“Lately I’ve Wondered” A Review of Rhina Espaillat’s Her Place in These Designs by Alfred Nicol
The first poem in Her Place in These Designs announces the poet’s intention to move freely, wherever her place may be. The poet is looking at old snapshots of herself—“good little girl,” “nice girl,” “obedient”—when she notices “a certain look / I don’t remember in our common face.” She recognizes in it an attitude of defiance, and she celebrates its furtive appearance in the old family photo albums; without that streak of independence, the young girl might not have escaped “the sanctities of custom.” She might never have become the poet she has become. The poet is Rhina Espaillat, who built some mischief into the title of the poem: “Snaps” refers to the snapshots mentioned in the poem but retains the further connotation of clasps, catches, fastening devices; it even hints at the sound of them coming undone!
Espaillat’s meditation on the related polarities of obedience and defiance, custom and departure, continues in the poems that follow. In one she considers the collection of foreign coins her father kept, “souvenirs” of places he only wished to visit, “since duties sever/ desire from… fruition.” Duty versus desire: the poet’s meditative focus acts like a magnet around which related sets of values arrange themselves like metal filings. It is the focus that brings out the pattern. Where is the place in these designs of the whole person? Espaillat wonders aloud if the sacrifice her father made for his family brought sufficient return: “what was he left with for his voyages/ unmade, unspoken dreams unsatisfied?” She tries out a couple of answers and settles on one of them, at least provisionally: “yes,/ love…/…the stuff of which real wealth is made. I know he’d call that true.” She doesn’t sound convinced. Would her father’s saying so be yet another instance of taking duty’s side at the expense of desire?
Yet another poem, “Lares et Penates,” pits the urge “to discard, undo,” to move forward (Progress!), against the wish to conserve, to bring back, to “bind/and mend.” It is of a piece with the poems that precede it, extending and altering Espaillat’s meditation on the contradictions of the heart. This poem is really two poems which, like Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, argue two sides of a question. The first, which takes the side of getting clear of the past and making a fresh start, acknowledges that love is both the reason and the recompense for self-sacrifice and loyalty; even so, the reader is advised to “break those fetters worn for love / but worn too long.”
The poet attributes that advice to the seductive, whispering voice of “the new,” but she repeats it with conviction. Only experience could bring the wisdom that even “fetters worn for love” can be “worn too long.” By the same token, when she speaks for the opposite point of view in the second of the two sonnets, she is again clearly speaking from her own experience:
I understand them, though, the doomed who stay
where the volcano sputters, or the ground
stirs underfoot like an old dog.
What an outrageous and ingenious simile—to compare the rumbling of an earthquake with the stirring of a beloved pet, clearly establishing this dangerous patch of earth as “homeland.” It is familiar ground for Rhina Espaillat. She is the author equally of both arguments; neither is made to trump the other.
Her Place in These Designs is more than a good title for a book of poetry . It is an accurate title, accurate in a way not usually associated with the titles of poetry collections. It is a title like The French Revolution or Lives of the Saints; that is to say, it tells the reader of the book exactly what information he can expect to find in it. Having outlined for the reader her defining polarities, her dear contradictions, Espaillat investigates memory, dream and everyday occurences to establish “her place in these designs.” She uses every avenue to get to where she is.
One way is to go back to the person she has been in the past; it helps to know by what route she has come to her “place.” A poem called “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951” takes as its subject a poem written in the poets’s childhood, finding in its borrowed figures of speech a disturbing truth:
The ultimate grief, you wrote—as if you’d known,
who had not learned a thing but by report—
is to discover that one dies…alone.
The child-poet’s repeated wisdom rings true to the mature poet: its insight may even have been a catalyst to writing this introspective and retrospective collection of poems.
Another poem, ”Clara, My Unconceived,” is addressed to a doll the poet loved as a child.
We have not stayed in touch, and I confess
the fault is mine, who earlier loved you so,
more than half of this century ago.
As the poem’s title indicates, the doll is more than a doll. That is the way with dolls that are well-loved. It is hardly metaphor to call her “my unconceived”; she had been the object of the poet’s nascent maternal feelings, later re-directed to her three real sons. (Espaillat never had a daughter.) “Would we,” she asks,
have done our nails
together? Shopped the malls for summer sales,
trying on things we never meant to buy?
