Poets of Dos Lenguas
March 18, 2021
My father spends his days finding new ways to mix resin with woodwork. He likes being in control of his craft, constantly researching and experimenting ways to fuse different woods through a near alchemic process of resin work. His knockout piece at the moment is a large tray. Imagine a rectangular frame of cherry wood, in the frame are slices of black walnut, poplar, sycamore, and other Appalachian woods filled in with an amber-colored resin. I spend my weekends taking this piece along with others to downtown craft and holiday festivals throughout Western North Carolina and North Georgia. Traveling through mountain roads, following telephone cables to peddle my mother’s jewelry and father’s woodwork, I often get compliments on our work, “Oh, how neat!” seeing Kingman mine turquoises or “That’s so fun” looking at locust wood coasters. But father’s resin tray consistently gets lauded with, “Oh my goodness, honey, look at this!” or “This would look so good in Sharon’s house.” The people of this area are drawn to rustic pieces that keep the aesthetic integrity of the wood while still serving its crafted use. One would think that the resin, this artifice, would turn off people interested in live edges, but everyone still comes to admire the tray. It’s the resin itself, the alchemic fuser that draws people to admire the tray. It’s the resin—solidifying between pores and empty spaces—that bridges these various woods, forests, worlds together as amalgam in one piece. People are enamored by the resin because it demonstrates control over disparate parts while making everything look natural. It bridges several forests into one. This concern of “bridging into one” marks the heart of most bilingual poetry in the United States. In the realm of Spanish-English American poetry, our work often mimics uses of language spoken by us. We people of two worlds—the world of our heritage and the world of America. However, poets cannot simply mix Spanish into their poems haphazardly and expect their work to sound natural. As resin sets between wood, bubbles emerge that must be popped to make the piece smooth and appear natural. The fusion of Spanish and English in poetry must appear as natural as the resin, as natural as the birthing of bicultural peoples. For this syncretic, bilingual craft to have appeal, it must maintain and combine the integrity of each languages’ roots and structures. In doing so, an authentic bilingual voice speaks in the poem as one does in the world.
The play between crafted speech and natural speech in a poem births its voice. In part, a poem’s sounds are what incarnate the speaker as an authentic voice that connects with the reader. Just as the resin solidifies into and onto pieces wood and its color tinges toward amber, a poet of two tongues must structure their poems to sound natural when switching between languages. Different languages have their own rhythms and motions, and these motions animate the voices. So, to understand how to have a bilingual voice sound authentic, I will go over how the structure of these motions shapes the tongue’s speech. I break down a formal and free verse bilingual poem in order to show how these two tongues function in both styles. I show how formal bilingual poetry can succeed through combining meters together, whereas the success in free verse can occur in using variations in sound, shape, and dialect to a narrative’s advantage. While most bilingual poets working in Spanish and English native speakers may find ease in doing this, there is a shocking lack of craft studies regarding Spanish and English bilingual poesy. In light of this, I provide a brief explanation of Spanish versification to demonstrate how Spanish sounds fit into a predominant English soundscape of American Latinx poetry.
Opposed to English’s accentual verse, Spanish syllabification focuses on vowels. The strength and weakness of vowels determine the syllables of words and lines. Strong vowels consist of “a,” “e,” and “o,” where weak vowels consist of “i” and “u.” However, “í” and “ú” count as strong when accented. When counting syllables in words, strong vowels followed by each other count as separate syllables, but in lines of poetry, vowels that follow each other uninterrupted count as one syllable. For instance, in the phrase “como estas,” the syllables as words count as four, co-mo, es-tas.” But, in a line of poetry the phrase counts as three syllables, “co-moes-tas.” This is called a sinalefa. This rule applies regardless of punctuation used. If the phrase, “Te quiero, Amor,” appears in a line of poetry, it scans as “te-quie-roa-mor.” These are sonic elisions in Spanish verse unfamiliar to the English tongue. This crash course on Spanish versification will help investigate how bilingual poets use rules of these two languages in their work. Notable adherence to these rules appears evidently in formalist bilingual poetry.
Using formal aesthetics lends to crafting an authentic, two tongued voice. This shines in the work of Rhina P. Espaillat. One of the forerunners of the New Formalist movement, while her poem, “Bilingual/Bilingüe”, visually seems tame because of her use of parentheticals, what she does sonically pushes the constraints of English language form to make space for Spanish to flourish comfortably. Her use of Spanish versification’s syllable timing integrates words and phrases into English’s rhymed iambic pentameter couplets. Note that even though an Anglo ear may scan some lines as having eleven syllables, Espaillat’s deft fusion of the two languages even combines what would be two syllables into one.
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.
