Essays, Recent

A THOUSAND IMAGINATIONS: What the Books of Alberto Ríos Say to Each Other

by Donna Miscolta | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, May 28, Alberto Ríos will read and discuss his work at 7:30 pm PST. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.


In the multiple and varied works of Alberto Ríos, the place is the border, which is to say both the physical space where Mexico and the U.S. meet and the psychic space that people from the border carry within them. The characters are culled from memory and imagination, which is to say individuals we both recognize as family and welcome as strangers we were meant to meet. The time is the past, the present, and forever, which is to say, infinite in its truth.

These elements of story, which are shaped by a life at the border and its history, and infused by or crafted as poetry, are what make Ríos’s work speak to so many. While speaking to one’s readers might be the intention and hope of all writers, Ríos has indicated that his seventeen books, which include poetry, fiction, and memoir, also have another audience—each other.

“All my books speak to each other,” he said in a recent talk as part of the Penn State reading series. “They’re family. They need each other.”

What are they saying to each other? Why do they need each other? These are not questions one necessarily has to ask when reading Ríos’s work. The answers come unprompted from the works themselves.

A Poem and a Memoir Nod to Each Other

In his poem “El Esplendor” from his collection The Dangerous Shirt (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), Ríos recalls a hotel near his hometown in Nogales, a pearl in the desert that attracted movie stars and their acolytes. Ríos captures a moment in the past with a vividness that makes you an accomplice in the scene, substantiating the heat of the day, the stiffness of new jeans, the glory of being ten years old.

The poem opens with the purity of being.

I was a boy. It was a Saturday.

He was a boy wearing new jeans that fit perfectly—him, the moment, the place. The reader feels the effect this movie-star monument has on the boy and how its effect extends to the landscape—

To the edge of the hill this place sat on,
To the great edge of the whole of the wandering Santa Cruz Valley.

A different kind of monument with a similar effect is described in Capirotada, Ríos’s 1999 memoir (University of New Mexico Press). The Kress Department Store, crowded with knick-knacks where his great-Aunt Matilde worked, was emblematic of a time. So was his aunt. 

My Aunt Matilde knew the world, she knew the back of her hand, and she knew what was in the store and what was what in the decade.

Like El Esplendor, Kress was an attraction until it became an anachronism and then a memory. But during its heyday, it served as more than a five-and-dime. It was a place to hold court if you were Aunt Matilde and a place to be mesmerized by the throng of must-have trinkets if you were a young boy. The boy taking in the splendor of a hotel in the desert and the boy lost in the “zoo of wild things that made Kress” nod at each other in recognition as if to say, “I know what you mean.” 

A Poem and a Memoir Wink at Each Other

In the poem “Refugio’s Hair,” from The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2002), Ríos tells the tale of his grandmother Refugio. As a young woman, she climbs bareback onto a horse at the bidding of her uncle, who then places a baby in her arms before sending the horse on a mad gallop, all for the purpose of teaching her to ride. Her abundant hair, alive with intent, is what saves her as the panicked animal races through trees.

That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms
All of them trying to save her.

Ríos had years earlier recounted this story in prose in Capirotada in a recollection of the family ranch in Mexico. In this version, it’s the tree that exercises its will: “The tree swept my grandmother by her hair and into its own arms.”

In both tellings, Refugio’s behavior makes salvation possible. Her calm demeanor under terrifying circumstances is due to her determination to guard the baby’s safety. Her unwavering poise predisposes her to rescue by the conspiring forces of objects—her hair in one account, and the tree in the other—made auspiciously animate.

It’s as if there was some agreement, a wink of understanding, among all parties—the hair in the poem, the tree in the memoir, and even the horse that galloped beneath the tree before freeing itself of its passengers and running to its death—that the core truth was Refugio’s fidelity to her obligation as protector of the baby. 

Poems and a Memoir Elbow Each Other

The border is ever present in Ríos’s work. In his poem “Border Boy” from Not Go Away Is My Name (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), he confirms the importance of it in his life.

