A Small Story About the Sky
I cannot remember now where I first heard it or from whom, but as a dismissal of poets and poetry it made an impression: a poet is someone who sees a bird outside their window and makes a big goddamned deal out of it. The claim neatly if rudely compresses a whole host of ascribed behavioral errors to the poet-type, who inflates the commonplace and mistakes their experience for something of, you know, value.
However, this assessment works differently when it’s not a complaint made by someone with no use for poetry but a judgment made by one poet of another. He who sees the bird and consequently makes the big goddamned deal suddenly shifts from someone grandiose to someone provincial, unsophisticated, basic. Unfortunately, this isn’t merely a hypothetical possibility; poets do talk about each in these terms (and worse), and when they make these judgments they aren’t criticizing how well or how poorly a poet realized her or his ambition, but the shape and substance of the ambition itself. Poets aren’t happy unless they are unhappy with each other, and the cascade of dismissiveness inevitably reproduces generational differences. The young always assume their seniors are in some way less: less perceptive, less aware, less critical of whatever commands the attention of the young. Of course, those seniors cannot complain too much about being placed in this subordinate position, since the honest among them will recall holding their seniors in equivalent contempt.
Still, I’m more tolerant of the outsider’s criticism, suspicious as it is of the entire project of poetry, than I am of the insider’s contempt, which suggests that some poetic techniques are absolutely beneath notice, as opposed to merely being temporarily unfashionable. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the first two poems in Alberto Ríos’s A Small Story About the Sky involve the speaker seeing a bird and making a big goddamned deal out of it.
In the first, “Sunday Dinner at Tuesday Breakfast,” the speaker accidentally spills some birdseed and finds
The day, which had been regular, is suddenly new.
I will not be able to gather back the seed before it is gone,
Happy on its voyage into the air, lifted beyond my reach,
The sparrows, doves, house finches so easily given to,
Their sounds becoming contentment in place of wing-flutter,
The mourning of the doves resonant with probing happiness.
Had this been one of those other disasters, a dam bursting,
A volcano in its moment, an avalanche in the high world,
Things would be different. But today, this small version,
The tragedy of this minute galaxy and its stars
Breaks the day that was, the day that would have been,
The day that will not be, and instead sends this replacement.
See? Bird to world to metaphysics, all in just six of Ríos’s preferred couplets.
How to reconcile those who read these lines and find them ridiculous and those who read them and find them, well, beautiful? And is it possible to find both those reactions simultaneously credible? This is more than a matter of fashion or taste. Yes, Ríos is resolutely and happily unfashionable; yes, everyone has the freedom of their own tastes and preferences. That said, I think Ríos and A Small Story About the Sky establish an excellent case for what might be called old-fashioned aesthetics, not by presenting them as categorically superior to what repudiates them but by demonstrating that they can do just as much, and as variously, as the conventions by which they’ve been “replaced.” When I say “replaced,” I don’t mean that one form of figurative language is neatly and simply swapped out for another, but rather that suspicion about any given technique replaces faith in that technique. For example, unalloyed deployment of the first person underwent extreme suspicion, and the approaches that enacted that suspicion quickly became suspect themselves, so that many younger writers find a refusal to candidly speak from direct experience the exact same red flag the writers who refused it did: a mark of inaccuracy, dishonesty, chicanery, error.
You can tell this story with any technique or approach, but of these suspect and allegedly old-fashioned techniques, Ríos deploys none with greater glee than metaphor. Metaphor is an excellent choice, not only because it has always tempted and alarmed poets in equal measure, but because the ceaseless churn of generational strife sometimes identifies the problem with metaphor not with the technique itself but with the poet’s attitude about its use. Accordingly, a metaphor that might strike a reader who wasn’t a poet as “beautiful” indicates a troubling lack of astringent auto-critique on the part of the poet who made it. A metaphor that destroys or at least rigorously interrogates the idea and value of metaphor is appropriate; a metaphor that doesn’t is worse than no metaphor at all.
Ríos offers metaphors in a riot of glorious abundance, especially in the “Desert Bestiary Sonnet” and “Desert Flora Sonnet” poems—there are a handful of each, and each marries the most familiar literary device to the most familiar poetic form. Ríos simply has fun with these, alternating the beautiful and the goofy in turn:
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 first.
Cardinals are made from wounds that have not healed.
Ants are grains of sand that have hatched.
“Desert Bestiary Sonnet, One”
This is the kind of poetry that works like magic on children, and while I know there’s no way to say that without it sounding patronizing, I intend it as a profound compliment, because metaphor is very easy to understand as a concept (look at something, think of what it reminds you of) but very difficult to execute as a practice, especially if you want to preserve its value rather than critically erode it. A degree off in one direction, and you have surrealism, a degree off in the other, and you have redundancy. Surrealism is wonderful if you want to suggest likening between the conscious and the unconscious or if you want to make the very idea of suggestive comparison appear florid or deranged; redundancy is useful if you want to argue that all likening is a disservice to the things compared. Ríos isn’t very interested in either of these criticisms, but that doesn’t mean he is mindlessly faithful to metaphor, either. To his everlasting credit, Ríos doesn’t reserve his metaphors for just-so occasions or carefully cultivated epiphany; he’s reckless with them, comically generous, both delightful and delighting.
If the most reductive description of enacting metaphor is looking around and describing what you see by way of what you imagine, even that requires two fundamental components: location and perception. As the desert titles indicate, where Ríos is matters in terms of what he sees and what stories he chooses to tell, and this appears in his attention to the border, a subject for metaphor complicated by the fact that as a base referent, it is already both real and unreal. In “The Border: A Double Sonnet,” a poem that sits right at the center of the book, Ríos writes:
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carefully in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says Stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
Here, the potential for comedy inherent in metaphor takes, necessarily, a darker turn, because Ríos appreciates that something can be absurd and dangerous not despite but because of that very absurdity. Likewise, the doubling is a kind of strategic confusion; what you see across an arbitrary line both is and is not a reflection of what you are, something summoned by virtue of your scrutiny, the way any object of attention is a weird mirror of whatever attends to it.
