Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

  Review of: Rhina P. Espaillat, Rehearsing Absence
Evansville, Indiana: The University of Evansville Press, 2001 ($15.00)
ISBN: 0-930982-54-1

Joseph S. Salemi

Last month my wife and I went to view the Norman Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Although the show was savagely trashed by every art critic in New York, it has been a spectacularly successful audience draw, pulling in more visitors and money for the Guggenheim than the old place has seen in many years. Of course all certified New York culture vultures skipped the exhibit out of sheer snobbery--but then again, that's what being a culture vulture is all about. If ordinary people like something, your job is to hate it. Since my wife and I are neither snobs nor culture vultures, we went to the Rockwell show.

How does this relate to Rhina P. Espaillat's new book? Well, I'm getting to that. Bear with me for a moment.

There's a great deal about Norman Rockwell's work that is not just commendable but also impressive. His composition and draughtsmanship are practically flawless. His judicious use of color is sheer pleasure to the eye. His attention to incidental detail is precise. And he has a truly whimsical imagination that, even in those hundreds of trite Saturday Evening Post covers, manages to peep out at you like a leprechaun in a hedge. Rockwell delights and amuses while he celebrates the bland middlebrow optimism of the American bourgeoisie. As Rockwell himself said, "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be."

That, in a nutshell, is the genius and the limitation of Rockwell's art. His loyalty to one small slice of life (its "nice" side) allows him to portray it exquisitely, but also cuts him off from that much larger and more significant portion made up of suffering, tragedy, violence, and evil. This is why Rockwell's work is constricted and ultimately shallow: life without suffering, tragedy, violence, and evil is not life as we know it.

So it is with Rhina P. Espaillat's new book, Rehearsing Absence, the winner of the 2001 Richard Wilbur award. The smiling grandmother of Newburyport has produced a volume that, in the technical sense, is a superb example of craftsmanship. Here are fifty-seven well constructed pieces, a tribute to Espaillat's many decades of dedication to the mastery of formal verse. But nearly all of the poems in Rehearsing Absence are instances of what might be called The Poetry of Nicey-Nice--that is, poems that celebrate a sanitized and fumigated world where unpleasant things never happen, or if they do, where they can be explained away with a reassuring trope that puts us all at our ease.

Take an overview of her subject matter: pet birds, gardening problems, children flying kites, her wedding ring, strolling through the azaleas, riding a crowded subway, Christmas decorations, family photographs, a church choir, and no less than six poems on the weather. (There are other subjects as well, but these are Espaillat's typical ones.) Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such things; any experience or idea can provide a topos for poetry. But when seen all together, and in the absence or the minimizing of other subjects, they suggest a certain type of sensibility--one comparable to Rockwell's in its facile smoothness and suppression of disturbing elements.

That is why the book's title, Rehearsing Absence, is unintentionally ironic. Espaillat has taken the title from a line in her poem "Workshop," where the phrase refers to the imagined death of loved ones (or perhaps her own), but in the larger context of the book's omissions it can be read as one of those self-deconstructing texts so beloved of academic theorists. The title subverts its surface meaning by drawing attention to the much more palpable absences in the book itself.

What is absent from Rehearsing Absence? Well, quite a few things. Any kind of serious conflict or contestation is elided. All issues of a controversial nature are avoided, or dissolved into warm consensus. Moments of ill will, or even minor irritation, are passed over quickly, as if the poet were an activities director on a cruise ship, anxious to keep everyone happy. Sex? Forget about it. Apart from one allusion to the rape of Leda, the book is as devoid of eros as a Quaker Meeting House. Poems of religious feeling (so prominent in Espaillat's first collection Lapsing to Grace) are nowhere to be found, as if they had been blue-penciled out by some politically correct editor. Only in the final sections of the book, where Espaillat grapples with the looming presence of death, do we get something weighty. But even here, in poems like "At the Buffet" and "In Stone," she depends on the conventional imagery of a black-clad figure and a speaking epitaph to domesticate death into something manageable and unthreatening.

