Rhina Espaillat and the Lyre of Orpheus

Alfred Nicol Reviews Rhina P. Espaillat

Rhina P. Espaillat. And After All. Able Muse Press, (2018) pp.   $19.95

The power of even the best poets begins to flag as they reach their eighth and ninth decades. Donald Hall said it well: “As I grew older – collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five – poetry abandoned me.” Against those odds, the beloved Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat will publish two volumes of new work in her 86th year. The first to appear, And After All, from Able Muse Press includes some of the finest poems she has written in a lifetime dedicated to the art and craft of poetry.

The poems collected in And After All, despite their elegiac tone, are not all recent poems. Here, as in her previous books, Espaillat included previously unpublished work from throughout her career together with her newer work. However, the poems in this collection work together to express a depth of experience that even this master poet has not broached till now.

To call And After All yet another outstanding book of poetry from one of America’s best poets, working in traditional form, would be misleading—because something new is going on in these poems. They adhere to the rules of traditionalist prosody, as do the great majority of Espaillat’s poems, but these are experimenting poems, they are seeking poems, and putting hypothesis to the test. These are poems written from necessity; they are meant to address a problem, to find the answer to a pressing question. The poet hasn’t the time or patience to entertain untested answers meant to placate, or to divert attention. She needs to arrive at a proven answer to her question: How to stem the tide of loss, a tide that threatens to pull her under?

To confront the problem that existentially preoccupies her, she draws on the greatest source of strength she has available —her imagination and extraordinary gift for poetic composition— and demands of that power more than she can reasonably expect it to deliver.

The Purpose of Imagination

The four poems that open the collection serve to illustrate the use to which she intends to put her imagination.

The first poem, “Links,” shows us the poet working at the height of her imaginative power, however unassuming the poem may be on its surface. The poet looks at a photograph of her son talking with his own son, and she sees what is there for us all to see: “the quiet man in blue and the small boy / in his red shirt;” but she sees something beyond that as well. “Look,” she tells the reader, how the two are “held by the joy / of one another’s presence, how the air / between them shines with it.” This is an imaginative perception, which is not to say a fantasy —Espaillat is not given to fantasy— but, as in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, a perception of the real that would be unavailable to the senses without imagination.

The image of the air shining with the connection between the boy and his father is followed by an imaginative perception still more profound and true: “The child has grown / tall as his father now, who years ago / outgrew a father who outgrew his own: an endless chain whose links cannot endure (my italics).” The connection between father and son continues beyond the frame of this photograph, extending in time in both directions, though its “links cannot endure.” Though both father and son are but mortal men, their connection endures.

Perhaps to underscore the difference between “making things up” and using imagination to heighten one’s perception of reality, Espaillat follows “Links” with a poem titled “Ephemera,” a poem that flirts briefly with fantasy. She talks about a water tank in her father’s Dominican garden that released “the varicolored silk of tropic rain” from its spigot. The memory is painted with a child’s brush. But the poet, looking back, also notes that the spigot was “rusty… And it smelled.” The water had to be boiled before drinking, to lose its “malarial poison.” Only because nostalgia, a kind of homesickness for the past, taints the poets’ memory does she taste that water in a dream “and almost thinks water was sweeter then.” She catches herself in a fantasy and undermines it with the adverb, “almost.” She has imagined that water of her childhood with an exactitude that will not allow for the exaggerated claims of nostalgia.

The third of the four poems that delineate Espaillat’s use of imagination is titled “Butchering.” Immediately after the poem in which she was tempted to go soft and imagine that water was sweeter in her youth, Espaillat places this poem about her Dominican grandmother, a woman “inured to life / and death alike,” who “swung an axe as if her woman’s arm / wielded a man’s hard will,” spoke “ungently to the sick” whom she cared for, “and washed the dead, if there was that to do.” The sonnet’s octet presents the portrait of a woman without feeling, but then comes the volta: the sestet reveals how her voice faltered when she told the 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.

Here the reader is given nothing but the facts; reality needs no embellishing for the poet concerned with the way people live and feel. What the outwardly callous grandmother tried hardest to keep hidden became most obvious to her granddaughter, blessed with a poet’s imagination.

