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Rhina P. Espaillat

Rhina P. Espaillat

Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic, has lived in the U.S. since 1939, and writes in both English and Spanish, but primarily in English. Her poems have appeared in many magazines, including Poetry, The American Scholar, Sparrow, Pivot and The Formalist, and in various anthologies, including A Formal Feeling Comes and The Muse Strikes Back, both from Story Line Press, Landscapes with Women: Four American Poets from Singular Speech Press and the current Heath Introduction to Poetry. Espaillat has published eleven poetry collections, including Lapsing to Grace ( Bennett & Kitchel, 1992); Where Horizons Go (New Odyssey Press, 1998), winner of the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize; Rehearsing Absence (University of Evansville Press, 2001), recipient of the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award; Playing at Stillness (2005); and a bilingual chapbook titled Mundo y Palabra/The World and the Word (Oyster River Press, 2001). She has also translated the poetry of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish, and the poetry of St. John of the Cross into English.

Espaillat’s work has garnered many awards, including the Sparrow Sonnet Prize, three Poetry Society of America prizes, the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, and—for her Spanish translations of Frost—the Robert Frost Foundation’s Tree at My Window Award. She is a two-time winner of The Formalist’s Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award and the recipient of a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State College. She is also a founding member of the Fresh Meadows Poets and a founding member and former director of the Powow River Poets. For over a decade, she coordinated the Newburyport Art Association’s Annual Poetry Contest.

Find Work
by Rhina P. Espaillat

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

My mother’s mother, widowed very young
of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,
moved through her father’s farm, her country tongue
and country heart anaesthetized and mute
with labor. So her kind was taught to do—
“Find work,” she would reply to every grief—
and her one dictum, whether false or true,
tolled heavy with her passionate belief.
Widowed again, with children, in her prime,
she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
her dishes, and how painfully they shone.


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.

From Lapsing to Grace, Bennett & Kitchel


Blind little fish baffled but not quite
caught in the net of our need, what did you taste
in us that compelled you to cheat the tide
of our biography? Minutest beast

caged by our blood’s unwisdom, what clever
stratagem so undid you that, done out
of you, we stand at the coast of Never
to bid you this farewell? Least cosmonaut

loosed from the look of us as from a suit
of time’s weaving, in what pure alien form
did you slip home again across those mute
light years to nothing, missing and still warm?

From Lapsing to Grace, Bennett & Kitchel; published in Orbis

Cutting Bait

The trouble with the dead is how we need them
to play themselves for us, to keep us warm
in the curve of their being, as if they shared
the sun with us, wore our seasons like gloves.

Aching with absence, we tug at their deaths
to hold them:  how one bright old man forgot
our names, but quavered Puccini; another
dwindled between the sheets to sixty pounds
of paper bones and nerves and skin like glass;
and one bought roadside fruit for a sick friend
until a downhill truck with failed brakes found
her, dragged her spinning from the axle,
scattering peaches.

But they need to step
clear of us now; they send out mosses
and lichens to cover their human names,
they untangle themselves from our hunger,
our lame grief. We bring them children, poems,
but nothing ever lures them back into their
gestures, the flesh we remember.


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

She cannot name the thing she knows,
word and its image will not mate.
From hair to horse to house to rose

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

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

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

downstream relentlessly, she flows
where dark forgiving waters wait.
From hair to horse to house to rose,
her gaze, her guise, her ghost, she goes.

Driving Through It

You want to see, but it’s too much, all this
rushing vortex of ash, mother-of-pearl
assault on visibility, ice kiss
splattered to water. Through stampeding swirl
of white gone mad, traffic lopes in and out,
and further off, dragging their veils like brides
left waiting, birches sigh and flail about,
their green composure gone. But here inside
your capsule of not-stillness not-quite-moving,
you focus on the small: a single flake
caught for an instant on the glass, held grooving
its hard route up the windshield, tiny rake
through grainy frost, weeping and disappearing.
What can you do through this but keep on steering.

