by Rigoberto González
Tupelo Press 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower
Relationships with Death
Rigoberto González’s first book of poems, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, was selected for the 1998 National Poetry Series. Since 1998, there have been offerings in other genres: a novel, children’s books, newspaper columns on Latino literature, a memoir — all of them prize-winning or noteworthy. Now González’s second collection of poems, Other Fugitives and Other Strangers, has surfaced in the accumulation of work by this writer, still aptly noted for his “exacting focus.” Before reading this book, I had only read of it in an Amazon review: “difficult as it may be to imagine work as kaleidoscopically brutal and political as it is delicate and insightful.”
While studying at Columbia some years ago, I acquired a copy of Letter to a Stranger, a then-out of print book by a young poet who had died leaving only the single collection. But, as I had already read Garcia-Lorca, the language of the dark Thomas James poems did not move me as I had led myself to think it might. James appears twice in González’s new book, and the intriguing five word title is also taken from James.
This year, at a Poets House event in Manhattan, I heard Edward Hirsch — a poet who has given some thought to guides of Eros and Thanatos – speak briefly in a question-and-answer period about Sylvia Plath and Garcia-Lorca and their relationships with death. Basically his thesis was that while both poets were fascinated with Death, Plath was a bit “in love” with it, where Garcia-Lorca was driven reverently through his work by his deep fear of it.
González too has a profound and metaphorical relationship with death; in addition to death, his metaphors are drawn from an erotic attraction to the Stranger. In Gulliver’s Travels (Gulliver being perhaps the greatest Stranger of classical literature), when the giant moves his bowels in the land of the Lilliputians, Swift evokes “urgency” and “shame.” González turns the notion of social assignment on his head: “I’m not ashamed of my naked body, my naked body is ashamed of me” (“Neurotic Double”). González is frequently aesthetically dangerous:
“A vision called to me:
on your face the beauty
of a knife slit haunted
me, so I carved it free.”
Often, he is aesthetically demur and dangerous at the same time:
I unmourn the murdered sissy of my youth,
the sack of discarded pigtails and puckered lips that
burst like an appendix. I hold my scar for the man
who’ll split it open with his gorgeous thumbs, who with his
teeth will liberate the pin-pierced mariposa of my tongue.”
(“Of Despots and Deities”)
Always, González artfully braids together the valences of Love and Death to poetically portray human pathos—or as González says, he watches as “the hearts implode, / shriveling down to the plum pit origins of lust”:
Neck against neck, two voices dance
through the madness of the Venus’s-fly-trap, the rattle
in the hinges of its blade is not
death, but the cry of love––what the narcissistic
moon hums to the sea that mirrors it.
(“In Praise of the Mouth”)
Such poetic displays are breathtaking. Things split themselves, new architectures are declared, passion snaps around like lovemaking in a lightning storm. González keeps everything artfully contained in images:
… Muscle pleats.
say fraction, say rhomboid
that opens at the jaw.
Inside the heart keeps pumping
like an anxious rabbit.
When I extract a heart, turnip-stiff, shame
will overwhelm me. Only an ingrate would deny this find
Sometimes, he is the battered fugitive; other times, he is the battering stranger.
… I am the keystone held intact by the arc
of his arms, I am the texture that exists at the command of
his touch, the scent of pressed carnations dead
until it comes alive beneath his nose.
In “Danza Macabre,” the final poem of the collection, González at last plants a cosmology in which each human gesture ends ascending from the coffin of the body that engendered it—a kind of “cosmos of karma” in which “even the prodigal kick leaps up to the bone.” Death and the living body find a kind of stasis with each other:
…At long last, when my body
also dims to gray, we’ll be equals, companion corpses, gracefully
retired like a pair of ballet slippers, predator indistinguishable from
prey. Let the rosaries murmur that lovers make peace in their graves.
Let the sun search for spectral kisses. Let the moon bless the padlock
as the living leave and shut the gate. No fugitives permitted…