A Thumb and a Wisp of Steam

An Interview With Alberto Ríos
By Leslie A. Wootten

My interview with Alberto Ríos occurred on July 7, 2010, at the Chandler, Arizona, home he shares with his family. He was feeling particularly relaxed after having finished his 28th year of teaching creative writing and literature at Arizona State University, where he is a Regents’ Professor and holds a Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English. With the summer break and a fall sabbatical ahead of him, he was looking forward to completing a new book of poems and a novel.

Before launching into the interview, he and I chatted comfortably over cups of coffee at a large kitchen table surrounded by morning light. Given Ríos’ easy manner, the interview that followed felt like an extension of our chat. Except for the persistent buzz of an outdoor gardener’s Weed Eater, the rhythm of our murmuring voices was accompanied only by occasional riffs of laughter as we moved through the day.

Our session focused primarily on The Dangerous Shirt, which is Ríos’ 10th and most recent book of published poetry. His other award-winning publications include three short-story collections and a memoir. Having entered his sixth decade, Ríos is writing poems that contemplate aging with a particularly magnified lens. The stories are getting closer to home, no longer those handed down through generations and experienced in the mind. Instead, physical changes are settling in, making themselves heard and felt in the body. Through Rios’ deft writing, challenges that come with such changes become opportunities to alter perception and discover new ways of experiencing life. The 48 poems in The Dangerous Shirt light the way.

The Bloomsbury Review: Since we’re both music lovers, let’s begin our discussion there. Your poem titled “The Boleros” revolves around a particularly passionate style of music. Talk a bit about this poem and how music figures into the structure of this collection.

Alberto Ríos: I would say all of the poems in this book revolve around some kind of music, songs we are listening for underneath the white noise of the everyday. In the poem called “The Boleros,” songs come forward like a volcano. They come from beneath the surface, and they become the poem itself, taking over. The music is more subtle in poems that precede and follow this one, but the songs are there throughout, bearing great heartache and heart joy.

TBR: To set the mood, what music do you suggest people listen to as they read this book?

AR: Boleros, of course! Especially those from the turn of the century through the 1950s, characterized by such songs as “Bésame Mucho” (Kiss Me Much) and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps). The boleros move directly into emotion, the kind of emotion that drives people.

TBR: There’s a line in the boleros poem that says, “Full of feeling, forced into you.” Why the word “force”?

AR: The word is sexually charged, but, then, Latin American music is more physical in its referentials, so I was picking up on that physicality and saying we’re all going to be recipients of this big song. The song is going to enter us; it will be an exchange, but also a way for us to move together.

TBR: If we are receptive.

AR: Yes, we need to be receptive, and it doesn’t matter what gender we are, the song enters us; we take it in. There’s a wonderful bolero, “Sabor a mí” (Taste of Me) that says, you can go away, you can leave me, but you will never be able to forget the taste of me. That’s persuasive, a compelling sentiment, and really very human. We get it, but [in this country] we wouldn’t typically hear the sentiment expressed in that physical way.

TBR: This is a good time to segue into the poem “The Hundred-Thousand-Thing Day.”

AR: Yes, that poem is a perfect example of listening for the song underneath the white noise. We do so much in a day, but sometimes one thing comes to the fore.

TBR: A moment.

AR: A moment, a glance, whatever it is. The amazing thing is we recognize it in the midst of everything else, no matter how small.

TBR: The poem ends with, “Her eyes, yes, that single word.” Is there more?

AR: This is the end of the poem but not necessarily the end of the action or narrative. The poem set out to say this can happen. What the recipient does with what comes to the fore, who knows? It is a gift and it is singular. The poem itself is a verb. We don’t know what the object of the sentence is going to be.

TBR: The boleros are forceful, and the glance is forceful as well, isn’t it?

AR: Yes, but not in the sense of muscular force, the way one gets shoved to the side. Maybe a better word is powerful, though we don’t know how to register that word anymore because it is overused. There is power in the moment. That is to say, the moment is electric. We are connected to the moment in a way different from how we were connected to whatever came before or after.

