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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Alberto Ríos's new book, The Theater of Night , tells the life story of a couple, Clemente and Ventura, through a series of lyric poems. Ríos creates the feeling of enchanted or intimate lore within a family: The material is precisely "familiar" in that sense. But Ríos also evokes the mysterious and unexpected forces that dwell inside the familiar. Sigmund Freud's ideas relate the familiar to the uncanny: to half-remembered or forgotten origins, fears and desires that come back in fantastic guises. In keeping with that notion, these characters have interior lives where fantasy and experience intertwine. In his poem "The Dreams That Cried," Ríos shows how elements as familiar as the human face, a baby's cry, animals and gardening can convey the charge of the uncanny:

The Dreams That Cried

Things become other things, she said.

It's what's inside them, I guess.

When I was little I always heard about the onza in the mountains --

It was supposed to be a combination of a mountain lion and a jaguar,

Something like that, something scary.

Now there's the chupacabra , which is everywhere,

Sucking the blood out of goats, and maybe people.

Those were the big stories.

But there were little ones, too.

I think they were worse.

The stories about the niños de la tierra ,

I remember them most because they were matter-of-fact,

Those little pink spider or beetle animals

People would find when they were digging holes.

Everybody used to say that if you hurt one

It would cry like a baby.

I think people thought this because they looked like babies --

You would never hold one but when you looked at them

They had that face, or what looked like a little face.

Maybe they weren't really animals, after all.

Maybe they were dreams,

Dreams but inside the ground instead of the mind.

Maybe, right there,

We could hear something from our other world.

The point of the poem is in the voice of the teller as Ríos creates her speech: conversational and unself-conscious, as she says about those stories of the earth-babies: "I remember them most because they were matter-of-fact."

The Spanish phrases here don't refer to anything very exotic. For example, the word chupacabra is the same as English "goatsucker," a name for the nighthawk: not that nighthawks suck goats, any more than the flower called "foxglove" provides gloves for the "Little Folk" or fairies. In such names, ordinary language, like poetry itself, speaks the voice of "our other world." The pronoun "our" is particularly apt: These dream-feelings and muted voices are indeed ours. They belong to us and come from us.

(Alberto Ríos's poem "The Dreams That Cried" is from his book "The Theater of Night." Copper Canyon. Copyright © 2006 by Alberto Ríos.)

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