But to suggest that life is only “the facts” would be a fiction in itself. The tension between the dream and hard reality is the manifest theme of the poem that follows, “Rosario on Sunday Morning,” a glorious ghost story whose narrator doesn’t believe in ghosts, a story saturated with human emotion, folk-sayings, the smell of honeysuckle —in short, with life as it is lived on this side of the final boundary. The poem’s no-nonsense narrator assures us that she did not dream the event she is about to relate: the presence in her bedroom of a man who’d courted her in her youth, who came to “visit” one night, many years later:

Oh no, not dreaming: clear as I hear you
now on our way to Mass, and the bells tolling,
I heard him calling in the dark last night.
Charo, he called me: I sat up in bed,
the smell of madreselvas everywhere,
heavy as the bunches he would bring
when he came courting, all those years ago.

“I never dreamed of him,” she adds. They’d had nothing to talk about; she had never been attracted to the well-scrubbed boy whose courtship her elders championed, enlisting the folk wisdom of proverbs like “When there’s no bread, cassava’s good enough” (unthinkingly comparing her suitor to a root vegetable!), or trying to use guilt to persuade her to accept the love he offered. The poem’s speaker tells all there is to know about her relationship with the man—“That’s all of it… / I simply said, one day, it was no use / his waiting.” She goes on to sketch the rest of her life, her marriage to another, her daughters, the bastard sons her husband brought home for her to raise. And she can find no explanation for the ghostly apparition, except for one that she rejects:

If I believed
in country superstitions—but I don’t—
I’d say he left the world itself last night.
Why did he come, unhindered by the lock,
in darkness, uninvited, and then call me—
Charo—by the one name nobody calls me?
Why did he say it with a voice that rose
out of a well of sorrow?

And today,
although I’ve opened every window wide
to daylight breezes from the orange grove,
the honeysuckle smell lies like a pall
over my bed, as if a wall of sorrow
shut out the town and everything that’s in it
but bells, as they might sound tolled under water.

Employing the voice of the skeptic, the poet makes evident that there are things in this world that cannot be explained away. The poem’s eerily beautiful closing line comes upon the reader as unexpectedly and as mysteriously as Charo’s visitor, suggesting that—quite apart from fantasy or wishful thinking— the boundary between the living and the dead may not be as impassible as it seems.

It is an unexpected suggestion, coming from a poet for whom imagination is a means to perceive reality, a poet little interested in fantasy and wary of nostalgia’s blurring of perception. And yet it is a suggestion entirely consistent with both the representation of imagination in Greek myth and its definition in classical philosophy.

Orpheus & the Classical Definition of Imagination

Rhina Espailla’s poetry is not the romanticized, bowdlerized stories nostalgia offers; she wants to grasp with her imagination the true essence of the things, the places and especially the people she loves so they will never be lost. She employs imagination in its classical definition, as a form of memory, of preservation. She is an Orpheus who “armed with his weapons, the lyre and his voice” approached Hades and demanded entry into the underworld, determined to bring back his beloved Eurydice. One could find no better illustration of imagination-as-memory than in “ On a Gift of Dominican Mangoes Confiscated at the Miami Airport.” Each stanza of the poem is a syllabic, English version of the haiku. The opening two stanzas read,

When the gruff agent
flipped them out of their gold foil
into the trash bag,

my heart fell with their
rosy amber lopsided
hearts sheathed in satin

The task imagination sets itself in this poem is to conjure the reality of the lost fruit, to present to the senses every perceptible detail of the confiscated mangoes: first the tactile and visual images of the gold foil that wrapped them followed by a fireworks display of tactile-gustatory-olfactory-visual images: the tender moistness of the mangoes’ flesh, their tart turpentine aroma, their fibrous cores, their “inner blond / syrupy pairings.” Who could doubt the poet’s claim that—unlike other fruit which, though sweet, has been long forgotten—this lost fruit, never tasted, will never be forgotten.

Espaillat is determined to use the tools of the poet to gain entrance to the underworld and bring back what has been taken from her. Those mangoes confiscated by customs at the Miami Airport undoubtedly landed in an underworld of sorts. Having so admirably succeeded in using her own lyre and voice — cadenced language and lyric imagery— to retrieve the mangoes, it does not seem impossible that she might save other, greater loves from oblivion.

