Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1505
Alberto Ríos’s verse is lauded for its distinctive use of magical realism, lyrical language, and childhood memories to illustrate American Southwest culture and life on the Mexico-United States border. His work draws heavily on the oral tradition of storytelling passed down through his family and often reflects his Chicano background;...
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- Critical Essays
Alberto Ríos’s verse is lauded for its distinctive use of magical realism, lyrical language, and childhood memories to illustrate American Southwest culture and life on the Mexico-United States border. His work draws heavily on the oral tradition of storytelling passed down through his family and often reflects his Chicano background; as a result, many of his poems relate narratives about his family and friends, often from a child’s perspective. Ríos is known for his lush descriptions and his ability to ground readers in everyday reality while transporting them to magical and surreal spaces.
Ríos examines spiritual and religious issues, mortality, and the effects of violence. His central themes include the intimate bonds of family, the cultural dynamics of the American Southwest, and the role of spaces, particularly borders (literal and metaphorical) in forming identity.
Whispering to Fool the Wind
With the publication of Whispering to Fool the Wind, Ríos established himself as an innovative voice in contemporary poetry. Although the volume echoes narrative voices and themes seen in his earlier works (Elk Heads on the Wall and Sleeping on Fists), in this collection, Ríos perfects his approach to storytelling, with its space and time intricacies, through the compact structure of verse.
Drawing on his Chicano heritage and his childhood memories, Ríos creates characters such as nani (grandmother), abuelo (grandfather), various aunts and uncles (in particular Uncle Humberto), childhood companions, and a man named Carlos, who is representative of the poet’s ancestors and their triumphs and tragedies. Their voices, as they relate experiences, heartbreaks, and joys, serve to create a world at once real and magical.
In “True Story of Pins,” Uncle Humberto spends his days chasing and collecting butterflies. He goes to his cousin Graciela’s sewing shop to search for pins to display his collection, but she will not give him any. Graciela always has pins, even in impoverished times; she denies his request because butterflies are a joyful childhood memory for her, and she feels collecting and displaying them is cruel. Uncle Humberto, angry, dies from rage. The poet relates this story in a frank manner, providing accurate details, yet never imposing a meaning on readers. Ríos presents a surreal experience, transforming the character of Uncle Humberto into a haunting figure.
The majority of poems in Whispering to Fool the Wind are narrated through the imagination and the distinctive language of a child. This enables Ríos to infuse playful humor into poems such as “Madre Sophia,” a colorful vignette illustrating an early experience, while highlighting an element of Chicano culture. Ríos, as a child growing up in Nogales, relates the time when his mother took him to see a gypsy fortune-teller. The naivety and impressionable nature of a child surfaces as he views the gypsy’s enormous breasts, likened to baseballs swinging toward him. The gypsy eventually tells Ríos “The future will make you tall.” This simplistic look into the child’s future is both literal and nonliteral; Ríos will physically be tall and he will prove to be a great success, adding stature to his family.
Lighthearted, often comedic moments are leavened by the poet’s ability to create poems that connect back even further to the often tragic experiences of his ancestors. “Carlos,” perhaps Whispering to Fool the Wind’s most poignant and haunting poem, considers how the ghostlike Carlos embodies Ríos’s ancestors and their struggles, at once exclusive to the poet, yet universal. Carlos is compared to loneliness, poverty, and alcoholism; he is all men and women, and he can be cold and dark like the night. However, by the end of the poem, Ríos appears to rise above these trials, with Carlos embodying hope as he wishes “to age with each of us,/ to grow old, to be happy.”
The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body
In The Smallest Muscles in the Human Body, Ríos continues to focus on childhood memories and the dynamics of Chicano culture; however, he also revisits magical realism as a technique and demonstrates his fascination with dualism, influenced by his perspective of American Southwest borders.
