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
on your body
There is, as well, a hint of the homoerotic:
it's not a flavor
I crave, but the image of your shirt,
at the sternum, exposing that dividing
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
bookthe 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
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 pleasurea
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 bullan animal that has, shall we say,
unhomoerotic associationsis what makes the poem untraditionalin
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
for Perla, like arranging the peas into
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
too often and would bury them in her
in pairs: a right arm with a right arm,
a left one with a leftthe fingers
down like roots. After seasons, the
was the ache inside her bones, while
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 earthmovements
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
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
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
and flatten nubs until a rib-thin stick
a bone, its new guise tough-veined,
erect with pride,
but lonely, holding up its only socket
Despite the fairly rigid grid he works within, he does so with a certain
libertythat 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 entirelynamely, something evocatively sexual.
Also worthy of mention for its mastery of rhyme is a "Day of
the Dead." A fragment:
in her dull
black apron and rebozo (who saved
her best conversations for the tombstone)
said that joking with the dead will
a smoother, shorter path into their
ly voyage. While women talked about
and men toasted their tequila, I craved
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,
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 scriptthus
making the border between English and Spanish seamlessimplies
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:
do they carry on their wings from the
the place that gave them a brush of
for weight and touches of white to attract
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