a poem for split selves

Bilingual/Bilingüe, by Rhina P. Espaillat

My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was—his memory, his name
(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

◊◊◊

In this week’s poem, Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat gives us a moving portrait of a father trying to limit his daughter’s English. The family’s native Spanish is to be spoken inside the house, and English outside. Why? As we progress through the poem, we begin to understand that the father himself is not so fluent in English: his tongue ‘stumbles’ over it. Language is fundamentally something that allows people to communicate: but here is a language which isolates a father from his daughter, which locks her away ‘with a key he [cannot] claim’.

Yet it’s important to note that he doesn’t entirely ban his daughter from English. He recognises that she must speak it outside the house, but evidently is uneasy about its infringement on their home life. So he tries, in vain, to split the world into two. English outside, Spanish inside.

At one level, this poem perfectly encapsulates the struggle faced by so many parents who bring up children in a foreign culture. They want to bring up their children to be comfortable in the culture around them; but they also fear the loss of their own native culture, and the distance this will create between them.

So what happens to the daughter and father in the poem?

The poem is punctuated with fragments of Spanish, which translate select words from the English narrative. What does this say about our narrator, who has since grown up? Firstly it tells us that she’s still proficient in English and Spanish, which might be a comfort to her father. But the Spanish is bracketed: it is relegated to the margins of her fused language, and only supplements what we already know from the main English line. The whole poem is held taut, both in its content and style, by the tension Espaillat experiences – between Spanish and English, between native and foreign, inside and outside, family and society.

It’s only in the final couplet that this tension is resolved. Instead of accompanying English in a subordinate bracket, Spanish enters the main poetic narrative, with the image of the narrator’s father standing ‘outside mis versos.’ Espaillat has successfully integrated the two worlds of her split childhood – and we, the readers, understand what she is saying. Perhaps a note of hope for anyone who feels split between two cultures: here is a poem which makes room for both.

All my love,

Tanvi

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