This was not true for Espaillat's first two books. Lapsing to Grace had the wonderful poems "Bodega" and "Maker," and the absolutely knockout piece "Learning Bones." Each of these three poems has pith--the core strength that comes from a true poet's sense that skill in language and straightforward statement are the crucial determinants in good poetry, not feelings or suggestions or momentary vagaries of thought. These were solidly rooted poems, and the same was largely true for the work in her second book Where Horizons Go.

But since then, some evil genius has been whispering in Espaillat's ear, telling her that she needs to be more subjective, more emotionally revelatory, more attuned to "the tentative and the provisional." It's horrible advice, for it has drained these new poems of much of the real force that her first two collections revealed. He seems also to have advised her (on the grounds of strategy, perhaps) to avoid any but the most attenuated religious references, and to lard them with fashionable skepticism. Compare, for instance, the powerful religious force of "Gutter Preacher" in her first book with "Salve Regina" and "Breath" in Rehearsing Absence, both distinctly tinged with doubt and therefore more acceptable to a mainstream literary audience. Even the silly poem "For Sam" in this new collection, with its somewhat dismissive attitude towards the Incarnation, seems to have been written by a different Espaillat than the one who produced the substantial "Ash Wednesday" and "The Prodigal Son Goes over Notes for His Memoirs" in Where Horizons Go. A lot of the poems in Rehearsing Absence have a kind of chic uncertainty about them, as if someone had convinced the author that she would go much further in the poetry world if she soft-pedaled her clarity and forthrightness.

Indeed, in this latest book Espaillat seems to have a real aversion to anything that is not in a tentative soft-focus. Consider the sonnet "Moods," wherein she expresses a preference for the subjunctive and conditional moods of a language over any straightforward statements in the indicative. According to the speaker, such moods "feel truer" than direct assertion, and they tell her
                            how to acquire a taste for the impure 
                            provisional, that's what I need to know,

                            before the last imperative says "Go."

Notice the connection made between a non-hypothetical mood (the imperative) and death, a juncture which comes up again in the sonnet "Hard Sciences." There Espaillat complains that the hard sciences "will not bend/maternal over us like funeral flowers." She goes on to say

Those are hard sciences; they never mend
what living breaks. Except as headstones may,
by naming, standing up for what they say.
In other words, the assertions of hard science are cold and unfeeling and death-bound, like the epitaphs on tombstones. Espaillat instead favors botany and zoology, presumably because they are somehow more congenial and humanly sympathetic. But this attitude is merely the old pathetic fallacy posturing as an argument; it doesn't prove anything except that the poet prefers the vague and the provisional over the clear and the sharply defined. Now the pathetic fallacy is certainly allowable in poetry; nearly every poet makes use of it to some extent. The larger issue here, however, is Espaillat's penchant for turning provisionality, uncertainty, and impressionistic personal judgments into a full-fledged aesthetic, and one that is opposed to reality. At times this penchant leads her into a defiant anti-intellectual stance, as in the poem "Ostinato": Evidence says I lie,
But I--
Though all the world concur--
One voice, and one alone:
My own.
The experts cluck and groan,
"No, no! It's round, not flat!"
Their data second that.
But I prefer my own.
This is all very well, but here is the core of Espaillat's weakness: she refuses to face cold hard facts when she has a personal pleasurable vision to put in place of them. This is why Rehearsing Absence is so abstracted from the grit of existence, so solipsistic in its complacent self-satisfaction. For Espaillat, reality is a shabby poor relation whom one grudgingly acknowledges now and then, but whom one never takes seriously enough to invite to dinner. Reality is too unseemly, too inappropriate, too lacking in decorum for middle-class tastes, and therefore has to be shunted aside in favor of a warm, soft-focus blur.

