Last month, an open letter in the Los Angeles Review of Books called on President-elect Joe Biden to choose the Dominican-American writer, Rhina Espaillat, as his inaugural poet. Since then, growing interest in Espaillat’s participation has emphasized her work’s thematic ‘intuition’ that ‘we are one single family.’ Families, of course, both individuate and constrain us, and Espaillat is a New Formalist whose mode of writing poems makes a parallel argument. ‘I’m not as secure with free verse as I am with formal verse,’ she admits, ‘because I like dancing in the box.’ Given the public violence of our moment, Espaillat’s special attention to form reminds us of John F. Kennedy’s purpose behind establishing inaugural poems in the first place. ‘When power leads man toward arrogance,’ Kennedy proposed, ‘poetry reminds him of his limitations.’
One of the catalysts in the course of Espaillat’s life was Rafael Trujillo, the self-appointed generalissimo who accelerated the Dominican Republic’s erosion of republican norms in the 1930s. Trujillo’s political persona embodied what Kennedy’s poetic sensibilities cautioned us against when he honored Robert Frost in 1961. Trujillo’s political bloc, Partido Dominicano, became the nation’s sole legal political party. He instituted ‘civic reviews,’ large rallies that promoted his personality cult. Partido Dominicano, for example, used Trujillo’s initials (Rafael Leonidas Trujillo) on its emblems to signify ‘Rectitud, Libertad, Trabajo’ (‘Righteousness, Liberty, Jobs’). His Vice President, Jacinto Peynado, installed a large electric sign at his house with the words ‘Dios y Trujillo’ (‘God and Trujillo’) spelled out in bright bulbs. Even churches were required to display signs that read ‘Dios in cielo, Trujillo en tierra’ (‘God in heaven, Trujillo on earth’).
In Espaillat’s descriptions of her childhood, poetry emerges almost as an alternative populism to Trujillo’s personal cult. ‘It was not a class thing,’ she reflected. ‘It was not just the upper crust, the academics, or the elites who knew [poetry]; it went all the way through the culture. It was supposed to belong to everybody.’ As a child of five, Espaillat encountered it among ‘field hands and laborers’ and ‘people who [could] barely read,’ as well as in her grandmother’s household, where it constituted the ground bass of domestic life.
Espaillat lived with her grandmother in the late 1930s because her father, Carlos Espaillat, and uncle, Rafael Brache – both diplomats – had broken with Partido Dominicano over the infamous Parsley Massacres. In 1937, the Trujillo government, driven by longstanding ‘antihaitianismo,’ pursued a policy of forcible removal and state-sponsored violence along the nation’s porous border with Haiti, resulting in the mass killing of 12,000-35,000 Haitians. Brache resigned his post in protest and was subsequently declared a ‘traitor to the homeland.’ Espaillat remained with her grandmother in the Dominican Republic until her father, Carlos, could resettle the family in New York City. ‘It was not until I came to this country at the age of seven,’ Espaillat recalls, ‘that I realized poetry had a dark side … it looked perfectly pure because it was physical pleasure but when I started reading in English at seven or eight is when I realized, This is about life. This is about grief and losses.’
For Espaillat, this time with her grandmother seems to constitute one of what the poet, William Wordsworth, called ‘spots of time’: those personal experiences – part memory, part imagination – through which ‘our minds are nourished and repaired’ during the ‘ordinary intercourse’ of our daily lives. Not surprisingly, her chosen subjects have always touched on ‘the quotidian’ – her immigrant father ‘half in fear of words he loved but wanted not to hear,’ her grandmother’s floors ‘scrubbed white as a bone’ – as a continued ‘source of inspiration’ in her work. ‘I’m after the meaningful ordinary,’ Espaillat explained. ‘I’m after the ordinary that everyone else can understand and that can serve as a bridge between my life and everybody else’s.’
For those of us with strong familial ties to the immigrant experience, the paradox of the ‘meaningful ordinary’ – work, family, community – often simultaneously inflected with hope and grief, finds expression through the embrace of public forms of Americanness. In Espaillat’s case, poetic form also provides a public architecture for constant translations of the interior life, her bridge between ‘my life and everybody else’s.’ The most pronounced of these translations are linguistic. As with Ricardo Maldonado’s recent collection, The Life Assignment, Espaillat’s work foregrounds its bilingual consciousness as what her ‘father meant by it, the complete mastery of two languages, with no need to supplement either one.’ But simultaneous translations also occur in Espaillat’s poems between the ‘comfort’ of believing, ‘as the Romantics seemed to, that shared settings and common possessions are somehow sympathetic’ and a lyrical acknowledgement of ‘internal solitude, a human absence, that only sentient beings can understand or allay.’
Wordsworth’s poetic ‘spot of time,’ so resonant in Espaillat’s work, becomes ‘political’ insofar as it gives public form to the conditions of experience in memory and desire. What, in the end, could we say about poetic form that we could not equally say about an immigrant’s America, our common political form? Poetry’s the ‘language of paradox,’ Cleanth Brooks claimed. And for at least one of Espaillat’s Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this is because poetry ‘reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete.’ To choose a common form is to choose constraint, but also the possibilities of constraint that are at once fraternal and personal. Edmund Burke, for example, embraced the politics of his own era as a ‘vast variety of difficult connections’ precisely because he was also the lyricist who viewed poetry as ‘The Mirror’ through which he saw, reflected, ‘a strange-looking person that cannot be me.’
This does not mean that, as Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed, ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ As a poet who works in the public sector, I’m always circumspect of grand claims of this nature. ‘In truth,’ Yeats confessed, ‘we have no gift to set a statesman right.’ Wilfred Owen, for example, wrote famous indictments of the Great War but viewed his own subordinates as ‘expressionless lumps.’ Perhaps he had little ear for the ‘meaningful ordinary.’ As recent events remind us, it can be hard to hear the quotidian amidst chaos, and ‘artists,’ JFK reminds us, cannot be expected to be ‘engineers of the soul.’
The American tradition of naming an inaugural poet is, instead, about naming the preconditions for spiritual ‘bridging’ – ‘engineering’ work in Espaillat’s sense – to occur. In an interview this week, she reflected on recent events at the Capitol by noting that George Washington ‘did not try to do what a great deal of dictatorial leaders do,’ but instead established an ‘earth-shaking’ precedent of submitting to republican forms, and ‘nobody has the right to break that tradition.’
Robert Frost, Kennedy’s selection, was a kind of traditionalist, too, one ‘often skeptical about projects for human improvement.’ So was Seamus Heaney, whose verse adaptation of Sophocles, The Cure at Troy, our current President-elect recited in his 2020 campaign ads. Against the backdrop of Northern Ireland’s conflict, Heaney asked us to consider a communal ‘spot of time,’ one in which ‘hope and history rhyme.’ Inauguration poems propose forms – poetic, political – for engaging the paradoxes of Heaney’s line over four years. Espaillat’s poems ask us to whom those forms will bridge.
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