Alberto Rios's ten collections of poetry include The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is The Dangerous Shirt, preceded by The Theater of Night, which received the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award. Published in the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and other journals, he has also written three short story collections and a memoir, Capirotada, about growing up on the Mexican border. Regents Professor and the Katharine C. Turner Chair in English, Rios has taught at Arizona State University for over 29 years.
Nautical astronomyis defined simply as:
The science of locating oneself at sea.
The map is wet, but usable.
In the vast water, the stars see themselves,
And in the sky, boats find their direction.
It is a kinship of depths and black-greens.
We do not sail on the seas-any of us.
All our lives we sail in between them.
The Sheet Music of Place
The river through its centuries has made a line on this place,
A child's line,wanting to be straight but distracted at every move,
A little left, a little fast, around a big rock, sliding straight away
Through sand, thiscrawling, leaden line echoing
The line made by the tops of the mountains in silhouette against the sky.
The railroad track makes another line, a double line-
The highway, too, and the telephone poles strung with wire.
All these lines work in sure if uneasy concert
Written on the arid air of this place, which has made everything
Dry and white,off-white, some darks but on their way to white,
All this landscape a great and delicate paper.
These lines make a musical staff borrowed from the world of dream,
The world that then fills these lines with its profundo notations,
The careful placement of one moving thing next to another,
The train engine and its cars-those drudging bass notes,
Birds everywhere in their thrill, 64th notes every one,
Everything scored onto the pages of this world suddenly heard.
Day and night, that ceaseless baton, unforgiving metronome:
Bees lumber along but their work is to stop, whole stops and half,
Busy at their honeying, these respites of work, these moments loud
Too-resting the ear so as to hear composed this place into music-
Every sound a new performance of the great song of this world.
My Criminal Notebook
I am stealing things All the time.
I steal what I can from everywhere,
The light, the air, The music that matters most to me.
I carry them away neatly, invisible in word
Valises, inside unfathomable
Thoughts, attached to the magnet
Harvest of a song I'm singing-nobody,
Nobody is the wiser- I carry everything away with me
Using rhyme dollies and spelling knots.
The police have not caught on.
But I am at large,
Unwieldy, and unstoppable.
I walk freely
Every day, anywhere, all the time
In spite of having stolen
Horses and kisses-the stars themselves,
More than one, more than once.
I steal, I steal,
I have always stolen.
Be careful of me. When you see me,
Speak quietly and do little.
Do not let me notice you.
If you want to be safe.
No word rhymes with silence, or tries to.
No word wants to visit that furtive backyard garden.
Silence is the word that will not be spoken-
After all, who can pronounce it? Once spoken,
We will not hear it. It is the story not told,
The memory carefully unspoken in this house,
Your house. Silenceis the place underneath language
An unto-itself, an army
Stronger than words, more patient,
Bigger than the dictionary.
Its weapons are familiar,
Painful, without antidote and giving of no respite.
Quiet tells us it iscoming, and so, too,
Quiet is tolerated, left to be, undisturbed at its work,
Silence's grim reaper, allowed only to make deliveries,
To fill the bins, to cut the grass, eat if it needs to,
Then expected to leave, quickly, cleanly,
No trace afterward, no errant grass cuttings,
No black from the bottom of its shoes on the floor.
Good bye, we say, and in saying
Mispronounce its name, but happy not to know,
Ready not to ask. Good-bye, we say, and mean it.