It's fair to mention here, since she herself makes it the subject of the book's first poem, that Espaillat is an only child. Such children sometimes come to think of themselves as the center of a universe which must bend to their whims. More important than the personal psychology behind these poems, however, is the larger social context in which a book like Rehearsing Absence gets written. Today a great deal of New Formalist poetry seems to be composed for a certain type of Disneyfied, child-friendly, smoke-free zone, where nothing untoward or provocative is allowed to occur. It's a perfect poetry for those gated theme parks where a frightened American middle class increasingly chooses to live. Such poetry's primary goals are not verbal exactitude and rhetorical brilliance, but consensus and good will. It seeks the approval of fellow poets, the applause of the crowd, and ratification from mainstream critics. This is the essence of the Poetry of Nicey-Nice: it tries to be as bland and inoffensive as possible, like a corporate ad campaign directed at the affluent suburbs.

When Espaillat handles an upsetting subject, her treatment of her material reveals that she is a poet for this particular demographic niche. Consider, for example, the poem "Nightline," which deals with the shootings at Columbine High School back in 1999. Espaillat speaks of the two teenage killers, Harris and Klebold, as

A pair of boys who must have been like ours
once, when they smelled of milk, as infants do,
and she goes on to describe the carnage they inflicted on their classmates. But she ends the poem with a series of plaintive rhetorical questions: .....What mistake
made over breakfast once, what tone of voice
heard in this mood or that, what wordless ache
multiplied in the dark could grow such scorn
for ordinary flesh, breed such despair,
render so strange children routinely born,
like those we washed and fed, not pictured there?
In other words, like millions of middle-class types throughout America, Espaillat is clueless in the face of unalloyed evil. Surely there must be some rational "explanation" for this horror, one that our social workers and therapists and grief-counselors can grasp! But there isn't. The Columbine massacre occurred because, as everyone except the suburban bourgeoisie seems to know, pure malice and radical evil are intrinsic possibilities in human nature, and they sometimes manifest themselves in serious mayhem. But all a baffled Espaillat can say is "What went wrong?" and "How come they didn't turn out nice, like my kids?" This poem, more than any other in Rehearsing Absence, shows that Espaillat is writing for an American middle class that wants to remain undisturbed in its idyllic comforts.

Something similar happens in the poem "Minefields." There the poet describes driving past Wallingford, where a wartime comrade of her husband once lived, a comrade who was killed by a mine in Belgium back in 1945. Mention is made of this fact in the first quatrain, but then the poem moves directly to the immediately pleasant experience of travel, family dinner, noisy grandchildren, and all the details of a visit to relatives. On the drive back, going past Wallingford again, there is another brief mention of the luckless comrade and his death. Here once more we see the way in which unpleasant matters are finessed and elided--the dead comrade is no more than a footnote, or worse, a kind of emotional landmine near Wallingford that threatens Espaillat's family outing. The poem's clearly metaphoric title clinches this: historical memory and violent death are "minefields" for us, things to negotiate and sidestep, lest they trouble us with too much reality.

I should mention here that Espaillat sent me a copy of "Minefields" several years ago. When I read it I became curious. What sort of person was this comrade? How was the poor man killed? Was it an American mine? A German mine? Was he on duty? Did his death serve some military purpose, or was it just a wasteful accident? Are any of his family still in Wallingford? Not one of these questions seems to have occurred to the poet, for whom the soldier's death is apparently as unreal as a granite memorial. His barely remembered name is merely a threat to the present moment, an unwelcome reminder that vehicular travel is sometimes more hazardous than a visit to one's grandchildren.