I grew up on the border and though I left
I have brought it with me wherever I’ve gone.

The border can’t be separated from the people who live there now or who lived there once. And yet the connection, that intimacy, has been affected by the focus on the physical barrier itself as if it exists without context.

Ríos ends “Border Boy” lamenting the stranger the border has become.

The border I knew was something with a history.
But this thing now, it is a stranger even to itself.

In his 2015 poem “The Border: A Double Sonnet,” Ríos describes the various things the border has become: “a belt that is too tight,” “the blood clot in the river’s vein,” “a moat without a castle on either side,” “a line on a map that does not exist.” The list is inexhaustive. Ríos writes,

The border used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.

In the memoir Capirotada, Ríos recalls the parades that once crossed the border: “All the drum and bugle corps and the floats and the veterans, both Mexican and American.” But the fence stopped the crossing parades. Still, Ríos points out the penetrability of a fence. 

. . . if the parades don’t come through anymore, the music does.

Perhaps conversations among Ríos’s works are most evident in the ones about the border, where the elbow taps of solidarity acknowledge the tenuous ground upon which an idea that becomes a fence that becomes a wall is built. Ríos reminds us of the importance of recognizing both the idea and the place that is the border and their inherent complications. “. . . it is both where two countries meet as well as how two countries meet, and the handshake is rough.” 

A Map Shows the Way

In his latest book, A Good Map of All Things (University of Arizona Press, 2020), Ríos writes about the lives of the inhabitants in a small northern Mexico town and how they entwine right down to the dog Bernardo who belongs to Miguel Torres but also to the town. Eventually, the dog earns his own corrido based on his misadventure with a car. He is ministered to by the town doctor Narciso Bartolomeo, whose friend and fellow founder of the Forward Science Society, Ignacio Belmares, has left the countryside to solve the problems of the town by inventing all manner of devices powered by water. Ignacio, along with the lawyer Martin Dos Santos, is charged with carrying out the unfinished business of Miguel Torres after he dies and joins Bernardo in the great beyond. These and many other connections among the townspeople transverse generations and create both a Brigadoon sense of place tucked away in time and a feeling of continuity and universality.

A Good Map is a novel, but each chapter could be read as a story whose protagonist confronts a moment in his or her life that has bearing on another character’s life, circumstance, and meaning—not just in the town but in the larger scheme of things. Perhaps the way the characters’ lives speak to each other in this book reflects the way Ríos’s family of books speak to one another. 

Between each character’s story, Ríos inserts true-life objects, artifacts from his own family history—a business card, a marriage certificate, a prayer card, a telegram marked extra-urgente—real objects of lives lived interwoven with the imagined ones in this made-up town. It’s as if the fictional and the non-fictional recognize that the borders between these two forms of storytelling, like any border, can be artificial and arbitrarily imposed.

The story about Miguel Torres, titled “The Night Miguel Torres Died,” is preceded by a Ríos family artifact, an obituary for an antecedent who died in 1947 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, beneath which the author notes that such announcements must be “filled with the person who is gone. But only the good, only the plainest language, only the honorable actions.” Then he adds, “. . . but they are always more. A lifetime more.”

Before his death, Miguel Torres worked to please, was not a person for great plans, and was not a big talker but he listened well. What he did best was to do the thing that was right in front of him that had for whatever reason been left unfinished—an honorable action that, though it only partially explained him, was his primary way of being. 

Unfinished business was the way of the world, and taking care of it, most especially in the simplest of life’s dealings, was his way of living.

Maybe this is what Ríos means by his books needing each other. One book is not sufficient to say all that might be said about something. Each has unfinished business that another might attend to. Though it’s not a requirement to read them all to appreciate what each has to say, reading one and then another and maybe another after that might be a natural impulse, might be our own unfinished business as readers. 

Donna Miscolta’s most recent book is Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories from Jaded Ibis Press in 2020. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. It won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Recent stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’sAtticus Review, Los Angeles Review, and the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of Covid-19.