TBR: Akin to the pinprick that surprises?

AR: Yes, like a pinprick or bee sting, it is moment incarnate, singular and of itself. How many times does someone look at us in a day? Still, it’s that one look that may rescue something in us if we recognize it. Sometimes recognition is everything. I said the poem is a verb. Maybe this is an intransitive sentence with no object at all. The verb, that moment of yes, is the gift. not to say there can’t be a whole other outcome.

TBR: The whole other outcome you mention leads me to one of my favorite poems in the book, “The Injured Thumb.”

AR: [Laughing]

TBR: The smashed thumb says the heck with you, body-of-mine. You’re not giving me the attention or comfort I need, so I’m going to run away with a wisp of steam from the cup of coffee.

AR: A thumb and a wisp of steam. Such an action, a thumb and a wisp of steam getting together, is a function of the world, particularly the language and culture in which I grew up. This idea of things getting together might sound fanciful to a reader who speaks only English, but if you speak another language, a romance language in particular, you know that words are gendered. La luna (the moon) is feminine and el ojo (the eye) is masculine, so that the two together become something fertile. The world of this language is active rather than passive, and it is true with or without you, sometimes in spite of you.

TBR: As in sexual?

AR: One could call the combination sexual or vibrant, but certainly it is interactive. In English, words aren’t gendered, so there is no possibility of the fertility so prevalent in Spanish and other romance languages. English words are static, complacent, the opposite of generative. A gendered language such as Spanish suggests the world is not only capable of interaction but is actively engaged. The feminine (la) and masculine (el) are going to carry on a relationship by virtue of that gendered moment regardless.

TBR: The thumb and wisp of steam seem like a good match—unexpected but right.

AR: When we say people are drawn to each other, we think only in terms of humans, but these two entities are simply drawn to each other no matter what. As in all great love stories, they will worry about their problems later [laughing].

TBR: Some of the surrealists had entities engaged in unexpected activities.

AR: Yes, to an extent, though they often had an entity engaging in something by itself. In writing even earlier than the surrealists, in Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” for example, we see the nose come off and have adventures on its own. In my poem “The Injured Thumb,” the thumb isn’t alone; it is in the company of an other.

TBR: This discussion brings to mind Octavio Paz’s story, “My Life with the Wave.” We know the narrator falls in love with a wave and we know the two move in together. We also know the relationship soon falls apart. We don’t know who the narrator is—maybe human, maybe not—but most probably an entity very different from the wave.

AR: Such a combination unnerves us, of course. This country is predicated on the belief that we preserve and protect the individual, yet we have an image of what an individual is, and anything different from what we expect tends to scare us. A man falling in love with a wave and a thumb engaging with a wisp of steam are not what we expect. Our reaction is to disallow such commingling, refusing to give the interaction credence. We don’t give science a chance to explain, either.

TBR: A surreal image that comes to mind is Meret Oppenheim’s furred teacup. Any connection?

AR: Oh, absolutely. That combination is unexpected, offering up an active rather than a static agenda. While the furred cup is still a cup, we must suddenly imagine new uses for it because one cannot drink tea from a cup lined with fur. Certainly we must think of the cup differently than we did. A favorite surrealist image of mine is The Gift by Man Ray. He glued tacks to the bottom of an iron. An iron is so much an iron that the verb associated with it is also its name. An iron is to iron. You use an iron to iron your shirt, for example. Tacks applied to an iron’s surface alter its function dramatically. The critical verb no longer applies. Again, as with the teacup, we are pushed from complacency and must now think of an iron differently than we did, imagining new uses for it. In essence, this is what discovery is all about.

TBR: Discovery is prevalent in this collection of poems, especially in the small moments that come to the fore in the hustle and bustle of busy days.

