native Spanish, thanks to the fiercely enforced Spanish-only zone her father kept inside the walls of their small walk-up flat in mid-town Manhattan. Homero Espaillat, determined to prevent the adulterations of "Spanglish," was adamant that the two languages, English and Spanish, remain separate, in order to preserve the integrity of both cultures and uphold his pride in the literature of his own people.

In a bilingual essay entitled, "A Recollection and Perhaps a Tribute,"[3] Espaillat writes that her father was "troubled by my love for English, my desire as a child. . . to be like the others, those who already knew and spoke this rich, electric language with its heavy beat and its flavor of violence. My father was grateful to this country, to which he owed his life: it had given us shelter and protection when he found himself here as a political exile. . . . He followed American politics with devotion, but never became a citizen, and on discovering he had cancer insisted on returning to his home town, to die among memories of his childhood and be buried where his ancestors rested."

If Spanish was her "father tongue," then her "mother tongue" was English, as Espaillat relates in the same essay: "My mother, on the other hand, perhaps because she was younger than [my father], perhaps because her memories of her native country were less sweet, threw herself with wholehearted enthusiasm into the life of her adopted country. She fell in love with English. . . . She let me speak to her in English--a luxury undreamed of in my father's presence--and discovered by herself. . . the treasures in store for her in the public library and night school."[4]

Espaillat's career as a published poet began as a fifteen year-old student at the Julia Richman School in Manhattan in 1947, when her poems, submitted on her behalf by an attentive English teacher, were accepted for publication in The Ladies' Home Journal. She went on to major in English literature at Hunter College, graduating in 1953, one year after marrying the sculptor, Alfred Moskowitz, who, at the time, was an Industrial Arts teacher in the New York City school system.

Following the births of their first two sons in 1954 and 1957, Espaillat dedicated her time and energy to raising her children. In 1964 she returned to university and obtained a master's degree in education, whereupon she embarked on a career as an English teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens. Shortly thereafter, in 1968, when her sons were eleven and fourteen, a sixteen year-old student in Espaillat's sophomore English class was welcomed into the family, first as a foster child and, ultimately, as their third son.

Espaillat took early retirement from teaching in 1980 and vigorously resumed her career in poetry, producing and publishing a formidable burst of poems and translations, participating in workshops offered by the Poetry Society of America, and helping to form, in her neighborhood of Queens, the group known as the Fresh Meadow Poets. In 1992, at age sixty, Espaillat published her first full-length collection, Lapsing to Grace.

By this time, Espaillat and her husband, also in retirement from public school teaching, had been living in Newburyport, Massachusetts for two years. It wasn't long before the Newburyport Art Association had new activities added to its agenda with Espaillat's introduction of a yearly poetry contest to benefit the organization, and poetry readings using the NAA gallery as a venue. She also lost no time co-founding the group known as the Powow River Poets, which, for nearly two decades, with Espaillat as a driving force, has nurtured and promoted the work of many of New England's finest contemporary poets and hosted readings by visiting poets from all over the country. The Powow River Anthology, edited by Alfred Nicol, was published in 2006. In its introduction, X.J. Kennedy writes:

. . . Rhina P. Espaillat. . . has long been (may she forgive some rudely mixed metaphors) 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 gen- erous friend. . . . The PRP 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 Al- fred Moskowitz, came to town in 1990.

In her life and in her poems, Espaillat's ties to her family, past and present, are profound and enduring. Family photographs are noticeably abundant as subjects in her work. The Spanish language also connects her to her childhood and her family, particularly, as mentioned earlier, to her father. Nowhere is this connection more poignantly illustrated than in "Bilingual/Bilingüe" (Where Horizons Go), a poem that has become a favorite among English and creative writing students of inner city schools and colleges, where young people from immigrant families are most likely to receive their education. It is one of Espaillat's most frequently anthologized works.

The poem deals with the conflict between a Spanish-speaking father who clings to his heritage, and a schoolgirl daughter who longs to fit in with her new social and cultural environment. The steadfast pride and dignity of the older generation is played against the curiosity and flexibility of the new generation, as the poem explores the complex emotional and intellectual interaction between the father who loves his native tongue and the daughter who wants to write in English. The need to preserve and the urge to change clash at first, then reconcile. In the end, the art of poetry wins out over authoritarianism. It is no wonder it resonates deeply with those who have come to the United States from Latin America, where poets have long been forces of social and political influence.