Poems such as “My Chili” and “Chinese Food in the Fifties” describe Ríos’s memories of cuisine and dining experiences in the Santa Cruz River Valley. Through personification and metaphor, the chili ceases to be an inanimate object. It tells stories and sings in one’s mouth; it is a nail in the foot and the sting of a jellyfish. It can be “a rapist or a lover” or “. . . The inside of a fist,// A fist’s dream and a fist’s intent.” In “Chinese Food in the Fifties,” Ríos reflects back on dinner with his family at a Chinese restaurant. Ríos remembers, “I ate only the white rice./ I did not yet have the adventure in me.” What starts out as a simple, realistic slice of family life turns into a meditation on Ríos’s memory of caged birds flapping their wings in the restaurant and his connection with that vision and sound. The poem concludes with a revelation:
This was the place that was meFilled with cage and with grit,Filled with linoleum and with smoke.
Like the majority of his poems, this piece demonstrates Ríos’s ability to infuse seemingly insignificant details with a larger meaning.
Ríos’s familiarity with the cultural dynamics near the Mexican-American border informs his dualism, explored in poems such as “Day of the Refugios.” In this piece, he explores the double meaning of the Fourth of July holiday from a Mexican and American perspective. He compares the American celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the tradition of fireworks to a Latin American rite of celebrating the birthday of one’s namesake saint rather than one’s own birthday. For Ríos, the Fourth of July celebrates Refugio, the namesake of his grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother-in-law. The poem celebrates these women and the life of Refugio. Ríos reflects that, as a child, “these women were me/ What I was before me,” echoing his reverence for ancestry. This celebration of family is complicated by Ríos’s struggle to reconcile this ancestral ritual with the American celebration. He admits that living in the United States, “in this border place and time,” makes it difficult to know what the Fourth of July means.
The blending of magical realism with dualism also appears in Ríos’s poems that rely heavily on animal and fruit imagery. In “The Birdman of Nogales,” an eccentric figure called the birdman morphs from a man into a beaver, a trapper, a prospector, and a horse. In “French Postales,” stars are “Fruit up in the sky, in the night,/ The pears and the apples, persimmons.” Oranges shift into shapes of birds, then back to oranges in “Oranges in a Tree,” and the death of family dogs is depicted in a vision of flying gray dogs in “Gray Dogs.” These poems appear to reflect Ríos’s newfound interest in still-life paintings and the relationship between animals and humans. The influence of the Sonoran desert (which Ríos has lived near) can also be seen in the magical transformation of forms, similar to a mirage.
The Theater of Night
Perhaps Ríos’s strongest demonstration of his narrative talent is The Theater of Night, a heartfelt ode to his great-grandparents, who are embodied in the characters of Clemente and Ventura. The imagined experiences of his great-grandparents are presented through various perspectives and serve to celebrate Ríos’s heritage and his hometown, Nogales. Although at first glance many of these often melodic pieces seem to be strictly personal family accounts, they transcend this narrow scope to embrace an entire, almost mythical culture and extend to the world at large. For example, in “Chance Meeting of Two Men,” Ríos imagines Clemente unexpectedly running into an old friend (Lamberto Díaz) on the street and joyfully hugging him and kissing him on the cheek. This short poem, with its simplistic language and syntax, is a powerful declaration of pure love. “The Conversation of Old Husbands” depicts a man (presumably Díaz) consoling Clemente after his wife’s death. Although it depicts an intimate moment, the poem reaches out to an entire community, one in which people experience similar heartbreak and loss.
Ríos makes a universal connection in the collection’s title poem. He examines how Clemente, Ventura, and those who knew them are all struggling to survive in a world that at times is cruel. Ríos uses the setting of a movie theater as a symbol for this journey:
. . . We have walked into the theater of night,. . . We make our way down the aisle,We sit in the seat of dreams, and we watch.We do not understand a thing.
Ultimately, Ríos leavens this somewhat somber mood with hope, with the lingering vision of light appearing once the film ends.