Non-Christian Ideas of Suffering and Martyrdom

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559

“Island of the Three Marias” is a mysterious poem resonant with Christian imagery and symbolism. It is effective because it leaves out more than it says. Ríos plays with prominent Judeo- Christian ideas about redemption and suffering, using the Island of the Three Marias, home to a Mexican federal prison,...

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“Island of the Three Marias” is a mysterious poem resonant with Christian imagery and symbolism. It is effective because it leaves out more than it says. Ríos plays with prominent Judeo- Christian ideas about redemption and suffering, using the Island of the Three Marias, home to a Mexican federal prison, as his setting, but he gives the poem its air of mystery, of magic, by leaving much to the reader’s imagination.

As a poet who mines the real world of places, things, and events for stories he can imbue with an otherworldly feel and mythic significance, Ríos belongs to that group of writers sometimes referred to as magical realists. Taking their lead from Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, magical realists seek the extraordinary in the mundane, find the fantastic in the everyday. For example, “On January 5, 1984, El Santo the Wrestler Died, Possibly,” a poem included in Five Indiscretions, the collection in which “Island of the Three Marias” appears, concerns the funeral of a famous wrestler named El Santo (the Saint). Ríos takes the event of the wrestler’s death and creates a surreal landscape in which the pallbearers all wear sequined masks in honor of their dead friend. Weaving mourners’ superstitions about the dead into the fabric of his story, Ríos uses the idea that the dead can hear what the living say about them as a means to imagine the wrestler’s past, how he came to be the feared yet loved person he was. In “Island of the Three Marias,” Ríos imagines the lives of men who are part of the Islas Marias Federal Prison. This isn’t literal reportage; by imagining what happens in a little-known real place, Ríos can create a dreamworld far more strange than one made up about a place with no basis in physical reality. It is precisely the familiarity of the descriptions that give the poem its mysterious atmosphere. Ríos critic Adrián Pérez Melgosa notes that the poet creates beauty out of conflict by “convert[ing] the day-to-day lives of individuals living on the borderlines created between cultures, languages, genders, and geographies into lyric sites where fate dances hand in hand with political resistance, and magic becomes the origin of common sense.”

The first borderline that Ríos negotiates in transforming this prison island into a magical place is the one between imagination and reality. Rather than naming the poem “The Maria Islands” (the actual geographic name of the islands), Ríos calls it “Island of the Three Marias,” echoing the structure of the holy trinity. In Christian theology, the holy trinity refers to the doctrine that God exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who are united in one substance or being. “Island of the Three Marias” suggests, then, that three entities reside in one place. Ríos takes the three islands— named after the three biblical Mary’s (the Virgin Mary, Maria Cleophas, Maria Magdalene)—and compresses them into one. In Latin America, a country heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, the image of Mary is revered as much if not more than the image of Christ himself. The shift from calling Jesus’ mother the Virgin Mary to calling her the Mother of God occurred around the second century and primarily was a way of emphasizing the divinity of Christ himself. In Mexico, it is Mary’s status as mother that is so pronounced. It is telling—although the poem does not tell readers— that the island that houses the prison is Maria Madre (Mother Mary). Rather than describing the place itself, Ríos describes the men who live on the island, emphasizing that a place is more than simply a geographic entry; it also includes the people who live there and the way that the place is expressed in their behavior.

Faustino is the first person named in the poem. The second stanza presents him as a hapless sort, whose life is all suffering.

There are really four islands here But the others are simply ignored. No one has thought to ask why, Not Faustino, his wife, the children The others, or even these white nuns Not in a Christian place, prison islands Inherited from the lepers who decomposed. On this particular island the family makes A living, and this is their punishment. A burden placed in the hands of Faustino The poor man who kills.

He is presented as one of the people on the island who has grown inured to curiosity about life outside the island. The details Ríos uses to describe Faustino underscore his normality. He has a wife and a family, and they suffer to make ends meet, “this is their punishment.” Ríos depicts Faustino as an everyman whose life, perhaps, hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would. Readers do not, however, know Faustino’s status on the island. The ambiguity of the last two lines suggests that he could be either a convict (i.e., Faustino is “the poor man who kills”) or a prison guard (Faustino’s burden is guarding “the poor man who kills.”) To understand how a convict’s family can make a living, it’s important to know that Islas Marias Federal Prison is unique in that prisoners live and work in community settings and, in some cases, are allowed to bring their families to live with them. Whether he is a convict or a guard, Faustino is drawn as a sympathetic and long-suffering character in a non- Christian place. It’s ironic that Faustino’s name in Latin means “fortunate.”

The second man described is no doubt a convict. Like Faustino, he also suffers on the island: his emotional and mental torment is salved only by a “needle in his leg,” most likely medication. His disabilities prevent him from establishing relationships with women. But Faustino, exercising authority and compassion, arranges for the young man to sleep with Mrs. Marez. This is a decidedly different kind of compassion than might be exercised by someone of conventional Christian faith. Also in contradiction to Christianity is the young man’s idea of truth. For Christians, the truth is that Jesus Christ died for humanity’s sins and that it is only through him that one can be saved; for the young man, however, it is “dreaming / to leave this place to do again / what made his father proud / who, carefully, had shown him how.”

The description of the last man, “the man in the suit,” suggests that he is an administrator for the prison. Abandoned by his wife, who was ashamed of him, the man suffers from his own arrogance and inability to be someone other than the uptight pretender he has become, “the one / too formal for this frivolous place,” the one who takes the name “Fresco Peach” (fresh peach) because “it reminded him of something / American western.” His suffering has led to self-loathing and resignation about the future as evidenced in the last two lines of the poem.

All of these men’s sufferings, compassions, hopes, and dreams are described in very secular ways. The descriptions of their lives are juxtaposed with the description of the nuns, who are innocent and “without scars”; and unlike the men who have suffered in their relationships with women, the nuns are described as “women who will not be women here,” precisely because they will not have romantic relationships. Their appearance in the poem symbolically underlines the idea of the island as a prison of desire where the religious and the secular suffer alike. The recurring symbol “white” in the three quatrains further highlights distinctions between the men and the nuns. The nuns are “in groups,” whereas the men are always alone. The nuns’ whiteness, suggestive not only of their goodness but of their skin color as well, contrasts with the brown-skinned Mexicans on the island.

“Island of the Three Marias” is not a description of good versus evil or even a comment on the silliness of missionaries on a prison island. By describing the suffering of three men and the hopes of the nuns to bring religion to their lives, Ríos is saying something deeper about human nature: that is, suffering, whether it be in the name of faith or as a result of an act over which humans may or may not have control, is the lot of human beings. For Christians, martyrs are those who suffered and died for their belief in Christ. For those in the secular world, martyrs might be those who died for a particular belief or cause, for example, the Irish Republican Army’s Bobby Sands, who died during a lengthy hunger strike protesting Great Britain’s rule of Northern Ireland. But what kind of martyrs can prisoners be, who have broken society’s laws and who are meant to suffer to atone for their transgressions? Ríos seems to suggest that belief isn’t a necessary criterion for martyrdom. The only thing necessary is being human. He suggests that human desire itself is often inscrutable and that men, especially, suffer for their desires.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. A widely published poet and fiction writer, Semansky teaches literature at Portland Community College.

Existentialism in Rios' Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once said, “Our duty, then, as we understand it, is to express what is unheard of.” By this he meant that the poet’s task is to investigate, examine, and explore the world from new and different angles. Alberto Ríos used this quotation as the epigraph for his first book, Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982). By doing so, he has adopted it as his writing philosophy. The consequence of this for him is that he must come to grips with the fact that some of the characters he will reveal will not be the beautiful peo- ple, but rather they will be the down-trodden or the unsavory members of society. The editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry have remarked that Alberto Ríos populates his writings with “grotesques,” people who are by their very nature unappealing while at the same time interesting, haunting characters. These same editors also say that Ríos’ careful and sympathetic characterizations of these kinds of people make his readers “accept and take friendly pleasure” in them.

An interesting example of this is the character Madre Sophía in Ríos’ short story “Eyes Like They Say the Devil Has.” A young boy, the narrator, is taken by his mother to see Sophía to get his fortune told. She is described in various unflattering ways. As she enters the room the boy says her head is “like a loose jar top on plum jam.” Later, he says her head looks “fake.” As she sits reading his fortune, her ample bosoms seems to jump out at him and he describes them as “horse nuzzles.” Despite these unflattering descriptions and the boy’s expressed fear of her, the reader develops a sympathetic feeling about the fortune teller.

Even though the characters in the poem “Island of the Three Marias” are unsavory, they are sympathetic characters whose plight is understandable because their behaviors are often similar to those experienced by many people. Readers do not come away from this poem with any deeply felt rejection of the characters. But though they might be willing to forgive bad behavior, they are not likely to forget the serious consequences of those acts.

Ríos’ use of contrasts in his poem reflects his family background. He was born in Arizona, his father was from southern Mexico, and his mother was from England. He once remarked that his family life gave him a “language–rich, story–fat upbringing.” The combination of these cultural heritages, which heightened his perception of society, and his linguistic background helped him define his writer’s voice. His language is clear, crisp, and direct; it is the language of the people who populate his poetry and fiction.

The poem is divided into three main parts, each with two stanzas. The sections open with a short introductory stanza of four lines that leads directly into a longer stanza that examines an individual character in detail. The longer stanzas are freely constructed without a rhyme scheme and are of varying lengths.

Ríos knew both the Mexican-American and the Mexican societies. When he looked at them, he saw an insidious disintegration of several important aspects upon which they were built. The church and the governmental institutions charged with caring for the incarcerated, either prisoners or mentally ill patients, were not meeting their responsibilities to the whole society. Additionally, he found the disintegration of strong personal value structures to be as threatening to society as was each of these failing institutions. In his poem, Ríos shows these parts of society combined in a negative synergy of destruction that none of them seems capable of nor interested in reversing. The nuns and the government, which oversees “the man in the suit,” are just as responsible for the deterioration of personal morality as Faustino, the youth in the second set and the man in the third set are. The wife who would not visit her husband in the institution is as complicit in creating his mental instability as is the institution that keeps him “in the suit.” Their combined failure to accept responsibility is the chief cause of the disintegration of the society that is represented in the poem. Ríos indicates that the interconnected responsibility of individual behavior and corporate behavior is necessary for a strong society.

In Latin America, the roles of men and women are much more rigidly established than they are in mainstream society in the United States. The Latino man is often the dominant force in a relationship with the woman as the submissive one. Despite the fact that these roles are changing, deep seated expectations still exist. Women are expected to be the care-givers and the nurturing members of society. The women in the poem are the nuns, representing the Roman Catholic Church, the whore in the second set, representing the loss of personal morality, and the woman who does not come to the island in the third set, representing the institution of marriage. Each stands for a specific facet of the society that Ríos believes is failing to meet its responsibility.

These women seem selfish and unconcerned about the people they meet. The nuns, who are expected to be compassionate and involved with the prisoners on the island, “will be leaving soon without scars.” The internal and/or emotional scars they hope to avoid come from ministering to those in need. Rather than serving those who need them, they are more interested in getting away as fast as they can.

Ríos uses colors symbolically to indicate the nuns’ declining role in the service to the Church. He calls the nuns “pale,” indicating that they lack the conviction and purpose that is expected from representatives of the Catholic Church. Their paleness stands in stark contrast to the black and white habits often worn by nuns, black and white indicating the strong contrasts between right and wrong, truth and falsehood.

Their habits are also “frayed,” another symbol of their declining stature. “The white nuns not in a Christian place” are in such a place of their own making. Their failure to maintain a strong position in the life of the Church’s ministry is their own creation. They “will not be women” on the island who meet the expectations of nurturing and comforting representatives of the Church. They also “will not be women” who meet the physical needs of the men on the Island.

The striking contrast between the nuns and Mrs. Marez is not as great as it might seem. In both cases, the women are located in a “physical moment.” The physicality for Mrs. Marez is her sexual perfidy, allowing herself to be “loaned” for the purpose of satisfying someone else’s sexual needs. The nuns’ “physical moment” is likened to “Easter lilies,” flowers with religious meaning, but they are static, potted emblems. Since the nuns “will not be women here” they are seen only as the visual image of the lily. But these women have abdicated their personal responsibility for their own behavior. The nuns fail to provide comfort to the prisoners; the whore fails to protect herself but offers the men a false comfort instead.

The failure of individual responsibility also exists in the role the wives play in the lives of their husbands. In the second and third sets, the wife is associated with uncomfortable feelings. In the third set, at line 45, the wife “suffered from the embarrassment of marriage” to a man who is inside an institution. She displays the same attitude as the nuns from stanza one by wanting to be “somewhere else” and “without scars.” In her refusal to become involved with her husband, she takes one more step: she does not come to the “frivolous place.” Just as the nuns have abdicated their role as spiritual comforter, the wife abdicates her role as emotional comforter to her husband.

The role of the wife in stanza four is figurative. Here the man seeks to soothe his hurt feelings from being laughed at by “those around him.” He finds solace in drugs, which, from the needle in his leg “through his pants,” calm the “pain he called wife.” Ironically, the man personifies his pain and discomfort as a wife, turning the expected role of comforter into a pain-giving role.

Since the Latin-American man is very often the dominant person in a relationship between a man and a woman, he expects to be taken care of and comforted by the woman. The man then is a “taker” not a “giver.” The first man in the poem is Faustino, Little Faust. In the well-known story by Goethe, Faust sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for earthly gratification. But by the end of the tale he loses everything. In Ríos’s poem, Faustino is “the poor man who kills” and is sent to the island where he serves his punishment and where his family also lives and serves “their punishment.” In this way, the family lives out the biblical lesson that the sins of the father are visited upon the son.

Later, Faustino “lends” the woman, Mrs. Marez, to the drug-taking youth to satisfy the youth’s sexual needs. The youth has left a place where he could not have sexual contact with a woman, and now he is in a place where he could have contact but does not. As a result of his sexual ineptitude, he becomes the object of laughter “from the mouths of those around him.” Because of his inability to secure sexual release, he seeks Faustino’s help. The youth tries to rid himself of the echoing laughter by making “soft noises,” the muted begging for Faustino’s aid in acquiring the services of Mrs. Marez. In an ironic perversion of the polite ritual of saying thanks to someone, the youth thanks Faustino for the woman, and then calls the woman a “whore” even though she has given him the sexual gratification he desired.

Ríos uses white as a transition color into the last set, the sterile, cold white of government institutions and the detached and uninvolved “white nuns” from stanza two. “The man in the suit” from line 43 is a ward of the government and the insti- tution where he is housed. Ríos shows the unsympathetic nature of the government through “the boys who were everywhere smiling at him.” The man tries to hide from these people by inventing a name, “Fresco Peach,” which he will not tell “to a woman.” His emotional walls are as confining as the walls of the institution where he stays. He is isolated from his wife by his walls and by his wife’s walls of embarrassment. In the last lines, he makes a final recognition of himself and his situation saying, “A man is ugly.” With this acceptance of his condition, he “stops running.” This man from the “frivolous place” acknowledges and accepts his status. Once that has been done, he no longer needs to run away from anything.

In the society in this poem, Ríos connects individual members with corporate members, demonstrating that even the slightest shortcoming has broad consequences for the whole community. No matter how insignificant a behavior pattern is, others will share in the fallout. Individual failures by themselves may seem less threatening and thereby more acceptable, but they are nonetheless devastating to the society as a whole. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said it best when he wrote that it is necessary “to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” Thus the interconnectedness Ríos exposes in his poem is a phenomenon that everyone must recognize or else suffer the consequences.

Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Mowery has written extensively for the Gale Group.

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