"Bilingual/Bilingüe" consists of nine heroic couplet stanzas, whose frequent enjambments work fluidly to downplay the end rhymes. Within each couplet, a Spanish phrase is parenthetically imbedded without disturbing the iambic pentameter integrity of the lines. The parentheses serve to keep the languages separate, as Espaillat's father tried so hard to do in real life for fear that language would come between him and his only child:

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. (1-6)

In a short essay, entitled, "An Imaginary Dialogue," Espaillat invents a contemporary argument with her father when the subject of the need for a dictionary of "Spanglish" terms comes up. Espaillat points out the inevitability of mixing languages and the futility of trying to keep them separate. "Maybe it's natural for languages to allow themselves to be altered, to be rejuvenated, by adopting expressions from neighboring people," she says, while her father listens patiently. "Isn't that how all the great languages came to be, when the tribal tongues of local people let themselves be influenced by Greek, by Latin, by Anglo-Saxon. . . ?" We might add French to the list as we consider Chaucer and the origins of the heroic couplets Espaillat puts to use in the poem.

The essay is a prose extension of the poem. The real, remembered father of the poem is defensively authoritarian: "'English outside this door, Spanish inside,'/ he said, 'y basta.'" (7,8) We're moved by a father who guards the integrity of his daughter's linguistic inheritance with such impassioned certainty that they will drift apart if she learns to love English. She soon finds out, however, when she covertly disobeys her father's rules, that their linguistic bond isn't destroyed: ". . . 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." (11-14) This younger, anxiety-ridden father of the poem is not the older and wiser, imagined father of the essay, who converses thoughtfully with his grown up, poet/teacher daughter and makes a less emotional argument for keeping non-porous borders between the two languages : "Our young people will end up not learning to handle either language correctly or gracefully, if they keep mixing them. . . without respect either for the new one being offered to them or the old one that is their heritage."[5]

The troubled but loving bond between father and daughter in "Bilingual/Bilingüe" is strongly and complexly tied to language, and ultimately, to poetry. In the poem's final couplet, we come to the only Spanish phrase not separated by parentheses: "he stood outside mis versos, half in fear/ of words he loved but wanted not to hear." (17, 18) The art of verse, "mis versos," is their common ground, even if the father's admiration for his daughter's poems is mixed with an abiding sense of distrust and dismay that they are not in Spanish.

"Poems communicate through the senses. They are seductive." So Espaillat is quoted in "The Art of Memory," an article published in Mezzo Cammin, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (www.mezzocammin.com). With typical, playful wit, her remark is illustrated most literally in the sonnet, "She Resists, but Barely" (Her Place in These Designs), one of many poems on the subject of writing verse, and one of approximately 130 sonnets in Espaillat's six collections of poetry.

"She Resists, but Barely" conforms to the English system of three quatrains and a couplet, as do the majority of Espaillat's sonnets. In mock despair, directly addressing her seducer ("Look at the state of wild undress you've caught/ me in, Poem, lying about, with all/ the housework still untouched!" 1-3), the poet laments neglecting her domestic duties while giving in to verse, the licentious interloper: "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." (10-12) Here, and throughout her poetry, Espaillat integrates life and art with entertaining flair, never succumbing to the mildew of routine and "malady of the quotidian" that Stevens laments in "The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad." Wallace Stevens, in fact, experienced his own version of Espaillat's "peculiar lust" for writing poems as if it were an illicit affair, jotting in his journal entry for August 3, 1906, "Engaged at the office all day on a sonnet--Surreptitiously." With rompish formality, eroticizing the urge to write, Espaillat's sonnet describes a woman who abandons the chores of her "office" rather than resist the advances of her metaphorical lover, as if the pleasures of intellectual carousing were more uncommon and rewarding than the fleeting gratifications of a real physical encounter. Her mind is left unlocked, her thoughts invitingly unclothed on purpose, so that her ravisher, Poem, may "slip right in and find me." (6-7) The alternating rhymes culminating in the final couplet enhance the charm of poetic constraint, as, overcome by her urges, the poet succumbs to her tempter's "silky promise of some further bliss," (13) which sounds a great deal like the serpent luring Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the end, as in the aftermath of some squalid indulgence, the poet is left alone and half-naked, "with not a thing to cover me but this." (14) The sonnet is both forbidden fruit and fig leaf. The risk of doubt and shame is as inescapable and real in art as it is in erotic love.

Often, Espaillat will put the poem's irony in its title, as with the sonnet, "On the Impossibility of Translation" (Her Place in These Designs). Having executed the translations of scores of poems, Espaillat is well-versed in the "impossibility" of the task she has mastered, and a virtuoso at inventing its metaphors, which rely, characteristically, on the versatile complexities of the senses. The result is a rich combination of the sensual and the paradoxical:

Of course impossible, transmuting touch
and color into sound, sound into sign,
sign into sense again and back: too much
struggling after the names for flavor, line,
knowing they can't be found, no, not in one
language: in two? across the grain of speech?
Unthinkable! (1-7)

