The Dangerous Shirt, poems by Alberto Ríos (Copper Canyon)
Poets are usually identified by their materials rather than by what they discover within them. This annoying shorthand has its obvious uses and benefits. Alberto Ríos has been called “the best Latino poet writing in English today.” In many interviews, he has repeated and expanded on the facts of his background: Mexican father, English mother, a childhood on the border between Nogales and Sonora, teachers who punished him for speaking Spanish with his classmates. Yet since 1982, when his first book Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press) earned the Walt Whitman Award, Ríos has doggedly directed our attention to the potential for discovery, the apprehension of mystery, within the materials and facts – Southwestern inflected, but stranger.
A life depicted in poems is a life-as-metaphor. Of what? The life has no meaning per se, but there are meanings in the life. In a 2006 appearance on Jim Lehrer’s "NewsHour," Alberto Ríos remarked that the example of his parents taught him “how to look at everything in more than one way … I grew up in between.” He said in an earlier interview, “My mother's sensibility, the gift she gave to me, is a constant amazement at everything around us. Because her landscape, and ultimately her language, were quite different from what she was encountering in Nogales, she was always pointing out things … as if they were extraordinary, which of course they were to her … She also gave me a sense of what I might call the science of the imagination, or conversely, imaginary facts. The whole time I was growing up she would talk about kings and queens, castles, snow, great gardens and countrysides -- things that did not appear in the Sonoran Desert …”
From the outset, Ríos has written poems with an implied promise – “see things the way I see them, and something mysterious ‘in between’ may be revealed to you.” Ríos’ speaker, a visionary or village solitary, is typically someone who uses his untrammeled access to everything -- memory, story, the elements of the landscape and air, the array of ordinary details of existence – to fulfill that promise. He has pursued the sole responsibility of his in-between child-self, which is simply to find out what’s happening. Meanwhile, he is called a “magical realist,” a label made more convenient by Ríos’ naming García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel.
In 2002, his seventh book of poems, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon), was a National Book Award finalist. Poems like “A Physics of Sudden Light” set the mode for many of the poems in the two books to follow: a meditation in couplets about basic elements told without the talkiness one finds in the early books (and in some poems here). A poem of a small, profound transformation. The poem begins, “This is just about light, how suddenly / One comes upon it sometimes and is surprised. // In light, something is lifted. / That is the property of light // Encountered suddenly, for a moment -- / You are not where you were // But you have not moved.” His eighth book, The Theater of Night (2005), is based on the imagined lives of his great-grandparents. Devotional and lovely, the poems are narrated by rather solemn and similar speakers who seem conscious of the weighty legacy of their memories. Despite the measured fluency and relaxed diction, the strain to sustain the long invention of these lives cuts across the grain of Rios’ strengths which feed on an unhindered persona in swooping flight.
Ríos’ new book, The Dangerous Shirt, is his masterwork, a collection that both validates and exceeds everything that has preceded it. Arranged in four themed sections of twelve poems each, the book opens with “Tuesday Soup”:
In Monday’s soup, you put in
What you have –
Leftovers from Sunday,
Chicken, red rice, cilantro.
On Tuesday, you put in
What you have
Even less of now,
The one leftover piece of dark chicken
Nobody wanted, the suspect
Rice with the black-rim
Stain from something, something
That got dropped, or from a spoon
Dipped into something else first
Then used in the rice, a stain
Growing darker by the hour,
Darker and bigger.
On Tuesday, dinner skates
At the edge of the ice.
Wednesday is something safe,
Starting over with fresh beans,
A trip to the grocery store, jícama,
Bananas and chilies, all fresh, all new.
Thursday survives by luck,
Living on the enthusiasms of Wednesday,
The small piece of pork that was on sale,
The other extras, the olives,
The big sack of soft avocados
Too ripe to wait, which is why they were so cheap.
Friday begins the weekend,
Three days that take care of themselves in the world.
But Tuesday, Tuesday is what people remember,
Like it or not, Tuesday, so easy to forget
Otherwise. Tuesday, always circumstance and luck,
A day in which gamblers sit at the dinner table,
Unfortunate and miserable. But in the quiet attempt
Whoever cooks dinner makes,
Tuesday is the day
All great discoveries are made.
There has always been a dutifully tended mythopoetic campfire in Ríos work. Myth reminds us to return our gaze to the unchanging – in the cyclical world, the circular pathway of the mind. All these years, Alberto Ríos has been writing himself into the role of wizened desert wiseguy, both generous and shrewd. Unhesitant about leading others to conclusions. The stark beauty of The Dangerous Shirt is revealed in the surprising returns to its elemental themes and gestures. The key rhythm, thematically and formally, rocks between sufficiency and scarcity – modest moments, on the brink of emptiness, yielding sight and insight. Spiritual avidity, not despite the evidence of an arid world but because of it. Finally, a persuasion that what disturbs us is natural and possibly useful. The first-person singular is present for the story’s sake. The story’s emphasis is on the first-person plural.