All this takes nothing away from Espaillat's skill as a versifier. She is a particularly adept sonneteer, and over the half the book (twenty-nine poems in all) is given over to the sonnet form. Especially fine are "Three Versions," a trio of Shakespearean sonnets on the theme of her own death, made into the form of a dream vision spread over three days. They are powerful, hallucinatory poems, harrowing in their closeness to the threat of personal annihilation. The closing couplet of the third sonnet is particularly sharp-edged:

I woke to the third day's inhuman chill,
rank with the scent of mould. I smell it still.
Also excellent is "Nightmare," a Petrarchan sonnet on the physical horror of being awakened by fright from a bad dream. The octet carries the force of the dreamer's immediate terror, imaged in the drumming of her heartbeat. The sestet turns on the sense of semi-relief that comes with the realization that it was all just a dream, but there still lurks a disquieting sense of danger: The blood is slow again, and body hums
deep in the safe old groove it means to keep.
And heart, almost secure, almost believes,
but for the muffled tremor of its drums.
These final lines, with their Poe-like evocation of a muffled heartbeat, are dazzling in their force. Or there are the lovely tetrameter quatrains "Unto Each Thing," where the death of a neighbor is seamlessly conflated with the luxuriant blooming of his parents' garden. Why can't all Espaillat's poems be like these?

The answer to this question lies in the poem "Impasse: Glose," the closest that Espaillat comes to a philosophical statement. It's the longest poem in the book (forty-four lines), and in it the poet agonizes over the perennial dichotomies of reason and heart, spirit and body, love and individuality, and knowledge and belief. Look at the first four lines:

Between my reason and my heart
there is warfare without end:
neither calls the other friend,
and yet they cannot live apart.
The sentimentality of this complaint is the key to the Poetry of Nicey-Nice. The conflict of "heart" and "reason" only exists for those who think that facts and their syllogistic organization into rational thought are somehow "heartless." But such a notion is pure Romantic illusion. Facts and logical thinking are just that: facts and logical thinking. It is quintessentially American to set up a warfare between facts and feelings, and then strive mightily to unite them, usually by ignoring or re-imagining the facts to suit one's emotional proclivities or self-interest. Espaillat is a Dominican by birth, but she seems to have been well assimilated into that peculiarly Yankee mindset that conjoins Emersonian vagueness with Chamber-of-Commerce optimism, and which drives the desperate American need to "feel good" at all costs. Inconvenient facts have to go, if the impulses of our heart say they must.

This is why throughout Rehearsing Absence there is an unspoken but insistent need for reconciliation, as if the poet felt compelled to smooth out any problems or difficulties that might threaten consensus, and the comfortable satisfaction that consensus generates. It's a maddening tic--the sort of kneejerk peacemaking one expects from a committee chair, or the director of a poetry workshop. Nevertheless, there is an extremely wide market for this sort of poetry, which appeals to a very deep American middle class need to "bring people together," and to "clear up misunderstandings," and to "find common ground." The American middle class doesn't want controversy or sarcasm or satiric portraiture or threatening ideas or shocking images. It wants the Poetry of Nicey-Nice. And some of us are more than willing to oblige. Look at the late Leslie Mellichamp, editor of The Lyric, where quite a few of Espaillat's poems first appeared. Mellichamp refused--I quote him--to print any poem that might "shock, embitter, or confound readers." A strange sort of editorial policy, but one perfectly understandable in the context of middlebrow tastes.

For this reason I disagree with my friends Esther Cameron and Wade Newman when they opine that contemporary poetry has to reclaim a public space by consciously redirecting its appeal to a mass audience. Having a large audience is certainly desirable. And it may have been possible in the past, in the radically different cultural circumstances that obtained back then. But if you insist today that poetry serve some wider social purpose in order to capture an audience, you're not going to get Shelley producing odes to liberty, or Kipling celebrating the Pax Britannica, or even Auden with his public voice. No--in our time what you're going to get is Maya Angelou cranking out that lucrative series of saccharine vapidities for Hallmark Cards. Remember this: the significant disposers of discretionary income in this country are the middle classes, with all their boring, trivial, cutesy-poo, Disneyfied tastes. A poetry that seeks to "serve a public need" will inevitably wind up serving those tastes. The maxim l'art pour l'art is the only thing that will save poetry from being swallowed up by them.