Would you have whispered stories of this guy
Her imagination of what it would have been like to have a daughter is convincing, and the poem would have been perfectly sweet if she had done nothing more with it. But the poet who has had the greatest influence on her, Robert Frost, is a poet of friendly surfaces and terrible depths. She does finally make a metaphor of her darling toy.
Poor Clara, from whose blue, unblinking eyes
I cannot hide the depth of my defection,
what issues you bring up for introspection!
Nearly forgotten but, when found again, able to elicit an outpouring of complex emotion, the broken, shoeless doll has become “permanent in [her] absence;” Espaillat likens her to the Soul as described by the nun who taught her:
you lie here in my hand, unformed but whole,
like Sister Ada’s rendering of the Soul,
whose vacancy, she said, was all its task.
She didn’t tell us why. We didn’t ask.
Vacancy is the whole task of the soul? From which the poet cannot hide the depth of her defection? The reader has been taken to a dizzying height. A poem which began as a pleasant stroll down memory lane has turned a corner onto a ledge from which one peers into the Abyss! (We suddenly remember that Espaillat is the translator of San Juan de la Cruz.)
Espaillat does not hold back from looking in dark corners trying to determine “her place in these designs.” In fact, it may have occurred to her to look first where it is darkest: the “designs” of the book’s title allude to Robert Frost’s poem, “Design,” where he observes a spider on a sickly pale “heal-all” carrying a dead white moth. Frost asks what brought these “ingredients of a witch’s broth” together,
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
Espaillat, too, though she may suspend disbelief and perceive a “design” in the way things are, remains uncertain of its benevolence; she does not trust the Designer. In a poem called “Replay,” she remembers jumping rope with friends:
A young neighbor stands by to be invited.
He wears a skullcap, white shirt, black pants, old shoes.
Cathy—our leader because the rope is hers—
is placid: We’re not supposed to play with Jews.
The poet implicates herself in the injustice: “I fidget / with the knotted ends of the rope, and he goes away.” This happened in “September, nineteen-thirty-nine.” These apparently innocent young girls playing in the street have been influenced by the poisonous idea that resulted in the Nazi death camps. Did the larger, darker design catching up innocent people in its web govern in a thing so small?
The question is terrifying in its implications, but Espaillat does not shy away from asking it. One of the most powerful poems in this collection is a sonnet titled “Parable,” which describes a nightmare in which the poet finds herself the plaything of a dark design. She dreams of a crowd gathered to watch a cruel sport; a man prods a muzzled bear with a stick. The dreamer struggles but cannot free herself from the awful realization that she is the bear, she is the man with the stick, and she is one of those who purchased a ticket to watch. The design is everything and everywhere; it has usurped her place, her individuality.
Indeed, the poem from which this book takes its title is about a person unable to escape her circumstances. “Triptych” is composed of three sonnets, the third of which speaks of an angry woman driving an automobile, running away from a destructive relationship. She wants to put behind her the shouting, the bruises, “the weeping bed”—but already, in the act of leaving, she knows that she will return. She will “learn / her name again;” she will learn “her place in these designs.” The phrase comes as a shock to the reader who encounters it here, representing as it does in this context a kind of entrapment, the
life that cannot be “stepped clear of.”
Though Espaillat’s own relationships are happily not at all like the one she attributes to the woman in the automobile, her abiding concern throughout this book of poems is the life that cannot be “stepped clear of,” the essential life, the life that defines her. To that end she turns over in her mind and closely examines what she values most. She plays devil’s advocate, taking doubt’s side, putting her most cherished beliefs to the test. Her poem “Fractals” elaborates an existential doubt. In the night she hears two lovers’ voices, one of which takes “the half-angry tone / in which a child who wants to be proved wrong / insists on an old fear.” The voice wants to be be dissuaded from thinking that her lover is merely a chimaera,
a creature of her longing. In the moment of silence that follows, the poet senses a caress that
resolves the argument, love communicating what reason cannot, but the closing lines of the poem leave open the possibility that even the poet may exist only in a dream: “…some kindly sleeper dreaming me, / who dreamt those sleepers and their reverie.” Espaillat’s way of looking at her life is anything but complacent nostalgia; she takes nothing for granted.