AR: All of the activity that pushes us along is exhausting. What gives us energy and electricity isn’t the “everything.” Rather it is so often the singular, particular moment that engages us unexpectedly in a way that is suddenly, profoundly new. It’s so like what I was saying about the small moments in “The Hundred-Thousand-Thing Day.” Such energizing moments encourage us to move forward in a way that we haven’t experienced before. In my poem “I Fell to the Floor, and Kept On,” the character falls and doesn’t stop. Instead of the floor being the hard and solid surface we’re used to, it is suddenly something we fall into and mesh with in a unifying way. Such a moment embodies discovery and a new way of experiencing the world.

TBR: In reading the poem, I envisioned the falling character as an aging individual who was perhaps experiencing a health crisis.

AR: That is certainly viable, but regardless of our age and physical condition, we’ve all experienced falling. The question becomes, what is possible in that fall? This is just like Man Ray’s iron. If we are looking backward, we expect to hit the ground and stop because that is what we’ve done before. A fall is to fall the same way an iron is to iron. If we are looking forward, we are open to the unexpected, the possibility of falling not only to the ground but beyond it, perhaps to the center of the earth.

TBR: Would you say our reaction to something–a fall, for example–is what matters most?

AR: Yes, because the moment itself can seem so innocuous. Somebody tripping, for example, is a very simple beginning. There isn’t necessarily any great drama in such a moment, but it can certainly be a catalyst. How we experience the moment is ripe with possibility. If we stay too tethered to how things have been, we will find it difficult to see how things might be. And it is through the small moments, rather than hectic fanfare and hoopla, that we will most likely make discoveries.

TBR: In the poem “Fall Again,” which is not about tripping at all, we have a small moment that takes on another dimension when someone is walking amongst autumn leaves that hide the ground. It is as if the ground doesn’t exist under the leaves.

AR: While we presume there is ground underneath, it is not visible to the character—or us. This is what I call an epiphany of the half inch. Such an observation is not life changing, of course. As with many of these poems, the discovery revolves around a small bit of understanding. The question remains as to what the character—or we—will do with the discovery. It is the beginning of possibility rather than an end result.

TBR: The Dangerous Shirt has numerous references to science. In “The Leukemia Girls,” for example, there is the statement, “Science may be our best way of understanding the world,/But it may not be our best way of living in it.” Talk a bit about science in this poem. Is it magic or bogus or something in between?

AR: Science works on the notion of generalization, but we are individuals. For example, the merit of a particular medication is based on statistics—how well it works for most people, not how well it works for any of us specifically. In this poem, I wanted to focus on the individual rather than the statistic. I wanted to seek out the personal in the general, the simple, singular moment in all of the scientific complexity. So often, science is a remedy that enters and essentially invades our body, violating us in some personal way in an effort to fix us.

TBR: Reminds me of the boleros we talked about earlier.

AR: Yes, boleros enter us, too, but in a more symbiotic way, allowing an exchange, a way to move together, a way to converse—a love song. Can you imagine science as a love song? That it can enter suggests to me that science is directional, that there must be an opposite direction and an opposite movement with an equal amount of force. Why not start in the interior, inside the individual, and move outward? My aim here, then, was to seek out an obverse of science, to open the window of possibility, discovering that small bit, that half inch of understanding. When I talk about the leukemia girls, I am not talking about the statistics of their condition. Instead, I am talking about their unique and individual lives, the simple act of living that science so often overlooks.

TBR: Science of the interior is a fascinating notion. Is there such a thing?

AR: Well, science of the outside typically tells us how science of the inside works. To accomplish this, scientists gather symptoms and make educated guesses about what is happening based on an aggregate of reported symptoms. This occurs because our inside isn’t thought to have a vocabulary or voice of its own, so we tend to treat it as we would treat a child who gives us bits and pieces of a puzzle. A conversation with our stomach, for example, is not thought to be a viable option. In this book, I am exploring the possibility of speaking directly to the stomach and having it respond. This is not a silly notion but rather one that speaks implicitly to the nature of possibility as we’ve been discussing it. Because no words have yet come from there, our first impulse is to belittle them, whereas I try to listen with some new attention.

