Francisco Aragón

So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks
by Rigoberto González
University of Illinois Press

Rigoberto González's poem, "Taking Possession," in So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, portrays a voice that wants to "possess" who we imagine is a lover, through the lover's belongings and gestures. But the relationship hasn't always been smooth, as the eighth stanza bears out:

     And while you're gone, threatening never to return,
     I'll learn from your soap
     how to conform my hands and feet to the nooks
     on your body

There is, as well, a hint of the homoerotic:

                                                        But it's not a flavor

     I crave, but the image of your shirt, opened
     at the sternum, exposing that dividing line,which ends
     on your upper belly.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that this was emblematic of the collection. And yet there is another poem that, while also hinting the same, is more akin to the most successful poems in this book—the ones where the speaker is, above all, an observer. "Horn" is a portrait of two bulls, one of them with a missing horn, broken off, which "flew off the head like / a bottle cap." Here's a passage:

     Now the bull's skull's left
     unplugged like the puckered lip
     on a plastic baby made

     hollow by an absent thumb.
     Stone Anahuac gods have mouths
     that empty, that round. This hole's

     center is sticky as if
     the bull had stuck its black tongue
     inside for comfort, the way

     we tickle the missing tooth's

The speaker, when comparing the hole, evokes oral pleasure—a baby sucking its thumb, an animal placing its tongue in a hole for comfort, an adult tonguing a gap in his or her gum. And then there's the word "partner," repeated in this relatively short poem. In the third stanza, each of the bulls is "depending / on his partner for balance." And then there's this:

     The second bull doesn't move,
     contemplating a collapse.
     He gazes at his partner—

     eye reflecting throbbing eye.

The fact that it is a bull—an animal that has, shall we say, unhomoerotic associations—is what makes the poem untraditional—in ways that the homoerotic can be untraditional. But the poem's effectiveness is grounded in the texture of the language, the speaker's gaze.

Sandra McPherson, a mentor of González's at UC Davis, wrote of this book: "His knowledge of the spirituality of working, of almost mystically odd professions, gives us stories and characters we've never encountered before." One of these "odd professions" is portrayed in "Perla at the Mexican Border Assembly Line of Dolls." It begins:

     Her job was to sort through the eyes
     of dolls. Snapping hollow limbs
     into plastic torsos had been a soothing task
     for Perla, like arranging the peas into the pod

For Perla, then, handling these dolls is "soothing." But this opening is also indicative of González's skill at using non-traditional rhymes. The stanza quoted above yields the internal rhymes dolls / hollow and plastic / task, as well the delayed slant rhyme of job with pod. One learns that Perla cannot bear children, so these dolls, touching these dolls, fill a gap in her life. But her relationship to these toys seems to take on the qualities of a fetish, though in the end she is never fully satisfied:

     Sometimes she became too easily attached
     to the hands, whose curvatures embraced
     the crooked joint of her index finger.

     She'd go home with her pocket full of arms
     too often and would bury them in her garden
     in pairs: a right arm with a right arm,
     a left one with a left—the fingers always pointing

     down like roots. After seasons, the only growth
     was the ache inside her bones, while her arms
     kept shrinking, narrowing like stalks.
     Perla asked to be moved to heads.

Two things here. First, the stanza break has "the fingers" seemingly "pointing" in a horizontal direction one moment, and in the next has them as "roots" in the earth—movements like these make the poem a pleasure to read on the page, as well. And second, the abrupt shift in pace with that last line—"Perla asked to be moved to heads.—acts as a transitional hinge to the second half of the poem, where another shade of eroticism surfaces, or perhaps it's an anti-eroticism:

     And for years she had equipped these dolls
     with arms too short to massage themselves.
     Sometimes she had sent them off
     without arms at all, and she imagined

     the limbs in her garden digging deeper

In "Craft of the Candlestick Maker," González's skill with more traditional rhymes is evident, as well. The poem is made up of five six-line stanzas with a regular scheme throughout. Here are the first two:

     Wood chips scattered like moth wings on the floor
     will prove how time can materialize
     its minutes. This is a pile of hours
     the candlestick maker shaved with a blade.
     And this is the man whose hand guides
     the knife through the wood's thick skin.

     With each slow stroke, his thumb restores
     its callus, which hardens like a slice
     of candle fat. He presses down to rub off scars
     and flatten nubs until a rib-thin stick remains—
     a bone, its new guise tough-veined, erect with pride,
     but lonely, holding up its only socket or pin,

Despite the fairly rigid grid he works within, he does so with a certain liberty—that is: his end-rhymes are not strict; they often use assonance or half-rhyme. The second stanza is exemplary of how González can be describing one thing, literally, but at the same time be evoking something else entirely—namely, something evocatively sexual. Also worthy of mention for its mastery of rhyme is a "Day of the Dead." A fragment:

                                     Abuela, in her dull

     black apron and rebozo (who saved
     her best conversations for the tombstone)
     said that joking with the dead will pave

     a smoother, shorter path into their lone-
     ly voyage. While women talked about the dying
     and men toasted their tequila, I craved the bone

     with its seven sweet letters winding
     into my abuelo's name. I licked off the cursive O
     and left the other six sticky with saliva, drying.

The Spanish here, and throughout the collection, is not in italics, avoiding their denotation as "foreign," which is usually done for the benefit of readers who do not know the language in question. Keeping the Spanish and English words in the same script—thus making the border between English and Spanish seamless—implies that English and Spanish are on the same terms in this book. González walks the bilingual tightrope with deliberation, and does not pepper his text for the purpose of making it seem exotic, or "multicultural." He is writing a bilingual poem in terza rima, showing how cosmopolitan the work is.

"Flight of the Monarch Butterfly" is easily one the best poems in the collection. It evokes a scene from Michoacán in Mexico. The speaker speculates on what meaning these butterflies might embody. But more than attempting to decipher this "meaning," this reader simply relished in the push and pull of the language, marvelling at the worlds such imagery can create:

                                                       What message
     do they carry on their wings from the North—
     the place that gave them a brush of black opal
     for weight and touches of white to attract the clean

     clouds and fool the sun into sending its brightest rays
     through the mimic of holes? The butterflies settle their lit
     bodies on the naked tree, bringing back its autumn leaves,
     those breaths of orange that gasp before falling off again



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review