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Oct/Nov 2010 Reviews & Interviews

It is ourselves we want to be now...

The Dangerous Shirt
Alberto Rios.
Copper Canyon Press. 2009. 116 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-298-0.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! With The Dangerous Shirt, Alberto Rios continues to write poems predominantly in irregular, unrhymed couplets that give his images a terseness very effective for portraying a campesino mentality that previous commentators have aptly labeled "magical realism." Rios grew up along the Arizona-Mexico border, his grandparents and their pre-air-conditioning, pre-television world were very much a part of his life. They bequeathed him gifts of the sort that many readers feel are lacking from their lives.

It is this that Rios intuits when he writes about a irony inherent in gazing at the stars:

We are looking at older light than our grandparents saw.
They were closer to when things happened out there in the dark.

The sense that an older way of understanding things was younger, more vital, than our own with its science and abstractions, that an earlier kind of knowing is far richer than our own, is persistent in the developed world. We feel alienated from something deeply important for full lives:

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.

While most of us ignore the feeling by staying busy, buying things, attending therapy, achieving professional goals, a sizable minority find these strategies temporarily effective at best. Belief systems tend to pall over time for those who are infused with the idea of the individual. Commercial systems tend to be disasters from the start.

From time to time poetry feels it has something to offer in this way. For all it would like to be commercially viable again, there is little likelihood of a business plan (Billy Collins aside) and the concomitant disadvantages. The product is portable, the poet necessarily humble.

In The Theater of Night (2006), Rios gave us a mythology of the campesino world in the lives of Clemente and Ventura, his grandparents, and brought it up to the back porch of the present. It is a world poor in wealth but rich in living, a world leavened with sympathetic magic. In The Dangerous Shirt, we see that mythology as it is expressed in all of the poet's daily life.

Much of it is as universal as the childhood memory of leaving school after the final bell which springs to mind when the poet lifts a log to find a roiling mass of ants beneath:

Each of us had a plan not bigger than getting the heck out of there.
It was a good plan, and we were committed to it, running, pushing

As if we had all this time been holding our breath hard underwater...

A thousand zen masters whacking us on the back with sticks could never free us to as full a consciousness as the end of the school year once did. But, with the help of this poet, a swarm of ants can bring back to us what being totally alive to the moment is like.

At the heart of it, however, is the campesino patiently scratching out an existence at the edge of the desert, and nature scratching right along beside him, the two side by side so long, so intent upon the same thing, that they've come to identify with each other. And, on those rare occasions when water comes, when the dream of water comes, couplets bloom into quatrains:

In the desert, water, when there is water, water is the concert:
It makes happen the grass skirt and sport shirt,
Flirting of the coyote and the brown wren, the lizard
That crawls on the hardpan dirt and the hawk come down from the sky.

In the desert, heat makes the asphalt shimmer, heat dreaming
Water even at its work. The pelicans that have lost their way
Find this dream, and mistake it for what it seems to be: In joy, they dive
Into the highway, looking for the black fish of cruelty.

The heat keeps thoughts from getting too full of themselves. It is cruel to those who stray out of their element. Water comes so seldom that one learns not even to think about it and then it comes and the celebration of life.

Over the span of the past three generations of Rios's family, electricity slowly came, and irrigation pipes were slowly laid; but something about the campesino has stubbornly persisted. The incongruence is a poetry and its poet is Alberto Rios. The Dangerous Shirt is filled with the gift those generations bequeathed: a simple and a magical way of being in the world.

 

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