Necessity & Experiment

Therein lies the necessity a reader senses in this collection of poems. They are written in response to the poet’s experience, at this stage of her life, of feeling beset by losses, great and small. Even when presented in the guise of light verse, these experimental poems use small losses as test subjects to examine the nature of loss. Some, she feels, should be easy to dismiss. “My hair is thinning,” begins a poem called “Confession.” The poem’s speaker recognizes that hers is “a very minor grief, it’s true.” And yet, she must confess,

I’m ashamed to be caught weeping
over such paltry stuff as curls—
as if the crowns we wear as girls
were meant for keeping.

“Losers Weepers,” a more serious poem, takes the same approach. “I’ve lost another umbrella,” the poem begins, and in its first stanza, a possible explanation of loss is floated: it is “a kind of tax/ due to one’s use of time and space.” As though satisfied with that reasoning, the poet tries to write off her loss, telling herself the umbrella was something she cared about.

“But the truth is,” she goes on to say, “any loss cuts into us a little.” That plainspoken truth has a sharp edge of its own. Because the poet is steeling herself against inevitable losses to come, she studies this one, which she finds bearable, to know more about loss in general. Why are we so upset upon losing something? No, the real problem is that the small losses accumulate and feel like a premonition. Things fall apart:

It’s the crumbling, maybe, the termite dust
trailing me from movie to coffee shop,
whispering everywhere that gravity’s gone slack,
that pieces are coming loose like shingles

The problem with these minor griefs, is that they presage greater losses to come. But she will not give in to that thought. She is not yet through with her experiment. What if the pain of loss is a matter of perception? “I’ve done my share of finding,” too, she writes, listing a “Mycenean dagger / that summer at Stonehenge… And I found a skink in the woods once.” There may be some consolation in “add[ing] up the tally,” if it turns out her discoveries offset her losses.

Small consolation that would be. No longer are we listening to the voice of a disinterested scientist, trying out a theory. There’s a little panic in this speaker’s voice, as she clutches at straws. The poet feels herself losing not only things she can do without—her curls, her gall bladder, her umbrella—but other things essential to her well-being: her sense of purpose, for instance, her reason to go on living. As she does often in And After All, Espaillat couches her deepest anxieties in light verse. The poem, “Are You Sure that You Want to Exist?” takes its title from Espaillat’s misreading of a warning on her computer screen which pops up as she tries to exit an application.

Are there other, better ways to cope with loss? In sonnets written as elegies for friends, Espaillat sometimes expresses yearning for a religious faith she finds unattainable: “how I yearn / for faith that could believe such things return.” (“For Ronnie, One Wall Away”).

Last night I heard you humming at your stove,

How comforting to think—if so I thought—
that on some morning out of time, some place
beyond departures, we might both be brought
back to the taste, the wooden spoon, your face
absorbed in work you loved,…

(“For Ginger, Who Hummed”)

For Espaillat, however, that kind of faith is too much like fantasy, at best a blurry blend of nostalgia and false hope. In this volume she never gets much beyond a kind of wistfulness for the comfort that belief in an afterlife might offer and seems to entertain the thought only as a concession to a friend who does believe. As she put it in a poem titled “Believer,”

as for gods, although I know by name
several dozen, I’ve enjoyed the same
benign neglect, so far, from every one.

Through all of her experimenting, her searching and sifting through the ways that human beings cope with loss, Espaillat does keep faith in one thing: her art, through which she does her searching and sifting. The majority of the poems in And After All are written by a poet in her ninth decade of life, justifiably confident of her craft, whose imaginative powers have not dimmed. The worldly experience she mimicked in the poems written in her youth is now real experience, but her youthful passion has not diminished in the least. In fact, there seems to be a reversal of roles in the strongest poems of this collection. Passion is not held in check by wisdom; rather, out of a deep-felt necessity, the poet has chosen to allow passion to harness the imagination, to attempt to do what wisdom would tell her cannot be done. Espaillat has summoned all of her considerable poetic powers to one end: whether consciously or unconsciously, she has resolved to follow in the heroic footsteps of Orpheus, to bring back what is lost from the underworld.

The poet’s faith in her art is by no means a blind faith. It is tested. The poet knows the task to which she puts her imagination will not be easy. In her poetry, Espaillat has often made use of the photo album as a resource and as a symbol. In a poem called “Flipping Through,” she explores the breakdown of that form of memory, and metaphorically, the limits of imagination itself:

She will not see you here,
admiring the severe
black gown in which she poses
beside a bowl of roses…

…One day this will be you:
a woman staring through
film at which strangers stare.
You will not see them there.

