Words rhymed to life's perception
Born in Nogales, an Arizona town on the border with Mexico, a land once known for its abundance of walnut trees and railroads, Alberto Rios has created a body of work that would make Walt Whitman proud. His poetry features a lively cast of characters, from the Birdman of Nogales to Miss Lee the 2nd-grade teacher who gives her pupils advice about French lovers.
Over a distinguished literary career stretching over 30 years, Rios has cultivated a reputation as a distinguished writer of both poetry and prose, but he is also a champion of public art. During his afternoon session at Arizona Western College he talked about the Tempe Town Lake exhibit that revolved around the Spanish form of one-line poems known the Greguerías. The form was invented by Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1888--1963), whom Rios calls the Emily Dickinson of Spanish literature.
In essence, a Greguería attempts to capture the quintessential essence of a thing, while also maintaining a sense of humor despite a serious subject. This humor, Rios notes, is often dark humor mixed with high seriousness, which is important to much Latino/a literature.
For example, Rios offered, “The old man on his death bed asked for a mirror that he might look at the sea one last time.” We are forced to recognize the character’s joy in a life well spent, even as he lies dying.
The judges of the 2002 National Book Awards praise Rios as a poet “of reverie and magical perception.” But he is also a poet of memory, language and humor. It is the same dark humor that the poets de la Serna and Lorca speak to, perhaps best exemplified in Rios’s poem “My Chili” which ends,
When you bite a chili,
You are not biting chili.
With its own teeth and its own tongue
The chili, after all,
Is biting you.
Significantly, Rios is a poet born on, and whose themes continue to revolve around the border.
“La linea, the line,” he says, “was the most devastating word of my youth.”
Rios’s visit reminds us that we need to be good to each other, and in that spirit he not only graciously came as the 2017 Distinguished Visiting Writer, but he also served as the Inaugural Writer’s Harvest speaker. The idea behind this is event is to feed both body and mind. Despite this event’s infancy, it still managed to raise more than $300, which will feed more than 3,000 of our neighbors. A ripe harvest indeed.
Ultimately, Rios’ poems remind us of “the hundred thousand things a song is.” What will your song be composed of when you leave the grounds of AWC and venture out into our community, and into the world beyond?