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Cousins from home are practicing their English,
picking out what they can, slippery vowels
queasy in their ears, stiff consonants
bristling like Saxon spears too tightly massed
for the leisurely tongues of my home town.

They frame laborious greetings to our neighbors;
try learning names, fail, try again, give up,
hug them and laugh instead, with slow blushes.
Their gestures shed echoes of morning bells,
 unfold narrow streets around them like gossip.

They watch us, gleaning with expert kindness
every crumb of good will dropped in our haste
from ritual to ritual; they like the pancakes,
smile at strangers, poke country fingers
between the toes of our city roses.

Their eyes want to know if I think in this
difficult noise, how well I remember 
the quiet music our grandmother spoke
in her tin-roofed kitchen, how love can work
in a language without diminutives.

What words in any language but the wind’s 
could name this land as I’ve learned it by campfire?
I want to feed them the dusty sweetness
of American roads cleaving huge spaces,
wheatfields clean and smooth as a mother’s apron.

I want to tell them the goodness of people 
who seldom touch, who bring covered dishes 
to the bereaved in embarrassed silence,
who teach me daily that all dialogue
is reverie, is hearsay, is translation.

—Rhina P. Espaillat

“Translation” by Rhina Espaillat from The Shadow I Dress In: Poems.

David Robert Books, 2004.

By permission of the author.

Rhina Espaillat

Rhina Espaillat

Rhina P. Espaillat (1932- ) grew up in New York City after being exiled from her birthplace in the Dominican Republic. She is the author of 11 collections of poetry and has published work in both English and Spanish. Espaillat is a recipient of the Richard Wilbur Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and three Poetry Society of America prizes. She has also received numerous honors for her work in translation, most notably her translation of Robert Frost’s poetry into Spanish. Photo credit: Curt Richter.

Learn more about Rhina P. Espaillat at The Poetry Foundation.