Flipping through this book of images, the poet senses a fatal flaw in this method of holding on to the ones she loves; there can be no communication between her and the black-gowned woman with roses in the photograph. The links are cut. It was not from lack of love that the woman’s name was not written down; it was an abundance of love that caused the failure: no one thought this woman could ever be forgotten. Now no one is left who remembers her.

Looking into eyes that look into her own, as though gazing into a mirror, the poet realizes that the situation is no better for the woman on the other side. The poem’s opening line is itself mirrored in the closing line. The poet will be unable to connect with those who, in the future, flip through a photo album and glance briefly at her image among the other unrecognized faces. The heroics of Orpheus aside, how can human imagination win out against death, being human? Espaillat’s faith in the power of her imaginative art has yet to undergo its severest test.

The Death of the Poet’s Husband

The loss for which the poet has braced herself, from which she has summoned all her powers of imagination to defend her, is yet to come. Espaillat’s husband of sixty-three years, Alfred Moskowitz, fell ill in the winter of 2015-16 and died at the age of ninety.

Espaillat knows better than to try to emulate the feats of Orpheus and spare herself this loss. The power of imagination is no match for this separation. The only poetic gift available to her was the ability to feel deeply her loss. If, like Orpheus, she wanted to descend into the underworld, it was not in the fantastic hope of bringing back her husband, but only to join him there.

In her grief during her husband’s illness and after his death, Espaillat wrote the poems of searing beauty—set like torches along the edge of despair and slowly guiding her away from that cliff—that bring this brilliant book to a close:

Feet

These feet I’m easing into soft, warm socks
know wilderness and work, war and the street.
Led by these feet, our sons learned rocks,
the pedigree of trees, and the high cost
of everything worth striving for.

When young themselves, these feet, like those of all
children at first, were cradled, safe and small—
see the framed photo—in his mother’s hands.
As now in mine, easing them into socks,
hoping to keep them steady when he stands.

Note how this poem about caring for Alfred in his final days is addressed to no one in particular—to the reader perhaps, although at one point the poet directs her listener to “see the framed photo.” Is she speaking to an unnamed visitor? Is she speaking to herself? The effect of the speaker addressing an unknown other even while she is there with her husband, pulling socks over his feet, is of a kind of premonition of loneliness. She lists the major events of his life as they might appear in an obituary. The poem is a pained attempt at once to hold on and to let go. That may be the significance of pointing to the framed photo. The reduced man in her care belongs as much to his mother as he does to his wife. He is on his way to meet the one, leaving the other. In any event, his absence already fills the poem.

This act of conceding the love of her life to another, who had a previous claim to him, is made again, however reluctantly, in a poem titled “Album,” written after Alfred’s death. Again, the speaker draws attention to a photograph, and then another. In the first, her husband is still a child, “borne off in sepia on your father’s shoulder;” the second shows him at the beach “with Sylvia.”

“You seem colder,” she says, “you wave goodbye with an indifferent hand.” In death, her husband has returned to those who loved him before they met:

And you,
absent everywhere else, seem to have let
yourself be led away, as if some debt
to them outweighed your living vows to me.

The photograph has been a recurring symbol in Espaillat’s poetry from its first appearance: “In this Photograph,” in Rehearsing Absence, published in 2001. Here, however, the symbol takes on a darker significance; it serves as a metaphor for the community of “our dead” gathered on the other side of the last boundary.

If the imagination in its classical definition is a form of memory—like a photo album—a way of holding on to “things that go,” here the poet admits to the limits of her power of imagination. Her husband’s image in the photo album does not keep him on this side of that final boundary. No, it is as though the other memories gathered there conspire to take him from her, catching him up in the net of their various ties to him. “How jealous of the dead I am these days!” she exclaims in the poem’s first line. The close of the poem is more still more painful: “Look, I, too, rush toward eternity.”

How to Hold Grief

Espaillat comes to embrace her grief, acknowledging it as a direct connection to her beloved. In a poem called “Traps,” she lists situations and things that lay ambush to her in her daily life, re-opening the wound of loss. Someone in the stationary aisle at Christmas time “sends you her regards,” she tells her departed husband. She does not bother to tell the woman her “bad news,” realizing that her grief is hers alone, a private thing, “out of place and out of season.” As though he were there with her, she tells her husband that his tools in the basement have much the same effect on her. Then, tellingly, she describes these “traps” as “at once a blessing and a curse,” adding “And when their ambush ends, that will be worse.”