The four sections are titled: ”I stand on the invisible floor of night,” “Wherever we sit these days is a waiting room,” “We spend our lives imagining otherwise” and ”I will do what I can.” The book is one grand cycle – poems of memory, landscape, domesticity, adversity, bare essentials. The Dangerous Shirt is also a book of embraced oppositions and subtle complexity. In some poems, Ríos affably chides us for turning away from the actual. But to conclude “The Sonoran Heat, In Summer and at Night,” he writes: “We feel the sinking weight of this hot drunkenness, / The dizziness of the falling, all of us. // But we do not say so. We pretend / All is otherwise. It is the only way.” Ultimately, The Dangerous Shirt succeeds brilliantly because it creates a completely imagined world and vision of humanity, broad in scope, exact in expression. Recall the promise of discovery in the meager dish of “Tuesday Soup,” and then consider this poem about eating and abundance from the final section:
HAVING EATEN THAT WAY AGAIN
I am commander of the suddenly portly vessel of myself,
Steering wide and slow and mostly forward, mostly
In a best effort to get through just the one next regular step, just
Enough to keep myself moving, hoping nobody will notice
The slow, or too fast, or lingering, approximate nature of my walk.
Tonight, I’ve just eaten too much. The balloon inside me, that thing
That feels like a balloon, or tire, has inflated, and I carry it carefully.
I shouldn’t eat that much, but I do. And I do every time.
But the eating isn’t what I’m thinking of – it’s all the other
Approximations in front of me, all the lights blinking for attention
On this human steering control panel of me -- Get up, they say, shower,
Shave, speak up, eat breakfast, pretend to know the person in the car
You wave to as you go out front with the dog to get the paper.
It is drunkenness, eating so much. It is wine, stanching this hunger.
It is a weight, getting up at all. Getting up again and then again,
That is what I have eaten too much of. I am full by all of this,
Heavy with needing to do it every day. It’s more than dinner,
It’s always more than dinner, all of us, when we eat what we eat.
In the book’s first section, the shirt in the title poem is dangerous because it calls its wearer to get up, get dressed, and head out the door, much like the “human steering control panel” above. In The Dangerous Shirt, wanting more finds its match in the willingness to relent and accept what exists. But it is the tension of these emotional poles, built into the rhythm of the book, that grabs us. In “I Fell to the Floor, and Kept On,” the speaker relates an out-of-body experience that comes to represent the porousness of imagination empowering the poems in general. But a few poems later in “In Night,” the speaker turns our attention away from myth and back to our workaday lives, ending, “It is ourselves we want to be now, rather than that other story, / The story that says ours is a dim, slight porch light in the vastness.” Ríos has varied his materials and attitudes with greater intentionality and for more profound effect than ever before. Yet his sound is as light and free as ever. If Ríos seems to find it hard (or unnecessary) to suppress occasional sermonizing flare-ups (“Night is a collective memory, not all of it ours” or “Science may be our best way of understanding the world, / But it may not be our best way of living in it”), they are the extremities of his organic system, not errant remarks.
As his voice and manner have ripened, Ríos has climbed up entirely into a persona whose vision is as broad as the desert horizon but whose nose roots among the details of compost heap or dinner table. The tones are determined by the attributes of patience, affection, and wisdom. He has virtually no interest in portraying psychological difficulty – the arid landscape absorbs such trivia into itself. In “With Family,” we hear the persona at its longest reach for universal significance. The poem begins:
I have had a family and been part of a family.
I have had a child and been a child.
I have loved my mother and my father,
My son and my daughter, my wife and my husband.
I’m not the only one.
There are others complicit in this scheme.
We have moved inexplicably through the years
Toward and away from each other – perhaps it was the moon.
“The smell rousing us to what we know inside ourselves” is the smell of rain, both an excess and a scarce commodity, redolent throughout the book. Ríos’ gestures have always been marked by this boldness to indicate “what we know inside ourselves.” Similarly, his spare style suggests humility, while his expeditions for meaning indicate an excess of good intentions and an abundance of ambition. The urge to spell out the ambiguities artfully is itself a rare thing in poetry these days, and no poet of any stripe does it with more exuberance, delight and care than Alberto Ríos.
[Published May 1, 2009. 96 pages, $15.00 paperback]