The Theater of Night
The Theater of Night. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
PEN Beyond Margins Award. 2007.
Lannan Literary Selection. 2006.
The New Yorker
The Theater of Night
“In this rhapsodic series of poems, Rios presents the story of Ventura and Clemente Rios, a married couple living near the United States-Mexico border in the first half of the twentieth century. Rios’s project, indebted to magic realism but rooted in naturalism, proves ambitious. He deftly uses the couple—members, he says, of his ‘extended family’—to explore liminal spaces: they live in a border town surrounded by ‘invisible’ walls (‘Walk beyond the wall and you walk/On the ground of the other world’), a place where the divide between body and soul, and body and body, narrows: ‘He stood slightly inside her/As if the lines of their bodies/blurred briefly.’ When Ventura dies, the aged Clemente cries to her, ‘I want to be the high sheriff/Of the space between us.’”
The San Francisco Chronicle
The Theater of Night
By Alberto Ríos
COPPER CANYON PRESS; 113 PAGES; $20
When done well, poetry collections that follow a narrative can be among the most delightful books to read. A narrative can give the poet more room to explore ideas over the movement of time, as well as act as a net to pull readers in and emotionally involve them in the world of the book.
Alberto Ríos’ newest collection, The Theater of Night, is like that. Set in a desert town on the border between Mexico and the United States, the book follows the lives of two characters, Clemente and Ventura, for almost a century of courtship, marriage, maturity and death. Their lives are revealed through shifting perspectives—sometimes it’s Clemente speaking, sometimes Ventura, sometimes an unknown narrator, sometimes townspeople or family members. Through this meditative rendering of family history, Ríos examines marriage, heritage and time.
The Theater of Night is Ríos’ first book since The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002. Ríos was born along the Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz., to a Mexican father and an English mother. The prolific Arizona poet laureate has written nine books of poetry, three story collections and a memoir. The Theater of Night is a generous helping of 48 poems divided into six sections.
Ríos’ poetry is often surreal, sometimes bordering on magic realism, such as in “The Drive-In of the Small Animals,” where insects, lizards and other creatures watch humans as if watching a movie at the drive-in. Other poems are carefully depicted slices of reality, such as “Coffee in the Afternoon,” where a narrator visits a grandmother figure, possibly Ventura, for “a tin pot of cowboy coffee” and conversation. “It was a gentle visit,” says the narrator, “and I did not see her again.”
Time moves unexpectedly in this book—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Although the collection is more or less chronological, the poems spend more time on old age. By the middle of the book, the protagonists are already up in years. Later, the poems linger on after their deaths, creating an odd, mournful sense of not wanting to let go of life.
In Ríos’ verse, a single moment can contain years, even a century, within it. Clemente and Ventura meet as children when they trade a pomegranate for a kiss. In the moment of the kiss, they feel “the shiver” of their future: their son, Margarito; their two daughters; grandchildren; “all the people who would follow this kiss.” Like a moment, the kiss is small and large at once. It’s the innocent display of children, but it’s also the act that sets the family’s future into play.
A moment can also turn something commonplace into something wonderful. When Clemente sees a horse turn red in the reflection of the sunset, the moment creates two horses, one “unexpectedly bigger,” that stay with him, permanently changing him. In other poems, an old man contains in himself all the versions of himself that he has ever been, all at once. In another, a blurred photograph of a woman kissing a baby captures the abundance of her love: “The sound of her kiss is a white noise/ Full of centuries ... forging its diamond in a moment.”
The Theater of Night comes alive when Ríos describes the desert and town. “The Donkey Men of Sonora in the 1930s” gives voice to the men who acted as town peddlers. “Santa Teresa in Nogales” explores religion, healing and female connection. These characters, along with the animal and plant life of the desert, fill out the corners of the book and help create the physical terrain that grounds Clemente and Ventura so well.
Along the way, the book turns into more than just a story about two characters. Like all good poetry, the poems turn to the interior life, exploring subtle emotions that come as reactions to the outer landscape of the desert. In this way, The Theater of Night moves beyond a specific culture and into something unexpectedly universal.
Joy Lanzendorfer is a Bay Area writer.
Elbows and Toads
Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy
In a 2003 interview for the Bloomsbury Review, Leslie A. Wooten describes the Chandler, Arizona, home of Alberto Rios. It is a nicely appointed middle class affair replete with wife, teenage son and dog. The two sit down in the less formal kitchen space. Rios, always ready with a humble metaphor for his poetry, tailored to venue, thinks of his poems as slices of baked bread thickly covered with butter.
Later in the interview Wooten asks if he has been working on a book of poems. Yes, he informs her, he has:
...a collection of poems in the works, based loosely on the love story of my great-grandparents, Clemente and Ventura. Everything I know about love will be mixed in with what I’ve heard and imagined their story to be. The subtext, of course, is that my great-grandparents’ love story is my story—perhaps everybody’s story—or, anyway, the story we would want for ourselves if we were writing our own lines.
