2014 Featured Festival Poet: Alberto Ríos

October 1, 2014

Rios Web


Listen to Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos read the title poem from his collection, The Theater of Night.


Like many of his poems, “The Theater of Night” begins firmly rooted in the real world, its images rendered in specific detail. Reality, the world of the senses, is Ríos’ grounding place. His poems are rich in their choice of colors, textures, scents and sounds. We know that hour of twilight, “the time in-between, the gray time/The earth goes toward sleep but slowly,” when “the dark and stars are coming, but not yet.” We have heard “the noisy people laughing next door.” He is an attentive and careful guide. We are never lost in an Alberto Ríos poem. This is not always comforting, and part of his power: he leads as where he will even as his poems bend toward the surreal, or take us to places we might not want to go.

There is a literal specificity to his images. “The shadows begin to leave their jobs” is a beautiful way to describe how shadows lengthen away from their source and then completely vanish as darkness comes on. When we read further, “tired/ From a day without rest or recognition,” the metaphor has been flipped. He’s no longer talking about shadows.

Or is he? The metaphor works perfectly well in whatever direction we read it. Line by line, never faltering in his attention to felicity of detail, Ríos takes us behind the curtain of darkness we think our meager electric lights can render known and safe to the mysterious theater of night, where nothing is certain, and even who we are is unknown.

It’s tempting to describe Alberto Ríos’ poems as in the tradition of magical realism, but perhaps spiritual realism is more accurate. In his poems everything—clothes, flowers, furniture, landscapes, words themselves—is alive with alternate meanings, alternate presences, a sense of the strange and miraculous always present just beneath the surface. It’s as if Ríos is a clairvoyant who, by merely touching an object, senses the life stories of every person or creature who has come in contact with it.

And life stories are important to him, as is a sense of place. The two, like the physical and spiritual, are intertwined. Place, in his poems, is not merely geographical. It’s the history lived in that place. It’s a place in memory, filled with specific people, their rituals, habits, traditions, personalities, struggles, loves and deaths. What might at first reading appear surreal is perfectly realistic if you have any sense of the lives lived in a place, if, as Ríos does, you perceive that the history of a people, a family, an individual, does not exist separately from the landscape, city or town they live in, from their clothing, their houses, their work, the very food they eat. The miraculous, from this perspective, is not rare or distant. It’s in that chili you just bit into.


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