Arizona poet laureate Alberto Rios proves he is master of metaphor

Alberto Rios is Arizona’s first and only poet laureate. He uses a type of magical realism in his poems.
Alberto Rios is Arizona’s first and only poet laureate. He uses a type of magical realism in his poems. Courtesy photo

“A Small Story About the Sky” by Alberto Rios (Copper Canyon Press, 110 pages, $16, paperback)

Metaphor is how we navigate the unknown, vast and unnerving, dark and inveterate, a nemesis that turns out to be not one thing only, but two: This is that.

Metaphor seeks to root out the fundamental unity in what we inevitably discover as duality. There are two sides to every existential encounter: the seer and the seen, the sayer and the said. And the great pool of meaning that sweeps out before them churns like a roiling river.

Alberto Rios has mastered the currents of this necessarily divided reality with an unusually deft, otherworldly touch. He is the king of the seemingly effortless metaphor.

Right then, the coffee and the bird are the same.

I drink the small finch

And see the coffee floating out

Into the horizon. It is morning, after all,

And things are so easily confused,

Being still so close to dream.

Rios sees more in the ordinary than the ordinary sees in itself, attuned to the mystery and sensuality of the real. His poetry, riding the border between this world and the next, reveals grand possibilities for living above the mundane, for not settling for the commonplace.

Rich, surprising and metaphysical, his poems show just how deeply, delicately, tenderly he cares for what is. His verse homes in on the resonant mystery of the everyday, which becomes exceptional, even transcendent in the poet’s hands.

And so they were, and so were we all in the movies,

Which is how I remember it: Popcorn in hand,

Smoke in the air, gum on the floor–

Those Saturday nights, we ourselves

Were the story and the stuff and the stars.

We ourselves were alive in the dance of the dream.

Born in a household of two distinct cultures in the border town of Nogales, Arizona – his mother English, his father Mexican – Rios sought a language that could unite the differences, that could thread the British into the Chicano. He found it in a simple but utterly controlled poetic diction, set down in this, his 13th book, almost exclusively in couplets.

The yellow of summer is not the yellow of winter.

The colors are the same but their stories tell two lives.

When he switches to a series of sonnets near the book’s end, delicacy no longer flutters in the wind. There is passion here, even anger at how borders divide, alienate and label, withering the souls of those on either side.

The border is a locked door that has been promoted.

The border is a moat but without a castle on either side.

The border has become Checkpoint Chale.

The border is a place of plans constantly broken and repaired and broken.

This fire of compassion has made Rios not only an award-winning poet and regent at Arizona State University, but his home state’s first and only poet laureate.

Like many Latino writers, he has been credited with relying on magical realism. But this term may have outlived its usefulness. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that Rios takes the magical and the real and dwells with them in a parallel – or other – dimension where the poet’s vision predominates. What emerges is not just fanciful or playful, but profound.

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.

Those lines are our lives. Together,

Let us turn the map until we see clearly:

The border is what joins us,

Not what separates us.

Another quality marks Rios’ work that may not be as widely appreciated as it should: pleasantness. At its root this term means pleasing, of course, and Rios pleases with his easygoing rhythms.

Consider the ending of this poem about his ancestors:

I myself am the sum of their song.

They are whatever comes out of my mouth.

I am the end of all times,

All their years speaking

Their long and ancient whispers

into my ear, hoping I will listen.

This, too, is a type of unity, bringing the ages together: one life, many eras, one art. In “A Small Story About the Sky,” Rios fulfills his calling as a visionary and a maestro of metaphor.

In his poetry, two shall become one.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or