But there is something else going on in Rehearsing Absence besides the targeting of a bourgeois audience, and which has to do with much deeper aesthetic currents in New Formalism itself. One senses it in poems like "Practice" and "My Firstborn Picks an Apple" and "Birds at the Feeder." In poems like these it seems as if Espaillat were consciously laboring to satisfy an aesthetic that rejects all grandeur and excitement--as if she were committed to a poetic ideal that is defiantly small, self-sequestered, and home-grown. Of course, that's exactly the present condition of mainstream poetry, mired as it is in the backwash of a modernist revolution that still straitjackets poetic potential. All of us, to some degree, are prisoners of what you might call the twentieth century's rhetorical and verbal minimalism--that is, the series of internalized strictures that forbid us to go beyond the commonplace and the immediate in the pursuit of our art.

This point deserves some clarification. Apart from issues of metrics and form, mainstream modernism wants poetry to be exactly the sort of thing you get in Rehearsing Absence. It wants it to speak in a low soft voice, to be relentlessly focused on personal experience, and to be commonplace, conversational, and small-scale. Combine this Spartan aesthetic with the feelgood "niceness" that appeals to the middle class, and you have a book that is both popular and critically esteemed. I don't say this as a rebuke to Espaillat, who can no more help being a child of her time than anyone else, but merely to notice the way in which modernism has come to dominate the thinking of even those poets who remain loyal to formal modes of verse. And, in my view, this is one of the reasons Espaillat is popular within a certain circle of New Formalist critics: she combines New Formalist precision with a very orthodox modernist sensibility. Rhyme and metrical regularity are made to serve the private, subjective immediacy that eight decades of modernism have accustomed us to expect in verse. Or, as Dana Gioia might put it, everything is to be provided with "a lyric frisson," regardless of form, genre, or style. Formalism and its modernist nemesis are united in one grand reconciliation of poetry's dissonant halves. There is a small but highly influential clique of New Formalist poets and critics who are trying very hard to arrange this marriage. They think it will make the movement respectable and marketable, in terms of academic approval and grant-agency largesse. Rehearsing Absence is tailor-made to suit that agenda.

I'm not directing my fire at Espaillat, who is certainly one of the best formalist poets writing today. I'm directing it at this clique of litterateurs who refuse to think outside the box of modernism, and who insist that New Formalism remain loyal to an aesthetic of the plain and the humdrum devised back in 1910. Make no mistake: There is absolutely no purpose to a movement like New Formalism if it does not challenge the limitations of modernist sensibility. Are we in this business just because we happen to like iambs and trochees? Are sonnets and villanelles merely pleasant decorations for us? No--the genuine impulse behind New Formalism was the growing awareness that the strangulated modes of perception in which modernism had imprisoned us were simply not wide enough for human experience. It was the awareness that the forgotten or despised sensibilities of poets as diverse as Herrick, Dryden, Pope, Byron, Poe, Tennyson, Browning, Kipling, and Belloc had to be reclaimed, along with all their rhetorical glories. In short, a New Formalism true to its original purpose has to admit not just that the twentieth century is dead, but that it is a dead end.

As for Espaillat, her stock is now riding high, and will surely go even higher with this new book. And there's no doubt she deserves the acclaim: her skill, talent, and experience with language are unquestioned. But there are two questions that all of New Formalism will soon have to face, if the movement is to be more than an unimportant footnote in literary history. First, are we finally going to break free from modernist smallness, and go on to greater things? And second, are we going to produce the gritty, edgy, and maybe unpleasant poems that risk offending an audience, instead of taking the easier route of pleasing the greatest number of suburbanites? A lot depends on how we answer these questions. Just look at Norman Rockwell--or closer to home, at Maya Angelou and those Hallmark cards.

Joseph S. Salemi

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