18 January 2007 | Vol. 6, No. 4
A Night of Theater: A Review of Alberto Ríos's The Theater of Night
The Theater of Night
Copper Canyon Press, 2006.
96 pages. $20.00.
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Alberto Ríos's poetry insists on language that some critics have described as "serenely clear," obvious that Ríos is "struck by a vision that pushes him forward in passion." Perhaps this passion is how Ríos resists a language of ecstasies—lush, sprawling verse lines—because it becomes increasingly clear, if not surreptitiously so throughout his latest collection, The Theater of Night, that Ríos is a poet who charms not through acrobatic language but through the exacting manner of the oral tradition: felt passion and the understanding of the meanings of stories and their ability to document (cultural) history.
The stories that comprise the narrative of Theater of Night, as Ríos states in "The Mermaid Comb," tell themselves "not with words but with small teeth." When this poet describes a moment, we are endeared to it:
I thought the carving looked a little
Like looking at myself in a mirror after a bath,
Those two curious paint spatters on my chest, those two
Flat, simple thumbs
Like the dark noses of two small dogs sniffing up
At dinner on the kitchen table.
His images are exact, make the anodyne sublime. For example, consider the poem, "The River Was Their Honeymoon":
Small and slight, quiet and under-stars as it seemed,
A whisper to anyone else, a nothing, a task, a place for ghosts,
The river was everything for the two of them,
Their honeymoon every time, new every time
The way the water in the river was new every time.
The river started as this small creek
But the closer they walked toward it the more it seemed to change—
It was a mighty river, then, a great wave
And ripple, and ripple again, that ran through Paris, and Madrid,
London and Africa and to the south, a river with many names,
Many disguises, many passports and languages, the Seine,
The Nile, the Thames, the Volga, the Amazon,
A river that wound around through narrow cities and tapered shores,
Passing through them and beyond, spilling
Into the great wide plains of so many places, this water…
Here, the river becomes emblematic of more than simply the places these lovers may have visited: the river suggests both personal and cultural histories through its sprawling conceit. The poem, then, resists the quotidian experience of the honeymoon to become something majestic, transformative. It tells a (hi)story that is more than just clever in its phrasing: the language shows an exactness without pretension; it insists on inclusiveness—so much, in fact, that by the conclusion of the poem, one believes how this river "made everything, including them, // Riverine, slow and wide, and became evening and became night, / Slowed into itself, into memory, into finally what was the drink of water // They shared from their hands… "
Furthermore, "The River Was Their Honeymoon" is one of the many lyric narratives that tell the story of our central characters, Clemente and Ventura, a couple whose lives—and all the vicissitudes of a lifetime of coupling—take center stage. The stage, in this case, is a small community along the border between Mexico and the United States, much like the community from which Ríos hails. Consider the following excerpt from "I Heard Him With My Back":
When he spoke to me like he did and where he did
As we stood in these living rooms in front of everyone,
He made my mouth make a noise.
My half-words made no sense to anyone, so they would hush me.
They would give me looks with their eyebrows tight and low.
Their noises made no sense,
These small, volcanic risings that came out of me,
They made no sense to anyone but him.
Here is a moment where Ríos is at his best. He moves so deftly outward to the external world, the "theater" of highlights and interstices of Clemente's and Ventura's lives. What enhances this moment is how form (in this case, the couplet) provides a spatial story that at once supports and creates ironic tension in the poem. By this I mean the form underscores the theme of coupling, but not a romantic coupling as much as a coupling in which the internal frailties of the relationship are witted against the polarizing and scrutinizing eye of the outward world. This is what makes us care for this couple. We can appreciate the sadness of this moment while, at once, celebrating the lyric dexterity by which their story unfolds. They are the agents into a place where we are endeared to all the emotional resonances found in one's own life. They are the same couple we run into at the market, or wave to across the hedges. We care about them because, as all good stories, their story makes us self-reflexive about our own lives.
Ríos suggests this sentiment in the book's title poem, which opens the sixth and final section of the book, and serves as stage direction to Clemente's and Ventura's (and seemingly our) end:
It is 6:00 in the evening, a new-century evening
In the still-strong light of the desert.
The clock says 6, but I would not know it
From 5:30 or 6:30, not 7 or 5.
The numbers confuse what is not confusing.
The dark and stars are coming, but not yet.
This is the in time in-between, the gray time
The earth goes toward sleep but slowly,
Slowly and regardless of what to we do,
In spite of the noisy people laughing next door.
Notice how tonally we are settled into the imminent death of our couple. It is a quietness that is never morose. Metaphorical imagery imposes upon the literal details: "Shadows begin to leave their jobs, tired / From a day without rest or recognition. / Poor shadows. They lie down from fatigue." Clemente and Ventura are becoming shadows—ghosts even before the spirit leaves the body.
We find ourselves more closely revealed in the imminent death of Clemente and Ventura later in the poem—understanding the redemptive qualities death achieves after life has absconded away because, as Ríos insists, "We make light what the world does not. / We walk into the night as if nothing has changed." And, yes, as Ríos maintains, we may think to ourselves: "…what is this place? We want the lights / To come on. We want an usher to speak to." One appreciates the inclusive "we" in this poem because Ríos insists that we understand that Clemente and Ventura are not unlike ourselves. ("They look like us, but who are these people?") And as we have become more and more entrenched in the lives of this couple and the place that they come from, we are delighted to have The Theater of Night detail a world that is as much a metaphorical place as it is a real one. We are revealed in its language and Ríos's "theater of experience," which is unavoidably common to us all. And how fortunate we are for having Ríos as not only our usher but our poet.
Alberto Ríos is the poet laureate of Arizona and teaches at Arizona State University. He is the author of eight books of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. Ríos is the recipient of numerous awards, and his work is included in over 175 national and international literary anthologies. His work is regularly taught and translated and has been adapted to dance and both classical and popular music. His book, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry.
About the author:
D. Antwan Stewart is author of a chapbook, The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag Press, 2006), and is a poetry fellow in the James A. Michener Center for Writers. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet Lore, Meridian, CutBank Poetry, The Seattle Review, Books To Watch Out For, Bloom, The Lambda Book Report, New Millennium Writings, and others. He is the poetry editor for Bat City Review.
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 6, No. 4, where "A Night of Theater: A Review of Alberto Ríos's The Theater of Night" ran on January 18, 2007. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, review, review of poetry.