TBR: “The Leukemia Girls” includes the line, “All that’s left is to tell this story, to point at it.” Why is it important to tell their story—or anyone’s story, for that matter?

AR: Quite simply, we are all story-hungry. In fact, we crave stories, but stories are exactly what we are not getting. Too often scientists don’t make time to put what they hear into context. Instead, they reduce everything to statistics and generalities, thus creating an odd kind of cultural illness that is contagious. It has infected us. This is an old idea that should have been resolved long ago, but it is as insidious as ever. While we all say we love the individual, we don’t make time for the individual. This is an equation that doesn’t make sense.

TBR: Maybe science should just lighten up and run off with a wisp of steam as the thumb does in your poem “The Injured Thumb.”

AR: [Laughing] That’s exactly what it needs to do. I would love to see science become less detached and more emotionally involved. An example of such involvement is prevalent in Latin American folk medicine. Curanderas/Curanderos are healers who use such medicine as curatives. An essential key to their curative power, however, is that they first listen carefully to a patient’s story so they can determine what is really going on and what is needed. The magic of folk medicine, then, is not so much an herbal poultice or whatever the remedy might be. Rather it is the attention proffered, the simple fact that a medical person takes you seriously on a profoundly personal level. There is curative power in that. Such healers would listen to the leukemia girls in a way that scientific doctors would not have time or training for.

TBR: Medical doctors in our country are not paid by insurance companies to listen; they are paid for the medical procedures they order.

AR: True, and there is certainly value in medical procedures. Clearly, one form of medicine should not replace another. We need all the help we can get when it comes to our health. Actually, I think many of our physicians are well aware that if they listen carefully to what a patient says, they may very well discover clues that help solve an underlying physical problem. But who has time?

TBR: Psychiatrists are paid to listen, though they tend to treat ailments with medications.

AR: That underscores another differing approach. In Latin America, a number of emotional ailments are thought to have major physical consequences unless treated, usually with specific folk remedies rather than mind- or mood-altering drugs. Of course, nothing happens until the healer has listened to the patient’s story. One of the emotional ailments is susto, an intense fright, which is often treated with a barrida (sweeping) ceremony in which particular herbs are swept over the body. Mal de ojo, evil eye, is a hex put on someone via the gaze of a stronger, more powerful person. Sometimes treatment is as simple as shielding the recipient from the hexing gaze, or to have the evil eye individual touch the recipient to break the hex. This approach is not unique to Latin Americans. Other cultures around the world have variations of these folk ailments and treatments. A common thread is the listening technique, which is all but absent from the typical form of medical practice in our country. In time, perhaps years from now, physicians will more readily and willingly accept what healers have understood for centuries.

TBR: Let’s talk about the poem “The Birds That Fly From This Mouth,” where the narrator has perhaps had a stroke and can no longer articulate words, even though they are floating inside his or her head.

AR: It’s true that words no longer come forth as they used to for this individual. Consequently, it is necessary to find a new way to relate to the world. This poem opens the door to the quest of conceptualizing, of seeking and hopefully finding, a next possibility.

TBR: Is there a next possibility here?

AR: I think so, but it is scary because the end of possibility is close. The poem affirms that while there is time and space for whatever is next, the challenge will be discovering what characterizes this new realm and then being able to move into it.

TBR: Given the short time span, how might this occur?

AR: It may be necessary to alter perception, even though we don’t have a ready vocabulary for doing so. We do, however, have some experience with altered time perception. Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.” Both of these experiences are familiar. We understand them because we have had them. The theme of relative time is explored in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” where a minute is a year. A similar theme is explored in Ambrose Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In each of these works, time does not hurry.

TBR: This is a good time to discuss the time-bending poem “Womb-Rider.” What’s going on here?

