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Alberto Ríos would never learn why the watermelon truck exploded. The whoom! snapped his head around too late to see the 18-wheeler erupt, but the inferno that followed was so intense it disintegrated a full load of melons and flowed molten slag from the truck onto the Arizona desert.
Ríos and his friends watched the maelstrom, hiding in a car of the train that had brought the melons across the border from Mexico. They were frequent visitors to this way station, sometimes liberating a few samples of cargo before the trucks tugged their loads northward, further into the U.S.
“We learned right away that you never ... let’s say ‘borrowed,’ just one watermelon,” Ríos says. “You have to carry them on your shoulder, and you can’t balance very well with one. So we would each run off with two and crack them open and eat just the heart because they were otherwise full of seeds. It was glorious, like we were kings. Then we would just toss the husks. There are still a lot of watermelon plants growing wild out there.”
No fire department arrived to extinguish the truck. The gang of preadolescents watched it slowly merge into the desert throughout the afternoon, then dissipated like the smoke. But Alberto had to return the next day to see the remains. “Semi trucks were the biggest things in our lives,” he says. “We saw airplanes flying over, but to me they were only half an inch long. Those trucks were like great whales of the desert.”
Near the warped whale skeleton, still acrid and warm, Ríos found gleaming ambergris; a puddle of congealed metal shaped by the sand. He took it home, wrapped it in a towel, put it in a drawer and lost it for half a century.
Alberto Ríos’ office on the Arizona State University Tempe campus is on the second floor of Piper House, built in 1907 and now home to the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. In August, Ríos – a Regents’ Professor and holder of the Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English – began his second year as the center’s director.
Few writers could claim better credentials for the job. Ríos was Arizona’s first poet laureate, from 2013—15, a post he still informally holds. His poetry has won the Walt Whitman and PEN/Beyond Margins awards, multiple Pushcart Prizes and inclusion in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. His collection, “The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. “The Iguana Killer,” a set of short stories, won the Western States Book Award from a selection committee whose head judge was Robert Penn Warren. His memoir of growing up on the border, “Capirotada,” is in the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. Ríos became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2014. When the Irish rock band U2 devoted their 2017 tour to the 30th anniversary of their seminal album, “The Joshua Tree,” they chose a Ríos poem for projection over their stage.
Of all the trophies, plaques and crystal commemoratives recognizing his work, the piece that, to him, symbolizes his career, is an amorphous blob of metal he picked up in the desert next to the hulk of a burned-out truck.
“After my parents passed away, we were clearing the house. I opened a drawer, and I found it. I unwrapped it and I realized, this is why I need to be a writer … why we all need to be writers. I thought, absolutely nobody would know what this is. I was the carrier of its story and it had waited all this time for me to tell it.
“I talk to kids a lot about that,” Ríos says. “The story happened a long time ago, but it’s still fresh to me because I hold this talisman in my hand. We all have some version of that, even if it’s just our version, and it’s for us to tell.”
Alberto Ríos’ life has been shaped by borders. Not that he’s been constrained by them, as borders are enlisted to do. For Ríos, a border is a lens that sharpens his view of what’s possible, or what’s imaginable, on the other side.
The house he was born to — Rodriguez Street, Nogales, Arizona, 1952 — was less than a mile across the border from Nogales, Sonora. His father, also Alberto Álvaro Ríos, crossed that border as a teenager after a journey of 2,000 miles — the length of Mexico, from his own birthplace in Tapachula, Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala.
As he made that journey, a much greater expanse lay between him and Alberto Jr.’s mother-to-be: Agnes Fogg of Warrington, Lancashire, England. Alberto-not-yet-Sr. would join the U.S. Army Air Forces during the roiling uncertainty between World War II and Korea. At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas — where signs on businesses read “No Dogs or Mexicans” — he trained as a paratrooping medic. His tour of duty led through France, North Africa, decorated service during the Berlin Airlift, and finally to Warrington, and Agnes Fogg.
“He was a medic, and my mother was a nurse, working at the Royal Warrington Infirmary,” wrote Ríos in his 1999 memoir, “Capirotada.” “It just happened. They got engaged, and my mother’s family always treated him very well. Even though he was very dark, something my father thought about a lot, and my mother very light, the specter of what-ever might have been raised never was. They simply didn’t see it.” They were to be married when his tour of duty end-ed, when Alberto Álvaro Ríos of Tapachula, Chiapas would become Alberto Álvaro Ríos of Warrington, Lancashire.
When Alberto Sr. was suddenly redeployed back to the U.S. before his discharge, he had only enough time to give his fiancee some money and tell her he would be waiting for her in Salt Lake City. Alberto Jr. wrote that Fogg, who had never been farther than two train stops from Warrington, “... got on a boat, crossed the ocean, crossed the country, and got off the train at Salt Lake City. And there was my father.”
From “Capirotada”: “I come, clearly enough, from a home full of places, languages and cultures … a little from this side of the border, a little from that, a little from this side of the ocean, a little from there.”
Ríos holds a pen above a table in Piper House, lets it drop. “In English, I say, ‘I dropped the pen.’ It’s an action I did.