From Where Horizons Go, Truman State University Press; published in Defined Providence

Weighing In

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 go 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.

From Where Horizons Go, Truman State University Press; published in America

Casual Reading

At random, from the rack: in rose and gray,
somebody’s forked aorta finds the heart,
closes around it jealously, the way
roots fist around a clump of soil. A dart
feathered with print identifies the spot
that needs the bypass—angioplasty, maybe.
Here’s one in which a beansprout finds a dot
inside a woman and then blooms to baby
suspended upside-down that by page eight
goes home in someone’s arms, swaddled in blue.
A nurse looks in to say they’re running late.
I put the pamphlets down and think of you,
so young, so newly-married, so afraid,
brief text-in-progress for the surgeon’s blade.

From “Rehearsing Absence,” University of Evansville Press; published in Heliotrope

There Is A Man

There is a man goes stumbling through this town,
his left side trembling as if touched by stroke
or palsy, maybe, and he wears a face
that says, “I want this,” looking steady, down
where feet must totter straight. We never spoke,
I do not know him, but in all this place
nobody says so surely or so clear,
Desire is all there is to keep us here.
How easy—irresistible, for me—
in the ungainly shoes he drags with such
tenacity, to falter, to let be,
let go. Just once, I think, release your touch
on that hard substance, life, and you go free.
How wonderful to want it all that much.

From “Rehearsing Absence,” University of Evansville Press; published in Pivot

Hard Sciences

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

From “Rehearsing Absence,” University of Evansville Press

You Who Sleep Soundly Through Our Bleakest Hour

You who sleep soundly through our bleakest hour,
who hear the meekest cry, and turn away,
who ride the river, blessing it with power
to cancel what we've made day by slow day;
You whom we cannot know nor flee, who hide
behind your countless aliases, who bear
the weapon of your absence like a tide
against our helplessness, and fail to care;
You who stand by while madness picks the lock,
stroke cuts the wires, tumor rigs the mine:
Look how we scour the earth to find—in rock,
in fire, in word—your signature, some sign
of you in thought that quarrels with your will,
and as it quarrels, hungers for you still.

Published in Sparrow and The Shadow I Dress In

Highway Apple Trees

Nobody seeds this harvest, it just grows,
miraculous, above old caps and cans.
These apples may be sweet. Nobody knows

If they were meant to ripen under those
slow summer clouds, cooled by their small green fans.
Nobody seeds this harvest, it just grows,

nodding assent to every wind that blows,
uselessly safe, far from our knives and pans.
These apples may be sweet. Nobody knows

what future orchards live in cores one throws
from glossy limousines or battered vans.
Nobody seeds this harvest; it just grows,

denied the gift of purpose we suppose
would give it worth, conferred by human hands.
These apples, maybe sweet (nobody knows),

soften and fall, as autumn comes and goes,
into a sleep well-earned as any man’s.
Nobody seeds this harvest, it just grows.
These apples may be sweet. Nobody knows.

From Lapsing to Grace, Bennett & Kitchel; published in Galley Sail Review

This is Rhina Espaillat's Spanish translation of Robert Frost's "Tree at My Window," which has been on a banner with the English original, on exhibit all summer in various city parks of Lawrence, MA ...

Arbol Vecino

Arbol vecino, ventana verde,
cierro el postigo si el sol se va;
pero entre nosotros dos, ojalá
nunca se cierre.

Cabeza ilusa que del terruño
se eleva, leve como las nubes,
jamás sabrán tus lenguas volubles
hablar profundo.

Pero te he visto, árbol, sacudido,
y si me has visto una vez soñando,
febril me has visto, y enajenado,
casi perdido.

Genial y sabia Suerte, que supo
las dos cabezas juntar un dia:
la tuya, atenta al tiempo; y la mía,
al tiempo oculto.

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