AR: Although I would call “Womb-Rider” mythic, it plays with the nature of possibility as so many of these poems do. We give birth to babies expecting that the gestational period of nine months is going to create this tiny, helpless being that will grow over the course of many years to adult maturity. This poem talks about the journey to adulthood as happening completely during the gestational period.

TBR: Such a phenomenon isn’t plucked entirely from the imagination, is it?

AR: No. Science actually documents variations of this type of progression. There are accelerated aging diseases such as Progeria and Werner’s Syndrome where individuals age eight to ten times faster than normal, usually dying very young of “old-age” diseases. Then there is the reverse where a person is born old and ages backwards to infancy, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The Benjamin Button character is similar to the end stage of certain dementias where victims progress to the mental and physical capacity of infants. Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum explores this realm, too. The protagonist, Oskar, is born with an adult’s capacity for thought and perception. At a very young age, Oskar decides never to “grow up,” and he retains the stature of a child.

TBR: Instead of exhibiting a youngster’s sensibilities, the protagonist in your poem charms all the women in the village with the élan of a fully matured Lothario.

AR: Well, we have language that speaks to uncanny maturity in children, such as, “He is an old soul.” The poem extends such language into actuality. Language comes from somewhere even if we have forgotten its origin. That the event might once have been actual to begin with should not surprise us. This poem speaks to what we have forgotten is possible.

TBR: Language has a similar role in your poem “Good Bones Lent and at Their Work Still.” In that poem, though, a mother’s bones are palpable in her child.

AR: Yes, language tells us a mother will always take care of her child and hold her child close. This poem actualizes such language. Here a mother’s finger bones are her child’s ribs. Her cradling hands remain a comfort even when her son is an “old man” and she is long gone. Naysayers might take a hard line and say such a thing is not possible, but language has established that it is. This poem applies the language of a mother taking care of a child literally.

TBR: You are offering some imagery we haven’t experienced before, but when it’s presented to us as it is in this poem, we say, “Oh yes, I get it!”

AR: It’s seeing something that’s really been in front of us all along. It’s finding that edge in the middle—my favorite place for the edge to be. I like the challenge of discovering something new in the midst of what is familiar. I think of this as radical in the traditional sense of the word, radical meaning back to the root, the beginning. We don’t have to go to the edge or over the edge to make discoveries if we are bumping into them constantly.

TBR: The poem “Across This Bridge of Dreams” takes us to what should be the familiar territory of sleep, the root of our existence. Dreaming, though, has an edginess in this poem, feeling like a place where anything strange or wonderful can happen.

AR: Our waking days are full of possibility, and our sleeping nights are, too. We can’t know what is going to happen when we walk out the door in the morning, and the same is true about going to sleep. When we close our eyes and dream, we might encounter a scary “river of buried tigers” or an easy “walk on the bridge, a swim.” In a way, it’s like watching the opening credits of a movie saga. We haven’t read any reviews, so we don’t have any idea what we’re about to see, but we have our ticket and we’re going to stay for the show. The only thing we know is there is no regular.

TBR: It seems that we are busy whether we are awake or asleep. It’s a wonder we’re not exhausted all the time. Is this rush to beat time a cultural phenomenon?

AR: Sure, but as in global culture. Contemporary technology hurries us along all over the world regardless of country or ethnicity. Computers are great for this fast pace, but it has become difficult to read a book, play dominoes, or sit through a baseball game because such activities take so long. We feel like we’re committing a crime against ourselves, squandering time we don’t have, always feeling like we should be doing something somewhere else. I address this confusion in my poem “I Saw You Tomorrow.”

TBR: In that poem, the business/busyness of life is explored. The last stanza sums it up: “Out the door. Goodbye, you wave/To yourself, standing there.” Another poem that explores the business of life is “Beetles and Frogs,” in which even the natural world is in a constant frenzy. That poem reflects how we take a vacation to get away from it all but can’t truly rest because birds, bugs, and all creatures buzzing around continually remind us that “everything moves and will not stop.”

