Arizona recently selected its first poet laureate (Alberto Ríos), making it the 43rd US state with a post of poet or writer laureate. Ríos was the unanimous first choice of an expert panel (which sent three nominations to the governor) after a selection process outlined by a law passed by the Legislature.
Alberto Ríos was born in Nogales, a small border town in southern Arizona, to a Mexican-American father and a British mother (whom the father met as a soldier in World War II and brought back to Arizona). He received his MFA from the University of Arizona (in Tucson) and teaches as a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University (in the Phoenix area).
Ríos is an award-winning poet, novelist and memoirist. His first book, Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982), was chosen by Donald Justice as winner of the 1981 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart, winner of the 1984 Western States Book Award, was published by Blue Moon Press. He was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for his Poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body. His memoir about growing up on the US-Mexican border, Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), was chosen for the OneBookAZ reading program in 2009. Ríos also has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
In the 1970s, as part of Poets in the Schools, he traveled all over the state doing workshops in schools and libraries. When his memoir was selected for the OneBookAZ, he again traveled around the state, going back to many of the same places as he’d been to for Poets in the Schools.
In 2002, a public-art project “Words Over Water” was installed in a series of granite tiles around Tempe Town Lake (in Arizona), each tile inscribed with a thought composed by Alberto Ríos and meant to represent the history of the Salt River. These single lines are philosophical aphorisms, often humorous, based on the Hispanic tradition of greguerias. Here are four of my favorite ones:
We have rain but it’s a dry rain.
In the desert, water is the only thing that doesn’t taste like chicken.
A lake is a river that has retired.
A lake is a hoof-print of the mighty water-horse.
But Alberto Ríos is a fine poet. Here are two of his poems:
In the old days of our family
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera — the Land of the Lime —
And her days were happy.
But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bare-back, and sit there
As he held its face in his arms.
And then he did the unspeakable deed
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse’s rear leg.
The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.
When they reached the tress and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.
The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.
But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother
Wore her hair short, like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.
(published in The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
THE PURPOSE OF ALTAR BOYS
Tonio told me at catechism
the big part of the eye
admits good, and the little
black part is for seeing
evil — his mother told him
who was a widow and so
an authority on such things.
That’s why at night
the black part gets bigger.
That’s why kids can’t go out
at night, and at night
girls take off their clothes
and walk around their
bedrooms or jump on their
beds or wear only sandals
and stand in their windows.
I was the altar boy
who knew about these things,
whose mission on some Sundays
was to remind people of
the night before as they
knelt for Holy Communion.
To keep Christ from falling
I held the metal plate
under chins, while on the thick
red carpet of the altar
I dragged my feet
and waited for the precise
moment: plate to chin
I delivered without expression
the Holy Electric Shock,
the kind that produces
a really large swallowing
and makes people think.
I thought of it as justice.
But on other Sundays the fire
in my eyes was different,
my mission somehow changed.
I would hold the metal plate
a little too hard
against those certain same
nervous chins, and I
I would look
with authority down
the tops of white dresses.
(published in The Morrow Anthology of Younger
American Poets, 1985)
Click to read an interview of Alberto Rios.
Click to see video and hear Alberto Rios.