With the meter established in the first line as iambic pentameter, there is a guiding rhythm for the lines to follow. Bearing this in mind, a non-Spanish speaker may read the second line’s “y” as an independent syllable, causing the line “one here (allá y aquí), as if aware” to scan with 11 syllables. But speaking the line with the proper Spanish versification in mind reveals a different sound. In having the same weak vowel sound as the Spanish “i”, “y” becomes part of the strong first vowel of “aquí”. Thus, “y aquí” results in a sinalefa, a single beat when pronounced consisting of a weak and strong vowel occurring one after the other in a single line. Spanish’s syllabic verse creates “elisioned crescendos” in speech. This is why it sounds more amorous than English’s accentual verse. Espaillat fits this syllabic crescendo in accentual verse by structuring the English around it. A sonic wave rises through rhyming the first line’s “one there” with the second line’s “one here.” She uses that phrase and the line end’s “aware” to enframe the middle Spanish phrases with a sonorous internal consonance. Espaillat tailors both tongues to the benefit of the other. Using Spanish’s syllabic verse to fit the form of her poem not only serves to create sonic waves, but also connect words themselves in both languages.
“Y” gets swept up once more in the syllable of another word, but not as the beginning of a crescendo, rather as the end of one. The fifth stanza’s first line, “the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from,” presents another line that may scan with eleven syllables. However, the same principle of mixing strong and weak syllables applies here, too. The last syllable of the phrase, “mundo y,” resembles a diptongo, a diphthong, where in a word composed of an adjacent strong and weak vowel form a single syllable. The vowels “o” and “y” of “mundo y” are one syllable just as the last two vowels in the word “lengua” create one syllable. Focus on vowels, not accents, in Spanish versification gives bilingual poets freedom in their syntax. This freedom also lets bilingual poets explore different shapes since the speed of their sound changes in switching tongues.
Eduardo C. Corral’s work fits into contemporary styles of lyrically driven narrative. He reckons with his bicultural identity throughout his poetry by blending English and Spanish through free verse. The risk in bilingual free verse falls in finding a balance in a poem’s shape and flow. Formalism restricts the two tongues into one inherently. Free verse forces the poet to know how and when to fuse them. Corral’s free verse uses the quick and fluid sounds of Spanish’s Romance-influence to gain momentum and dance through the narrative. The long couplets lend themselves to fitting Spanish words with more syllables snugly in the poem. The poem begins in its title, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”
in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.
If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters
on his black belt spell Sangrón. Once, borracho,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.
Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.
Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets
oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. Once, in a grove
of saguaro, at dusk, I slept next to him. I woke
with his thumb in my mouth. ¿No qué no
tronabas, pistolita? He learned English
by listening to the radio. The first four words
he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth:
Percolate. Again and again I borrow his clothes.
He calls me Scarecrow. In Oregon he picked apples.
Braeburn. Jonagold. Cameo. Nightly,
to entertain his cuates, around a campfire,
he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos. Arriba
Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed into
a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.
Greaser. Beaner. Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken
once, like a window. ¡No mames! His favorite
belt buckle: an águila perched on a nopal.
If he laughs out loud, his hands tremble.
Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez
wants to deport him. When I walk through
the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon
stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.
The snake hisses. The snake is torn.
Despite the syllabic length of words in Spanish, the sounds of these words move quicker than words in English. This allows Corral the advantage to incorporate phrases and words that are hard to translate into English without losing their meaning in ways that maintain a steady economy of space and sound. The fourth stanza shows off how four words in Spanish and one English word occupy as much space as nine English words. Despite the length of these words, the syllable count is nearly the same. The stanza’s first line scans as “A-rri-ba-Du-ran-goA-rri-baO-ri-za-ba-packed.” This line counts up to twelve syllables. The following line, “in-to-a-car-trunk-he-was-smug-gled-in-to-the-States,” counts up to thirteen. The syllables of these Spanish phrases allows gives Corral enough line length to visually juxtapose Spanish up against English in a way that still suits the poem’s shape. The sinalefa going on in the first line also allows the line to move as quickly, if not quicker, than the next line. The flow of lyricism also happens when enjambing phrases.
The seventh to eighth stanza uses the phrase, “No qué no / tronabas, pistolita,” which is particular to the Mexican dialect. One uses the phrase when something difficult to accomplish is finally done. It can be roughly translated and interpreted to, “Who said you couldn’t thunder, little pistol,” referring to trying to get a small gun to make a louder gunshot than expected. Allowing the phrase to stay in Spanish allows Corral to keep the poem’s lyricism and narrative faithful to his reality to both his strictly Anglophone and bilingual audiences. While the use of Mexican dialect seems to narrow the scope of readers, enjambing the line makes the line stick out to the ear of both audiences, forcing one cultural world into the world of the reader. Even if one does not understand what he means, the sound and shape of the poem remain with the reader.
The use of Mexican Spanish words and phrases at times even allows readers outside of this audience group the chance to better understand what he is doing on the page through subtle wordplay. The word, “corrido,” has several definitions. Fashioning the phrase with both languages, “sang corridos,” clues audiences into the specific connotation Corral means. Corrido refers to a type of Mexican narrative ballad that deals with economic strife and peasant life. This immediate connects Corral’s musically bent style and narrative content to a larger genre of Mexican aesthetics. The word also appears as a conjugation of “correr,” to run. The lines of that same line run into the next stanza, whose lines repeat the content of the fourth stanza. The use Spanish words with several meanings gives readers a chance to follow these lines of narrative to understand and better connect to a culture they are unfamiliar with. Contradictory to the impulse of some strictly Anglophone poets that think bilingual poetry alienates some readers, in this work, using Spanish brings English speakers closer to understanding others.