Alberto Ríos Ríos, Alberto - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Alberto Ríos 1952-

(Full name Alberto Alvaro Ríos) American poet, short story writer, and memoirist.

Ríos is recognized as an important and influential American poet, whose verse often explores the dynamics of life on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. Drawing on the oral storytelling tradition of his Chicano heritage, his poetry has been praised for its unique perspective on the American Southwest experience.

Biographical Information

Ríos was born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, on September 18, 1952, to a Mexican father and a British mother. As a young boy, he first learned Spanish; but like most Chicanos, he was forced to speak English when he attended school. By the end of elementary school he gave up speaking Spanish altogether. The juxtaposition between these two worlds—the English and Spanish—is a recurring theme in his verse. In junior high school Ríos began to write poetry. In 1974 he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a year later he received another bachelor's, in psychology. He then enrolled in law school but quit in order to enroll in the Master's of Fine Arts program, which he completed in 1979. That same year, he published his first collection of poetry, Elk Heads on the Wall. He has received numerous awards, published hundreds of pieces in magazines and journals, and served on the editorial boards of many literary journals. Currently he is a Professor of English at Arizona State University and gives lectures and readings around the country.

Major Poetic Works

Critics assert that Ríos's verse is largely drawn from his childhood memories and an oral storytelling tradition passed on from his family. His verse often relates stories from and about his grandmother, grandfather, parents, cousins, aunts, and childhood friends. Several of his poems are told from a child's point of view. For example, in “Madre Sofía,” he writes from a child's perspective about a mysterious trip to a gypsy fortune-teller with his mother. In “Nani” he recounts the silent language that he shared with his beloved grandmother. Ríos also explores in his work the concept of borders. In “Day of the Refugios” he describes the double meaning of the Fourth of July in Nogales: it is a day of celebration of America's independence as well as the saint's day of people named Refugio—including his grandmother and his mother-in-law. In Ríos's world, the Fourth of July thus represents the juxtaposition of his Chicano and American heritages. As a result of these border divisions, Ríos has created a hybrid writing, which is characterized by the use of magical realism. In these verses, he begins with a realistic situation that develops into a surreal one. Several of his poems are concerned with the themes of desire, religion, and violence.

Critical Reception

Critics praise Ríos for his thoughtful articulation and exploration of the dynamics of life in the border area between Mexico and the United States. Moreover, reviewers commend his use of vivid detail and magical realism in his poetry and short stories. His use of magical realism has prompted comparisons to Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez. Ríos's work has been published in numerous periodicals and his poems are often anthologized. Viewed as a notable American poet and vital voice from the American Southwest, he was awarded a poetry fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980 and was awarded the Walt Whitman award in 1981 for Whispering to Fool the Wind, which was published the following year. He also received Pushcart Prizes for poetry in 1988 and 1989, and was a nominee for the National Book award in 2002 for his latest collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (2002). He was also the 2002 recipient of the Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Elk Heads on the Wall 1979

Sleeping on Fists 1981

Whispering to Fool the Wind 1982

Five Indiscretions 1985

The Lime Orchard Woman 1988

The Warrington Poems 1989

Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses 1990

The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body 2002

The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart (short stories) 1984

Pig Cookies and Other Stories (short stories) 1995

The Curtain of Trees (short stories) 1999

Capiratada: a Nogales Memoir (memoir) 1999

José David Saldívar (review date summer 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Saldívar, José David. “The Real and the Marvelous in Nogales, Arizona.” Denver Quarterly 17, no. 2 (summer 1982): 141-44.

[In the following review, Saldívar regards Whispering to Fool the Wind as a classic volume of poetry.]

Whispering to Fool the Wind, the 1981 Walt Whitman Award-winning manuscript, by Alberto Ríos, seems, as few first volumes of poetry do, an entirely necessary work, perhaps a classic. Ríos introduces new tones and perspectives to the American Southwest experience and follows such writers as Carpentier, Rulfo, and García Márquez in their dialogue between Old World forms and New World expression.

Alberto Ríos, a Chicano from Nogales, Arizona, received his MFA Creative Writing degree from the University of Arizona. Presently, he is a Visiting Professor of English and Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Ríos is sensitive to the Chicano experience and his poetry is thoughtful and well-wrought. His poems are usually narrative poems; that is, they contain a storyteller and a tale.

What strikes me most about Ríos's Whispering to Fool the Wind are the various ways his characters are able to exchange experiences, often their securest possessions, with us. Ríos as storyteller in verse draws from an oral and sometimes silent code which is passed on from his nani (grandmother), his abuelo (grandfather), cousins, aunts, childhood friends, an Uncle Humberto, and a representative man he names Carlos. And because Ríos's poetic representations of his characters' stories hardly differ from their own speech and point of view, he is one of the new, great American storytellers. Storytelling in verse, traditionally, is a difficult task because the details we appreciate in prose fiction—a sense of being and time, of characters exchanging experiences, a sense of the stories of all our lives—are seemingly at odds with the compactness of poetry. Nevertheless Ríos is able to master this difficult procedure.