What seems at first to be unnatural and forced--"Easier to fold the sun into its syllable" (7-8)--is then characterized, in a play on words, as the instinctive, seductive interactions between lovers, who "each/ mute in one skin, can learn to speak in tongues,/ speak themselves whole." (8-10)

This sonnet, again of the Shakespearean variety, nevertheless makes a hidden Petrarchan volta at the eighth line, offering in the last six, an answer to the paradox it sets up. Ultimately, the "impossibility of translation" is as possible and inevitable as birdsong and rainfall: "you've heard/ fitful above the fields, the summer sung/ in high cascading turns of fluent Bird,/ and seen, in shallow pools in every town,/ how rain translates the sky and writes it down." (10-14) Espaillat treats the name for the parlance of birds as a proper noun. Instead of the language of a nation, however, it is a universal idiom fluent in the dialects of seasons. The act of translation is as impossible as the force of nature which allows rain to serve as both interpreter and scribe for the heavens. The one imperfect rhyme in the poem ("tongues" and "sung") suggests the essentially human, creative, and, therefore, flawed nature of language and the unavoidable imperfections that occur when it is translated.

For Espaillat, the art of translation is an essential act, defining all verbal communication. Translation is a synonym for using words. The spirit of inclusiveness that characterizes her work is articulated in the Afterword to Where Horizons Go, where Espaillat writes of translation as the common bond at the heart of all poetic expression: "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 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 overtly so are only living metaphors for the condition that applies to us all."


Espaillat, Rhina. Lapsing to Grace. Bennett & Kitchel. 1992.

---. Where Horizons Go. New Odyssey Press. 1998.

---. Landscapes with Women: Four American Poets. Ed., Gail White. Foreword by Richard Wilbur. Singular Speech Press. 1999.

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

---. Mundo y palabra/ The World & the Word. Oyster River Press. 2001.

---. Rhina Espaillat: Greatest Hits 1942-2001. Pudding House Publications. 2003.

---. The Shadow I Dress In. David Robert Books. 2004.

---. The Story-teller's Hour. Scienter Press. 2004.

---. Playing at Stillness. Truman State University Press. 2005.

---. Agua de dos ríos. Poemas, prosa y traducciones: una colección bilingüe. (Water from Two Rivers. Poems, Prose and Translations: a Bilingual Collection). Editora Nacional. Santo Domingo, D.N., República Dominicana. 2006.

---. El olor de la memoria. (Cuentos)/The Scent of Memory. (Short Stories). Ediciones CEDIBIL. Santo Domingo, República Dominicana. 2007.

---. Her Place in These Designs. Truman State University Press. 2008.


Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, 2001 and 2003.

Sparrow Sonnet Prize, 1997.

Oberon annual award, 2003.

World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets, several awards between 1984 and 2004.

Poetry Society of America, three annual prizes: 1986 and 1989 Gustav Davidson Prize, and 2000 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award.

New England Poetry Club, several prizes, including 2001 Der Hovanessian

Translation Prize, and 2006 May Sarton Award.

T.S. Eliot Prize, 1998: Where Horizons Go.

Richard Wilbur Award, 2001: Rehearsing Absence.

Stanzas Prize, David Robert Books, 2003: The Shadow I Dress In.

National Poetry Book Award, 2005: Playing at Stillness.

Robert Frost Foundation, "Tree at My Window" Award for Translation, 2004.

Dominican Republic's Ministry of Culture, Awards for Services to Dominican Culture and Education, 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Salem State University, Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award, 2008.


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.

She Resists, but Barely

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.

On the Impossibility of Translation

Of course impossible, transmuting touch
and color into sound, sound into sign,
sign into sense again and back: too much
struggling after the names for flavor, line,
knowing they can't be found, no, not in one
language: in two? across the grain of speech?
Unthinkable! Easier to fold the sun
into its syllable. Yet lovers, each
mute in one skin, can learn to speak in tongues,
speak themselves whole, if only once; you've heard,
fitful above the fields, the summer sung
in high cascading turns of fluent Bird,
and seen, in shallow pools in every town,
how rain translates the sky and writes it down.


[1] Poetry. Vol. CLXXX, No. 6. September , 2002.

[2] Espaillat, Rhina. Where Horizons Go. Thomas Jefferson University Press. 1998 p. 69.

[3] Espaillat, Rhina. Agua de dos ríos. Editora Nacional. República Dominicana, 2006 p.80.

[4] Ibid. p.82.

[5] Agua de dos ríos, p. 106.

Rhina Espaillat
Years: 1932-
Birthplace: Dominican Republic
Language(s): English, Spanish, Some French, Portuguese, Latin
Forms: Formal verse, esp. sonnets; translation
Subjects: Family, personal history, flora & fauna, poetry, art, marriage
Firsts: Spanish translation of works by Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur
Entry By: Leslie Monsour
32 Poems
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