Even the words of her beloved master-poet Frost are subjected to unblinking scrutiny. Earth may well be the right place for love, but earth is where misery and oppression occur; is love unequal to its task? Or is love partially to blame? Her poem “On the Power of Love to Ennoble the Spirit” shocks the reader into a realization that love itself can set in motion the engines of cruelty. It tells of how the king whose love for his queen inspired the Taj Mahal “severed his workmen’s hands” and decapitated his architects so that no one could build its like again; he wanted the best for his departed wife.
The idea of radical contingency is a thread that weaves through all of these meditative poems, one of which, titled “Contingencies,” is best understood as a statement of intent for the book as a whole:
As if it mattered: still you probe to trace
precisely when it was fate took and tossed
and overwhelmed you, find the very place
it was you stood on when you found—or lost—
the thing that mattered.
“As if it mattered”! Espaillat’s unwillingness to accept anything on good authority alone leads her to question even the value of her search for meaning—but not to give up the search. She continues “as if it mattered.”
That is a far cry from the complacency and pride in one’s art that one might expect to find in a poet of Espaillat’s accomplishment. ‘I will continue as if it mattered,’ she tells the reader and herself. But in another poem she expresses even graver doubt about her calling as a poet. “Leaving the Bittersweet” compares the vine whose berries survive the coming of winter to medieval illustrations in the margins of the Bible. “Duty,” she says, would have her pull out the creeping vine. She imagines that— left to grow unchecked— it may spill over from the margins into the text, but finds herself unwilling to “rout / what rises from the dark….” The poem ends with the question,“Can one follow metaphor too far?”
We know that “All metaphor breaks down somewhere” (Frost again), so it sounds as though Espaillat is asking a rhetorical question. What deepens and darkens the question for this reader, though, is the sense that the question itself is intended to be read metaphorically; she seems to ask herself, ‘Can one follow this calling to be a poet too far?’ Her life in poetry has certainly taken her a long way from the cozy certainties a more conventional life might have offered. She has allowed the works of imagination, as represented by the natural “illuminations” of the clustered berries, crowd into and overwrite received wisdom. The Truth has been displaced by the probable, something that seems to be true, at least for
now. Nothing that is left is set in stone. Has she gone too far? I am reminded of how taken aback I felt when as a college student I first read Chaucer’s “Retraction,” in which he appeared to disown almost everything he’d written: “Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and entiynges of worldy vanitees, the which I revoke in my retracciouns.” It is a radical instance of a poet taking stock; like Espaillat, Chaucer had turned his attention to an overview of his life in an attempt to determine where he fit in the larger scheme of things, and he seems to have stepped back in dismay.
Fortunately for us, Espaillat remains faithful to her art. Her poem, “Guidelines,” which must be the finest didactic poem anyone has written in some time, succeeds because it avoids sounding like unsolicited parental advice. It is rather as if the speaker is talking herself through her own confusion: “too late to quibble now, you’re in too deep. / Just love what you still have, while you still can.”
It is the humblest kind of wisdom the poet finally offers the reader, especially given that she’s warned us that even love may do harm. Certainly she makes no pronouncement concerning “her place in these designs.” She leaves the Herculean task she set for herself unfinished. Perhaps, she thinks, the shape and meaning of one’s life can only be assessed by someone else. In a delightfully self-effacing poem called “Lately I’ve Wondered,” she tries to imagine seeing her life from another’s perspective:
Lately I’ve wondered—it’s a trick of age—
who will remember me some day, and how,
as one may strain one’s eyes to glimpse a page
over another’s shoulder, glimpsing now
the words, …soft, silly woman, not unkind
but moved to rashness by the moment…; then
later, …gift for thought she was inclined
to blunt with sentiment time and again.
But it’s no use, what may be printed there
is not for me to phrase, not mine to know
or edit with vain wish; if not past care,
then past amending. Yes, and better so:
better the silly woman real today,
let him who will remember what he may.
The poem’s deft lightness of expression is the result of the poet laying aside for the moment the burden of her search for a perspective; here she shrugs her shoulders and tells herself “it’s no use,” it’s “not mine to know.”
Her Place in These Designs by Rhina P. Espaillat, Truman State University Press. 88 pages. Paperback $15.95