The most extraordinary things happen in Whispering to Fool the Wind. Panfilo's head is deformed and “awkwardly” bent out of shape; a grandfather “who has served ants with the attitude of a waiter” in “Mi Abuelo” is buried in his best suit; and a poor Uncle Humberto, a collector of butterflies, dies of excessive rage because one day Graciela, a “hard seamstress,” refuses to give him pins. In his “True Story Of the Pins,” as in García Márquez's children's stories, Ríos's poem is itself an allegory of the storytelling process:

Pins are always plentiful
but one day they were not
and your Uncle Humberto
who collected butterflies
you see here on the walls
was crazy looking for some
and he went to your cousin
Graciela the hard seamstress
who has pins it is rumored
even in hard times, but when
she found out why he wanted them
because the wind from the south
who was her friend since the days
of her childhood on the sea
told her, she firmly refused
your poor Uncle Humberto.

Throughout Whispering to Fool the Wind, marvelous things are related with the greatest of accuracy without being forced on the reader. It is left up to readers to interpret things for themselves in the way they understand them.

Ríos's work reaches back to a whole lifetime of his own and others. In “Madre Sofía,” Ríos writes...

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Alberto Ríos (essay date spring-summer 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ríos, Alberto. “The Body of My Work.” Genre 32, nos. 1, 2 (spring-summer 1999): 27-39.

[In the following essay, Ríos contends that the “language of the body” plays a significant role in his poetry.]

What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is understand others.

—Carlos Fuentes

I've said many times that my first language was more or less Spanish. It's true, but it's not true, too. Mine was Spanish the way potlucks are meals, which is an apt comparison, I think. My language, finally, consisted of whatever words would get me dinner. In that...

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Joseph Deters (essay date spring 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Deters, Joseph. “Fireworks on the Borderlands: A Blending of Cultures in the Poetry of Alberto Ríos.” Confluencia 15, no. 2 (spring 2000): 28-35.

[In the following essay, Deters investigates the role of “spaces” and “borders” in Ríos's verse.]

Alberto Ríos is an award winning author of both poetry and short fiction.1 His book of verse, Whispering to Fool the Wind, won the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 and his first book of short stories, The Iguana Killer, (1984) won the Western States Book Award the same year of its publication.2 A commonality of both his verse and prose is that they generally focus on life on...

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Richard Vela (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vela, Richard. “The Idea of Boundaries in the Work of Alberto Ríos.” Pembroke Magazine, no. 34 (2002): 115-22.

[In the following essay, Vela traces the concept of borders in Ríos's verse, contending that his work “ranges from exploring the dualistic nature of border culture to exploring the hybrid culture that results from these juxtapositions.”]

Alberto Alvaro Ríos has written four books of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. He won the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 for his first book of poetry, Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982), and the Western States Book Award for his short story collection, The Iguana Killer...

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Alberto Ríos and Leslie A. Wootten (interview date July-September 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ríos, Alberto, and Leslie A. Wootten. “The Edge in the Middle: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 57-60.

[In the following interview, Ríos discusses the major themes of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, the role of science and animals in his work, and his use of magical realism.]

[Wootten]: How did you decide on The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body as a title for your new book of poems?

[Ríos]: The title is excerpted from “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” a poem I wrote shortly after my father's death. The human body's smallest...

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Robert Murray Davis (review date July-September 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Robert Murray. Review of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body by Alberto Ríos. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 105.

[In the following review, Davis underscores the role of duality and mutability in Ríos's verse.]

Most of the poems in Alberto Ríos's eighth collection [The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body] are associated with memories of his childhood on the Arizona-Mexico border in the 1950s, which helps account for the duality of his vision, or from his awareness of the Sonoran desert in which he has lived all of his life, which may account for the miragelike shifting and blending of shapes. (The smallest...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Ríos, Alberto Alvaro. “Becoming and Breaking: Poet and Poem.” In Daily Fare: Essays from the Multicultural Experience, edited by Kathleen Aguero, pp. 20-7. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Ríos reflects on his childhood and his early verse.

———, and William Barillas. “‘Words Like the Wind’: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” The Americas Review 24, no. 304 (fall-winter 1996): 116-29.

Ríos discusses the differences between writing in English and Spanish, his attitude toward poetry, and the role of metaphors in his poetic work.

———, and Timothy...

(The entire section is 178 words.)