E
Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

Elbows and Toads

Alberto Rios.
The Theater of Night

Copper Canyon Press. 2005. 124 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-230-2

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! In a 2003 interview for the Bloomsbury Review, Leslie A. Wooten describes the Chandler, Arizona, home of Alberto Rios. It is a nicely appointed middle class affair replete with wife, teenage son and dog. The two sit down in the less formal kitchen space. Rios, always ready with a humble metaphor for his poetry, tailored to venue, thinks of his poems as slices of baked bread thickly covered with butter.

Later in the interview Wooten asks if he has been working on a book of poems. Yes, he informs her, he has:

...a collection of poems in the works, based loosely on the love story of my great-grandparents, Clemente and Ventura. Everything I know about love will be mixed in with what I've heard and imagined their story to be. The subtext, of course, is that my great-grandparents' love story is my story—perhaps everybody's story—or, anyway, the story we would want for ourselves if we were writing our own lines.

That collection would eventually become The Theater of Night.

The volume starts with Rios' grandmother, a young girl, walking with her sisters in the small towns that make up their world. It is a world with its own character, and, in the better poems, she and Clemente belong to it entirely. They grow old together, attached to each other's foibles, saddened and perplexed for their own and each other's losses. In the end, Ventura has become the person Rios knew as "great-grandmother":

Her hands were always coming at us, to fix this button,
To comb our hair, hard to straighten out
A wrinkle from our pants. She collected the wrinkles
From our clothing and wore them on herself.

In between, she and Clemente travel in a world of burros and babies and rivers and dogs. Clemente suddenly is gone. She watches gravity slowly, persistently woo her toward her grave.

Rios has been spoken of as a "magical realist," and in the better of these poems the description is particularly apt. Such poems cannot fail to strike a deep chord. The earliest foundations of poetry are distinctly magical. The story-telling left brain hemisphere had to begin somewhere in making sense of the world around it, and sympathetic relationship is so integrally wired into it that simile and metaphor must precede rational thought in time and in our sense of familiarity.

In "The Mermaid Comb," Clemente has carved a comb out of a cow's horn for Ventura. For three delightful pages she speaks of all that living with the comb means to her. She feels like the mermaid when she uses it:

Nobody could say for certain about the existence of these mermaids,
So they lived very well here where we made a home for them

In our words and prayers, and on our bureaus.

The mermaid, of course, is bare breasted, and after bathing Ventura discovers in the mirror that she looks like the mermaid that rides in her hair. Every bit as much to the point, Clemente has yet to touch her except through the comb.

In the terminology of psychology, Ventura feels both the magical power of "sympathy" (her feeling of identification with the mermaid) and of "contagion" (her sense that Clemente's long and informative contact with the comb puts him in similar contact with her when she wears it). These terms, however, apply only to rational analysis, and, as we know, rational analysis makes a dead specimen of any butterfly it pins down. Both Clemente and Ventura understand the magic at a living level. Or so we feel, when we sympathize with them, and it is the strength of that feeling that determines the degree of Rios' success in The Theater of Night.

As the totemic stage present in all early human development would suggest, contagion and sympathy work with particular force in our relationships with animals. The Theater of Night is also filled with animals and the simple, irrational belief, still so powerful in our relationships with our pets today, that people take on animal traits and that animals take on human traits.

Clemente, as he grows older, suffers the various disfigurements a hard-working peasant laborer might exhibit. Among them, one of his elbows has become a toad:

One of his elbows had been replaced by a nearsighted toad.

One could make it out bulging a little
Under his sleeve after he removed his coat.

The proof was easy enough:
If Don Clemente bent his arm there, it made a noise.

The relationship between humans and animals, however, has always been a deeply ambivalent one:

People, the animals know, spend much of their time
Trying to fool them into putting a foot

Into something that hurts.

But then again, the relationship of human with human has always been deeply ambivalent, as well.

Alberto Rios sat down to write The Theater of Night having some considerable advantages. It is entirely believable that, three generations ago, the residents of tiny Cucurpe and Rayón, in Sonoma, Mexico, still had a campesino naďveté that has now all but disappeared. As a young boy, Rios must have sensed the world that was passing with his great grandmother. Surely, the magical qualities of the volume owe a great deal to many Clementes and Venturas who wove in and out of his life. He has a genuinely intuitive understanding of how their magic works.

His decision to write the poems predominantly in unrhymed, irregular couplets was perfectly in tune with the lives he sought to portray. They tend to prevent the characters from wandering into sophistication and the poet from narrating to disadvantage.

Rios' slightly formal, entirely modern, modestly appointed home, his easy collegiality, and the normally trendy trappings that accompany them, on the other hand, suggest that a reader might detect disadvantages, as well, and she or he will. As often as not, the magic amounts to nothing more than garden variety metaphor, on rare occasion even to posturing. Clemente works on the local river (perhaps the San Miguel) and for Ventura, a new bride, in the flush of her joy, it suddenly grows panoramic, a place of cosmopolitan possibilities:

It was a mighty river, then, a great wave

And ripple, and ripple again, that ran through Paris, and Madrid,
London and Africa and to the south, a river with many names,

Many disguises, many passports and languages, the Seine,
The Nile, the Thames, the Volga, the Amazon...

The brief mention, at the beginning of the volume, of Cucurpe's growing sophistication does not prevent this from seeming badly out of character. While it is not impossible that Ventura should think of the river in this way, there has been no groundwork laid for it, and, the charm being all in her naiveté, it is a dissonant moment.

But Rios' contemporary side is not entirely a hindrance. The poem "Later, When She Was Like She Was" is a touchingly human poem although more psychological than magical. The final poem, "The Drive-In of the Small Animals," in which all of nature peers into a lighted house as night comes on, reads like a poetic version of a particularly amusing animated Disney film.

The Theater of Night is a considerably better book of poems than most. At its best it compares favorably with anything presently being done in the craft. At his best, Alberto Rios is in touch with something deeply fundamental in all of us.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece