Critics have often called Alberto Rios’ poetry ‘charming’, ‘enchanting’, ‘magical’, ‘full of invention’, and this remains true in his new collection, A Small Story About the Sky. The poems are playful, nostalgic, witty, imaginative and funny. It’s easy to envision many of them being enjoyed by children (as one hopes they are bound to be). Rios’ seasoned control of meter and rhythm, structure and pacing, mitigates what might have devolved into something too playful, too charming, too cloying, and keeps the poetic balance of the collection intact. He is known for his use of the plain vernacular—there are few big words—but he uses it to deep effect.
Rios writes almost exclusively in couplets in the book, and each of the four sections is involved in investigations of duality: of life, of mind, of spirit, of circumstance, of location and the physical elements. In ‘Me, Showering’, Rios relates a tale of some bits and flakes he washes off one day that venture out from the shower drain—‘this voyager in the streams and pipes’—into the world, only to meet again with their former body in a different time and place.
I try to call out to myself, one to the other,
Certain I’ll be heard, my voice now the scent of creosote,
The thin natter of a grackle,
My voice a curious glint of light, me suddenly everything I like
In small measure—all of it me trying to explain myself
The poem, it must be said, is charming. It is, along with others such as ‘Two Men’, reminiscent of Italo Calvino—playful yet serious, appealing yet precise, simple yet psychologically astute. As the collection wanders on through Rios’ imagination the poems begin to come more steeped in memory, and as this happens the uber-recognizable style of magical realism creeps in, along with Rios’ debt to another proser, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rios is a fine practitioner. His slips into style are deft and penetrating, and many of the poems resonate with the allure of memory.
Still, one day, after not looking down for so long
She forgot what was there, could not imagine any longer
Those things of the world that held her down.
The duality of past versus present is primary throughout the book, as is that of ground versus sky. Frequently, Rios focuses on the divide between the physicality of childhood and the intellectuality of adulthood. In ‘Our Second Lives’ he describes the sympathetic attempt, as a boy, to join with the beetles crawling around in the dirt, and concludes: “Older now, I puzzle at it all, but quietly, grown up, / Carrying with me the knowing that my first life was a failure.” Other times, it is simply the struggle of reality over nostalgia: “Those who are gone, their memories smaller, their clothes brighter.” In ‘When There Were Ghosts’, Rios describes watching old movies in a room full of smoke:
The projection caught a little
In the wavering mist of the cigarettes.
In this way, every story was two stories
And every character lived near its ghost.
Much of the verse is demonstrative—lines mean what they say and say what they mean. Many of the poems are unapologetically hopeful or idealistic. The verse tends to loosen a little in the middle sections of the book, even get a bit sloppy, and these poems lose some of their poetic punch, though Rios recaptures it by the end.
Rios is wonderful at describing the characteristics and relationships of non-human things. These would read as metaphors if they didn’t feel so personal, even if they’re about trees (‘Leaves and Leaves’) or fruit (‘Winter Lemons’) or concepts (‘The Half-Brother Sciences’). This wonderful melding of human and non-human is especially pronounced in ‘Desert Bestiary Sonnet’ and ‘Desert Flora Sonnet’ (One, Two, and Three), the first of which opens:
Hummingbirds are quarter notes that have left the nest of the flute.
Tarantulas are awkward left hands in search of a piano.
Horny toads are Queen Elizabeths of the dirt.
This is delightful stuff, laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, witty. It is also a child’s imagination looking out at the world, albeit with an adult’s knowledge and experience. The same sonnet ends:
Coyotes baying at midnight are broken hearts with teeth.
Prairie dogs at attention are the patient ears of the earth.
The list goes on in the poems to follow: “Worms are the pipes of the great underground city. / Crickets tell the evening news in animal.” “Olive trees need their own oil to soothe the arthritis of their limbs.” Rios’ desert poems in general are some of his strongest. He writes of the “rain that comes down already thirsty,” and rivers that are “sandy acts of faith.”
Water on the desert is a curious intimacy,
Each finding thrill in the conversation: wet on dry,
In front of everyone, raw, separate, not yet mixed.
The verse is driven by his plainspoken manner, but occasionally Rios will show some flair for rhyme. ‘The Thirst of Things’ begins:
Desert having been ocean
Remembers water, misses it,
Hugs it and kisses it when it visits,
Steals a little when it tries to leave,
Prickly pear and ocotillo and mesquite
A little fatter, a little wider, a little greener
The most prominent duality in the book is that of the US/Mexico border. Beginning with ‘Looking Across the Line’, Rios examines the situation of the border fence, an intimate object for the author (Rios grew up near the fence in Nogales, Arizona). It’s tempting to look at these poems as the only overtly political poems in the book, but they are really personally instigated, and spoken not so much out of a diatribe against a failed system as an attempt to understand the strange phenomenon culturally and socially, as one that continues to affect so many individual human lives. Rios knows, having lived it, that the border fence divides nothing—in geographical terms or the playtime terms of a child—and yet creates very real social and economic divisions.
In ‘The Border: A Double Sonnet’, one of the best poems in the collection, Rios uses his playful sonnet voice (the same as in the flora and bestiary sonnets) to dig into the issues surrounding the fence and US-Mexico relations. “The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam,” he writes:
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
It is a poem at once witty and surprising, and damning. Its metaphors are varied and succinct: “The border is two men in love with the same woman.” It reads like a list of unexpected grievances, or of one grievance listed in unexpected ways. This turns into a more forceful statement in the third of these poems, ‘The Fence’:
We wanted to stop disease, not people,
And a simple rancher’s fence was the answer.
But instead, disease is what we created,
So that we are the cattle now,
And human beings are viewed as the sickness.
It’s a jarringly direct line in a collection of witticisms and spirited metaphor. Though, in the end, the simplicity of a child’s logic is what Rios recommends: “To start over. To worry / About cows. It was and still is a simple solution.”
The cycle finishes with ‘The Border Before’, a fuzzy memory of the family that lived in the area pre-fence, again bringing the issue back to the level of personal past—and ‘Border Lines’, the only bilingual selection in the book, which is more or less an outright plea to change things going forward. In all of the poems, Rios resists the political and insists on seeing the landscape through a human lens—features as families, a fence with a human face.
Rios, whose thirteenth book this one is, has been writing poems a long time, and knows a bit about the writerly life. “How easy to spend a day writing a poem,” he writes in ‘On Gathering Artists’. “How hard to spend a life writing a thousand.” Rios is currently the first (and so far only) Arizona Poet Laureate, which means he also knows something about how hard it is to engage the greater public with contemporary poetry. ‘We labor for a lifetime / But take every day off. / Who knows what to make of us?’
With this new and doubly delightful book, he continues to do both these jobs well.