Grief has become a thing to hold close, another aspect of love itself. How tightly she clings to the painful emotion is evident in a poem titled “The Widow Considers Grief.” The second stanza lets grief wash her anew even as she says,

Let no comfort fall
on my lips like rain
until I’ve paid all
the full toll of pain

To paraphrase the poem in full: ‘If this pain is a tax levied on human desire, let this pain endure a long time, proportionate to how great was the fulfillment of my desire. I should be made to pay my fair share; I was very rich.’ These are the sentiments of a woman tormented by love and glad of her torment. This is a passionate love poem written in the absence of the loved one.

With its conceit worthy of the Metaphysical Poets, its elevated diction, and its reckless surrender to whatever love may bring, this gorgeous lyric represents a victory in Espaillat’s spiritual struggle. She’s found her path and knows it runs on this side of eternity’s border.

She returns to the scene of her husband’s deathbed in a poem called “After,” speaking of “The sick old man / I washed and fed and diapered like a child / and eased to sleep with morphine and a kiss,” speaking not to an abstract “other” but directly to her departed husband, asking, “Of all my images of you, is this— / or that— the one to keep?” As she begins to list some of those other images—father, artisan, teacher, “author of letters to the press,” mandolin-strummer, soldier—her question answers itself. No one image will stand in for the man she loved:

You gave yourself to me, with ring and vow.
I kept all of you then. I mean to now.

This declaration of fidelity to the whole person of the beloved owes its poignancy to the sense of long pain endured as the price of having loved. We see the poet finding her way, able now to take the advice she gave in “Guidelines,” a poem published a decade earlier:

… spend yourself now on loving all you can.
It’s going to hurt. That was the risk you ran
with your first breath; you knew the price was steep,
that loss is what there is, since time began
subtracting from your balance. That’s the plan,
too late to quibble now, you’re in too deep.

Espaillat’s profound realization that love is not one of the “things that go,” that love endures, and her decided embrace of love in its new aspect, its “after” state, changes the poems she continues to write in response to her husband’s death. It is as though a path of communication has opened between the poet and the person she loved during his life and loves still, in death. This is not the mythic descent of the hero Orpheus into the underworld to see Eurydice; it is the experience of an ordinary human being.

But what Orpheus’ skill as a poet made possible has its parallel in what Espaillat is now able to do in her poems: she begins to converse with her husband the way she did when he was alive. She does not speak of him as an invalid or as an absence; she speaks to him, and the man to whom she speaks is not reduced to any one image. He is everything he was, and the poet matches her manner of speaking to whatever mood she finds him in. In one poem, “Condolence Call,” at once whimsical and intimate, she even talks to her husband about one of his fantasies. “Your Big Blonde,” she tells him, came to visit her in a dream, “as fantasies / may do, lonely for those who dreamed them up, / and even for the dull realities / like me.” The two old rivals briefly share their loneliness over coffee.

In another poem Espaillat seems to channel her husband’s habitual good cheer. “You’re in my morning dreams routinely now,” she tells him.

… I don’t think you know—
and just as well—that you’ve run out of life.

The man fairly leaps from the page, dismissing as of no importance the news of his death. We see his “furrowed brow” as he reads the Times, snacking on hummus; we hear him “thumping the stairs with those paint-speckled shoes.” Anyone can see him plainly, but it is through a loving wife’s eyes that we see him; her gaze falls on his arms, “their curly golden fur / sprinkled with sawdust and a smear of clay.” Though he won’t keep still to have his portrait done, the portrait is complete: his absence is erased

The poem is a triumph of the imagination. Did Orpheus ever get closer to Eurydice than Espaillat comes to her Alfred in these lines? Having followed Orpheus’ example, pitting her love and art against nothingness, Espaillat returns now from her own terrifying descent. She does not come back alone.

Alfred Nicol’s most recent collection of poetry, Animal Psalms, was published in 2016 by Able Muse Press. He has two other collections, Elegy for Everyone (2009), and Winter Light, which received the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New England Review, Dark Horse, First Things, Commonweal, The Formalist, The Hopkins Review, Measure and elsewhere. Nicol’s poem “Addendum” was included in the 2018 edition of The Best American Poetry. Tweets @alfred_nicol . 

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