AR: This is a permutation of the gendered fertile and frenzied world I was referring to earlier, where so much is going on in spite of or contiguous to us. “Beetles and Frogs” is a quieter, more subtle version of the fast-paced human frenzy in “I Saw You Tomorrow.” The natural world has always been hard at work with a bajillion things going on in any given moment. We become the beetles and frogs of the poem and of the world. Living our urban lives, we tend to think we’re distancing ourselves from the natural world, but in a weird way, we are moving toward it.

TBR: Speaking of the natural world, let’s talk about water. This collection has a number of poems that address water as well as thirst.

AR: The book embodies a Sonoran-desert sensibility, my sensibility, and, as in anything that involves the desert, water plays a very big part. I have a personal stake in all of this. My last name, Ríos, means rivers. Coincidentally, my mother’s unmarried name is Fogg, and, of course, fog is also comprised of water. I think I write about water so much because I come from it. All this water, yet here we are in the desert known for the lack of it. What has always intrigued me is that water is in the desert but so often it is invisible. Certainly we don’t have the water one sees in such places as Connecticut or Minnesota, but water is nevertheless present here. For me, this invisibility is a great metaphor. I must look harder to see what I know is there. Such seeking is a good kind of work and is exactly what writers need to be doing anyway.

TBR: The poem “The Rain That Falls Here” begins with the stanza, “The rain that falls here is lost,/Having meant surely to fall somewhere else.” Is desert rain serendipitous?

AR: This desert is not positioned in the universe to receive much rain, so whatever we do get is precious. Is our lack of rain accidental? It certainly feels like an oversight, as if someone forgot to include us in the schedule. The lack of rain produces a desert and, with it, a different kind of bounty that is valuable in its own right. So often, though, we don’t appreciate the gift we are given. Instead we unfairly compare the desert to nondesert places. In this book, I write about the physicality of water because, as human beings, we need water. In fact, we are mostly comprised of it. The water resides in us, invisible but always present. In the way we must seek water in the desert, we must seek water in ourselves. If we can’t see it, we can nevertheless imagine it is there. An ocean resides within each of us.

TBR: When rain does fall, is it a little like those moments that come to the fore in a hectic day?

AR: That’s it! And those moments, those raindrops, play on us in a way different from the way they affect other people in other places where rain is plentiful.

TBR: In your poem “The Sweet Salt Air,” there is a line, “In the desert, water is always thirsty.” We want more of the moments—the water, the raindrops.

AR: The obvious response is that we want more water simply because it makes us feel good while also keeping us healthy and strong. The complex, more interesting challenge is that in the desert we cannot rely on water to be delivered to us. Rather we must search for it where it is not visible—underground, in crevices, in our own bodies. We have to be creative in our search. I love the idea that desert water taunts us. Heat on a hot road, for example, creates a mirage of water. We think we see water shimmering in the distance, but, of course, it isn’t actually there. If water can appear to be somewhere it isn’t then the inverse is true as well: Water can be where it doesn’t appear to be. Being comprised of water, we are excellent examples of the inverse rule. Water is where we are.

TBR: Talk a bit about water as an element of change.

AR: Water in the desert is a constant surprise. It falls down wet and comes up green. It pushes through our skin on a hot day in the form of sweat. It is always changing and, therefore, changes us.

TBR: Change is central to the food poems. “Tuesday Soup” is a good example. The soup is a risky experiment because it is a mish-mash of the prior weekend’s leftovers, a mixture of uneaten cast-offs that didn’t even make it into Monday’s leftover pot.

AR: Here again is the possibility of discovery and change that this book is all about. “Tuesday Soup” involves combining the remnants of what we are familiar with to create something entirely new. Our hope is that the end result will be as delicious as the original dishes, but there’s no way of knowing until we simmer it all together and taste what we’ve concocted. Our creation will most likely be one of a kind, something we’ve never had before and will never be able to duplicate again. This is a poem about food that has not been and will not be. This is the food of risk. To eat it is to be changed.