“But growing up the way I did, that same moment is ren-dered in a completely different way. In Spanish I might say, ‘se me cayó la pluma’: ‘The pen fell.’ It fell from me. Maybe I dropped it. Maybe it wanted to fall. I … don’t … know.
“It’s the suggestion of an inherent life in things,” Ríos says. “I dropped that pen. But maybe it had some agency of its own. We did it together. It’s a very different way to look at the world. It says, ‘It’s possible the world is alive with itself.’”
This dual view is with Ríos constantly when he writes. And it has a name. Ríos was born while the literary world was enchanted with the “magical realism” of Borges, Asturias and others. “‘Magical’ is an adjective,” Ríos says, “but the noun is ‘realism.’ Something happens, and it is real. It just happens in a way that is apparently magical, especially to a North American viewer. The term in Spanish is closer to ‘lo real maravilloso’: ‘the Marvelous Real.’ We infantilize that attitude by saying ‘magic,’ like it can’t really happen. But ‘the Marvelous Real’ — that’s a very, very different take on that moment. The real is always amazing me.”
In “The Border: A Double Sonnet” — the poem U2 took on tour — Ríos wrote, “The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.”
There is a duality of existence not only in the content of Ríos’ works, but in their inspiration.
“I’ve always been interested in the idea of poems of public purpose,” he says. “What I’ve done, especially during my tenure as Arizona’s poet laureate, is take on institutions or ideas in the abstract; more philosophical ideas or unlikely subjects.”
His poem, “The Museum Heart,” engraved at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, begins,
We, each of us, keep what we remember in our hearts.
We, all of us, keep what we remember in museums.
In this way, museums beat inside us.
His largest work, geographically, is “Words Over Water,” commissioned by the city of Tempe, Arizona, to celebrate the renovation of Tempe Town Lake. Ríos collaborated with graphic artists Karla Elling and Harry Reese for a series of 600 granite tiles set in the lakefront wall; a six-mile book of poems and images about the importance of water to the desert.
“I used a form called the greguería,” Ríos says, “a one-line poem in which you reach an epiphany, and that epiphany makes you laugh. You’re laughing because you understand it, but it has high intent.”
Some of Ríos’ favorites:
Rain falls down wet and gets up green.
Raindrops on the hard dirt make the ghosts rise.
The water under this bridge once was the sweat of its builders.
When the tiles were unveiled, Ríos saw a group of students taking rubbings of one. “Of course, it was the perfect one for those junior high kids,” he says, quoting himself and laughing: “‘Nobody owns water — drink some and try to keep it.’”
Ríos’ concept of poetry with public purpose continues to evolve. In 2017 it gestated a project so pure in that con-cept that poetry became only a facet, as Ríos wired the act of creation directly into the Marvelous Real.
Ríos took a group of graduate students — his “Army of a Hundred Ears” — and deployed them in South Phoenix. He told them, “We’re not going to be told what to write and we’re not going to take anybody’s story. We’re going to try to hear what nobody else is hearing. Whatever sticks with you. You won’t even need to explain.” Their mission was a linguistic one, but the Marvelous Real intervened.
Ríos says, “I saw telephone lines with some big black birds roosting on the lines and I said, ‘Doesn’t that look like a measure of music? I think we could play that!’” Everyone laughed. Ríos took a picture.
“Then we went to a community garden, and somebody was growing tomatoes. A number of the tomatoes had fallen into the furrows, and I said, ‘I think we could play that!’”
The fierce eyes of lucha libre wrestlers in a mural, brick grout lines showing through. Click
Ríos says, “We were visiting the music class at Dunbar Elementary School and I was explaining the project to them. I showed them the pictures of the birds and the tomatoes and the luchadores, and one of the kids said to another, ‘Hey, come do that thing with your face!’ This girl came forward and wrinkled her forehead, and she had freckles. And we realized, they got it.”
The students of Dunbar enlisted in Ríos’ army. Their campaign, “Story Days: Music in the Landscape,” took nine months. The students were given cameras to document the duality of their world. They used their images and the help of a composer to create pieces of music. Other students wrote greguerías, which became the lyrics; lines like, “Ocotillos and porcupines are cousins,” and “Gray was on sale the day they made South Phoenix.”
Professional musicians helped the students realize their finished works, which were premiered at a Dunbar community night. Some of their poems are now inscribed in concrete in front of the school.
“When they play this music, they touch place,” Ríos says. “When they write these phrases, this is a community speaking to itself. This is them playing their world. This was the music of South Phoenix as South Phoenix was giving it to us. It was magical.”
There is an ease with which Ríos perceives borders; navigates them, looks past and through them. Borders between places. Between genres. Between planes of existence. There is in Ríos a wondering acceptance of borders as lines where realities meet.
“That kind of view changes how we engage in thought itself,” he says, “our place in the world, the place of things in the world. If you can embrace the idea that something’s going on out there that we’re not aware of, that’s the Marvelous Real.
“That all comes together in the kind of border I experience when I sit down to write,” Ríos says. “I have to choose in that moment: I could write a different way. I could think about it differently. And that’s helped me as a writer.”
“The border,” he wrote in the poem U2 took around the world, “used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.”