Editor’s comment: I invited Rhina Espaillat, one of our selection panelists, to contribute a sonnet of her own and to say a few words about it and/or about what she looks for in assessing sonnets for 14 by 14. My thanks to Rhina for the hitherto unpublished “Retrospective” and the accompanying observations.
Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic and writes in English and in her native Spanish. She also translates, most notably the work of St. John of the Cross into English, and Robert Frost into Spanish. She lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Her ten published collections include, most recently, a bilingual volume of essays and poems titled Agua de dos rios (Water from Two Rivers) in 2006, and a collection of short stories, El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory, published in the Dominican Republic in 2007. Her most recent poetry books in English alone are The Shadow I Dress In (2004) and Playing at Stillness (2005). She has won a number of poetry awards, including the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award (twice).
After so long, she still remembers how,
once, when he was courting her, he said,
“Watch out for me; I can be trouble.” Now
it bewilders her how she misread
his words as an endearing lover’s ploy,
a false confession meant to be denied
at once as such, laughed at, and — oh, the joy
of it! — silenced with kisses. On the ride
home, now, from a rare day with friends — not his
but hers, and he resents the visit — they
are silent. Love’s not blind: it sees what is,
she thinks, but turns from it, waves it away,
plays dumb on purpose. And she laughs again.
How well she gets the joke she missed back then.
“Retrospective” sprang from that inexhaustible source of narratives: gossip, whether exchanged in confidence or overheard among strangers. I like couching mini-stories in the minute confines of the sonnet, because fourteen lines feel like just enough room to suggest a situation, hint at a character or two, and leave the reader 1) wishing he knew more; 2) finding ways to identify with one character or another — better still, both; and 3) feeling somehow implicated, like a voyeur. It works, in other words, like the spark of imagined shared experience that imbues gossip with its universal and enduring appeal, whether it’s about neighborhood characters or Spartan royalty. Some of my sonnet narratives have gone on to become short stories, as additional events and details have turned up and refused to move out of my imagination, but for the most part they remain what they are, snippets of life either observed or imagined.
Behnd the narrative, of course, lies another function of poetry, which is to invite the reader to consider options, weigh gains and losses, and question what he thinks he knows, in this case about the nature of love, as well as the advantages and risks of timely clear-sightedness.
When I read a poem of any kind I look for its capacity to engage my attention quickly and keep me emotionally and intellectually alert and “in the situation.” I also look for its ability to draw me back, to leave something of its atmosphere with me. If the poem is composed in a fixed form, I look for ways in which the poet has used the strictures imposed by that particular form to his advantage, rather than letting them force his hand and determine his choices. In the case of the sonnet, that means packing the content into the divisions of the sonnet in a way that fuses matter and manner, makes sense and creates surprises, and also leaves enough unsaid to keep the reader working after he puts the poem down.
I confess to a bias in favor of sonnets that use clear language and unambiguous syntax to convey realities that may be anything but clear and may, in fact, be full of ambiguities. If there’s going to be difficuty in a poem, I like it to be at the level of experience, in what the language reveals, not at the level of cognition, in the way the language goes about doing the revealing. One of the reasons I love the sonnet is the fact that its brevity, its compact squareness and the small subsections into which the various types of sonnet fall, allow very little room for inflation, if anything is really being said. Hot air betrays itself quickly in such a small space, and so does the lack of disciplined skill that may disguise itself as verbal fireworks, as well as the fearful risk-aversion that falls back on the safe and expected resolution.
That said, it also must be said that one of the joys of any art is its ability to produce, on occasion, objects that defy all of our “recipes” and startle us by being inexplicably right when some cherished theory or other says they must be all wrong. May we all encounter enough of those to stay flexible and wide awake — and grateful!