TBR A poem that also connects to this theme of change is “Feeding the Compost Heap.”

AR: Oh yes, one of my favorites.

TBR: Out of a hodgepodge blend of disparate ingredients comes something new, something ultimately “fertile,” a word that you have used to describe the world.

AR: Yes, fertile is the right word here. Like Tuesday’s soup, the compost heap is a combination of all kinds of incongruent items. The difference is that the compost isn’t for direct human consumption like the soup is. In fact, the compost’s ingredients are all gathered in one assembly hall, and they are quite upset about it. There is talk about a meeting and a strike. This new entity starts generating electricity as well as possibility, and it is a force to be reckoned with.

TBR: The whole idea of the compost heap is that it is fertilizer for what will become our food, as in gardens, helping vegetables and plants to grow.

AR: Yes, it’s taking what we don’t like—stuff we throw away—to get what we do like. It’s a fair exchange, a mutually beneficial exchange, assuming dung beetles live up to their name.

TBR: I’m sure there is quite a bit of science involved in composting, but we don’t usually get bogged down in the science of it. We just throw things together.

AR: Yes, we let happen what will happen. With compost, we purposefully heap all kinds of ingredients together not knowing what will evolve. Our action, though, places us yet again at the precipice of discovery. We have front-row seats.

TBR: In some of this book’s poems, characters aren’t particularly keen on precipices. I’m thinking of “The Old Wait” and “Those Before Me.”

AR: “The Old Wait” brings me to tears. I find it difficult to read even now. It was emotionally hard to write. The precipice I’m describing will come as no surprise.

TBR: That poem involves a couple facing “the old wait”—presumably aging—that finds them in many waiting rooms. The poem’s narrator talks about not wanting to move toward whatever is next but knowing it is necessary, especially since “Those who leave us leave/By sitting down as we sit down.” There is danger in getting too comfortable.

AR: There is definitely a serious underpinning to the poem. We all get tired, and the poem supposes the practice of feeling tired is a precursor to something greater. Sitting down is practice for not getting up.

TBR: The serious underpinning is also evident in “Those Before Me,” where an aging couple is strong together but not so strong apart. The narrator says, “Onward, I say, in spite of this, / Loudly, onward, steadfast,/But I do not mean it/The way I have meant things.” There is a fear of being alone, of going into the unknown. The characters in these two poems and others will move forward despite their reluctance.

AR: That’s just the way the poem about sleep starts as well. Sleep itself is practice for what we all know is coming. The book’s title poem, “The Dangerous Shirt,” gently, even humorously, underscores the imperative of moving forward even in spite of everything that tries to stop us. The shirt has been ironed and put on. Now, it is time to walk out the door because the alternative is not acceptable. The shirt applies a little subversive pressure. Stretching out on the couch will wrinkle a freshly ironed shirt, and that would be such a waste given the time it took to get ready. Besides, what is outside that door might be wonderful.

TBR: The possibility of discovery awaits.

AR: Yes, and this notion ties in to the book’s final poem, “What’s Left,” where all the negatives one expects in a day do not materialize. Instead, it’s one good thing after another. It’s a day of happiness. There is no promise and no guarantee this will happen in “The Dangerous Shirt.” It is possible, though, that we could be in for a pleasant surprise. It’s possible in the way that one seeks water in the desert and finds it, or recognizes the pinprick, the bee sting, the moment of yes that comes to the fore in a busy day, rescuing us in some small, crucial, way. The thumb and the wisp of steam will have their way.

INTERVIEWER: Leslie A. Wootten lives and writes in Casa Grande, AZ. Her previous interviews with Alberto Ríos, Ron Carlson, and Melissa Pritchard have been published in TBR and elsewhere.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Tom Story, Arizona State University. ©2011

From The Bloomsbury Review; Volume 31, Issue 2 ©2011

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