Rigoberto Gonzalez, Unpeopled Eden
Four Way Books, October 2013
As the title suggests, Gonzalez’s fourth collection is one in which beauty and the allure of utopia are undermined at every turn by death, absence, and exile. Despite its rich heritage rooted in music and love, a form like the sonnet contains, for Gonzalez, a visit to the morgue. In “Mortui Vivos Docent” (the Latin phrase and so-called “motto of the morgue” whose literal translation is “let the dead teach the living”), Gonzalez surveys a “clumsy dancer” who has dropped “her shoe somewhere between / Mexicali and Calexico.” This vivacity is stopped short a moment later by Gonzalez’s penchant for stark admission: “if she were breathing / she’d let whiskey tell the tale.” In the book’s title poem, Gonzalez relives the immigration raid, transport, and death of twenty-seven unnamed men when the Douglas DC-3 they were traveling on went down in California as they were being shipped to a deportation center. “A bird will feast / until it chokes and ants will march / into the bell through the beak,” he writes, imagining a depopulated orchard while building a sharp criticism of the land of opportunity. Paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and this fact makes the list poems that appear at the end of the collection all the more dismantling, as though we are witnessing the naming of Eden’s flora and fauna, the “things that open like flowers in daylight,” yet we know there’s no one there to name them.
This review was originally published in American Poet, Fall-Winter 2013, Volume 45.