This doubling effect of the border is something Ríos returns to in a handful of subsequent poems. In “The Fence,” he tells the “simple story” of the border’s beginnings as a fence built to sequester diseased cattle, even though it is now “human beings are viewed as the sickness.” Later, in “The Border Before,” he writes of family members who remember its origins as “a way to keep cattle safe,” and in that memory the border represents a division of time—before and after—as well as space. But here, too, the mirror presents an unstable surface; as Ríos notes, the great-aunts who remembered the “before” time now exist only his own memory of them.
And finally, in “Border Lines” / “Líneas Fronterizas” (it’s the only poem in the collection to appear in both English and Spanish), after likening every map to the diagram of a cow that tells the butcher where to cut by also demonstrating how the parts actually fit together, Ríos flatly states that
Which way we look at the drawing
Makes all the difference.
We seem to live in a world of maps:
But in truth we live in a world made
Not of paper and ink but of people.
Taken in isolation, this may seem like a prosaic observation, made in the plainest possible terms. But in context, it’s far more complicated than it seems. Note, for example, the appearance of the cow, carried over from the historical associations in the prior poems, representing the way living things can be reduced to utilities and then reduced even further to symbols. One very dense poem could do all of that, but by distributing the task over several, Ríos gains the value of that complexity yet without having the complexity obscure the truth as Ríos presents it: basic, meaningful, deserving of clear articulation.
What it isn’t, however, is what many readers might identify as critically engaged, because it lacks the requisite markers of theory-dependent explanation or explicit solidarity with the rhetoric of those committed to addressing the border in terms of its political and social consequences. For me, the question is whether the absence of these markers truly bespeaks a lack of critical engagement. Ríos’s approach is fundamentally humanistic in that he looks at something that does indeed have undeniably political origins and ramifications, but what he sees is human error, human suffering, human confusion and loss. What he doesn’t see is anything he fails to recognize as central to any human experience, even though he regards it primarily via the experiences of the humans he knows best.
This is a thoroughly empathetic practice, one whereby looking at something produces an inconsistent doubling—sometimes Ríos sees himself, or a version of himself; sometimes he sees a self he cannot recognize, even as he admits he should. In “Sudden Smells, Sudden Songs,” he writes “We stand up, familiar to ourselves, // Then sit down strangers. We are / Two people. Maybe more.” As he does with the accumulation strategy of the border poems, Ríos visits and revisits objects of references to establish the wavering, shifting, doubling effect of attention itself. “Winter Lemons” notes “The yellow of summer is not the yellow of winter. / The colors are the same but their stories tell two lives.” And later, in “Lemon-Light,” he likens the lemons to Easter eggs, and writes
Yellow eggs laid by this tree
In its moment, laid and hidden, not for us to see,
So that to see is surprise—to us and to the tree both,
Treasure unexpected, abrupt, our eyes wide, wide,
But then narrowed. We look around.
Foxes and jackals and coyote humans that we are,
We take the lemons as ours with a dark hard snap, and go.
Ríos’s fascination with how and when we see doubly and how and when we submit to humanistic unity appears again and again in A Small Story About the Sky. In “The Flour Man” (“But who turned and saw himself for a moment / In the broken mirror of her face.”) In the titles of the poems themselves: “Our Second Lives” and “The Half-Brother Sciences” and “Two Men” and “Not Me” and “One of the Two of Me” and others. But I think these concerns have their greatest expression in a poem placed at the center of the book: “November 2: Día de los muertos,” which begins with the admission that “It is not simply the Day of the dead—loud, and parties. / More quietly, it is the day of my dead. The day of your dead” and proceeds to very plainly list who Ríos has lost, who he misses, how time compromises what he remembers even as it magnifies the loss itself. But later in the same poem he writes:
…We feed our memories
And then, humans that we are, we just want to move quickly away
From it all, happy for the richness of everything
If unsettled by the cut pumpkins and gourds,
The howling decorations. The marigolds—cempasúchiles—
If it rains, they stink, these fussy flowers of the dead.
Bread of the dead, day of the dead—it’s hard to keep saying the word.
If the word is hard to keep saying, it’s because it’s hard thing to look at, to confront. Metaphor is just what we do with language to balance or leaven that task, just as the decorations and the food and the spectacle enable us to bear the weight of understanding that our losses are both perfectly unique to us and also common, shared. Human. Suspecting or eroding what poetry can do in any given human life doesn’t change the parameters of that life, just as admitting that beauty is highly suspect doesn’t do anything to erase or illuminate our capacity for it. “November 2: Día de los muertos” is a very beautiful poem, and it is also very direct about how we use beauty. It ends with the following:
You miss it all soon enough,
Pictures of people smiling, news stories, all the fiestas, all this exhaustion.
The coming night, the sweet breads, the bone tiredness of too much—
Loud noise, loud colors, loud food, mariachis, even just talking.
It’s all a lot of noise, but it belongs here. The loud is to help us not think,
To make us confuse the day and our feelings with happiness.
Because, you know, if we do think about our dead,
Wherever they are, we’ll get sad, and begin to look across at each other.
What could be more plainspoken than that, even as it is framed with play and delight, just as is the day itself? It’s all a lot of beauty, but we need it, and if Ríos is unfashionable in his unapologetic mirroring of beauty and clarity, that matters far less than that he keeps fashioning. We should be grateful, and hope he does.
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