That collection would eventually become The Theater of Night.
The volume starts with Rios’ grandmother, a young girl, walking with her sisters in the small towns that make up their world. It is a world with its own character, and, in the better poems, she and Clemente belong to it entirely. They grow old together, attached to each other’s foibles, saddened and perplexed for their own and each other’s losses. In the end, Ventura has become the person Rios knew as “great-grandmother”:
Her hands were always coming at us, to fix this button,
In between, she and Clemente travel in a world of burros and babies and rivers and dogs. Clemente suddenly is gone. She watches gravity slowly, persistently woo her toward her grave.
Rios has been spoken of as a “magical realist,” and in the better of these poems the description is particularly apt. Such poems cannot fail to strike a deep chord. The earliest foundations of poetry are distinctly magical. The story-telling left brain hemisphere had to begin somewhere in making sense of the world around it, and sympathetic relationship is so integrally wired into it that simile and metaphor must precede rational thought in time and in our sense of familiarity.
In “The Mermaid Comb,” Clemente has carved a comb out of a cow’s horn for Ventura. For three delightful pages she speaks of all that living with the comb means to her. She feels like the mermaid when she uses it:
Nobody could say for certain about the existence of these mermaids,
In our words and prayers, and on our bureaus.
The mermaid, of course, is bare breasted, and after bathing Ventura discovers in the mirror that she looks like the mermaid that rides in her hair. Every bit as much to the point, Clemente has yet to touch her except through the comb.
In the terminology of psychology, Ventura feels both the magical power of “sympathy” (her feeling of identification with the mermaid) and of “contagion” (her sense that Clemente’s long and informative contact with the comb puts him in similar contact with her when she wears it). These terms, however, apply only to rational analysis, and, as we know, rational analysis makes a dead specimen of any butterfly it pins down. Both Clemente and Ventura understand the magic at a living level. Or so we feel, when we sympathize with them, and it is the strength of that feeling that determines the degree of Rios’ success in The Theater of Night.
As the totemic stage present in all early human development would suggest, contagion and sympathy work with particular force in our relationships with animals. The Theater of Night is also filled with animals and the simple, irrational belief, still so powerful in our relationships with our pets today, that people take on animal traits and that animals take on human traits.
Clemente, as he grows older, suffers the various disfigurements a hard-working peasant laborer might exhibit. Among them, one of his elbows has become a toad:
One of his elbows had been replaced by a nearsighted toad.
One could make it out bulging a little
The proof was easy enough:
The relationship between humans and animals, however, has always been a deeply ambivalent one:
People, the animals know, spend much of their time
Into something that hurts.
But then again, the relationship of human with human has always been deeply ambivalent, as well.
Alberto Rios sat down to write The Theater of Night having some considerable advantages. It is entirely believable that, three generations ago, the residents of tiny Cucurpe and Rayón, in Sonoma, Mexico, still had a campesino naïveté that has now all but disappeared. As a young boy, Rios must have sensed the world that was passing with his great grandmother. Surely, the magical qualities of the volume owe a great deal to many Clementes and Venturas who wove in and out of his life. He has a genuinely intuitive understanding of how their magic works.
His decision to write the poems predominantly in unrhymed, irregular couplets was perfectly in tune with the lives he sought to portray. They tend to prevent the characters from wandering into sophistication and the poet from narrating to disadvantage.
Rios’ slightly formal, entirely modern, modestly appointed home, his easy collegiality, and the normally trendy trappings that accompany them, on the other hand, suggest that a reader might detect disadvantages, as well, and she or he will. As often as not, the magic amounts to nothing more than garden variety metaphor, on rare occasion even to posturing. Clemente works on the local river (perhaps the San Miguel) and for Ventura, a new bride, in the flush of her joy, it suddenly grows panoramic, a place of cosmopolitan possibilities:
It was a mighty river, then, a great wave
And ripple, and ripple again, that ran through Paris, and Madrid,
Many disguises, many passports and languages, the Seine,
The brief mention, at the beginning of the volume, of Cucurpe’s growing sophistication does not prevent this from seeming badly out of character. While it is not impossible that Ventura should think of the river in this way, there has been no groundwork laid for it, and, the charm being all in her naiveté, it is a dissonant moment.
But Rios’ contemporary side is not entirely a hindrance. The poem “Later, When She Was Like She Was” is a touchingly human poem although more psychological than magical. The final poem, “The Drive-In of the Small Animals,” in which all of nature peers into a lighted house as night comes on, reads like a poetic version of a particularly amusing animated Disney film.
The Theater of Night is a considerably better book of poems than most. At its best it compares favorably with anything presently being done in the craft. At his best, Alberto Rios is in touch with something deeply fundamental in all of us.