cover image So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks: Poems

So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks: Poems

Rigoberto Gonzalez. University of Illinois Press, $17 (112pp) ISBN 978-0-252-06798-3

It may be difficult for most readers to take poems like ""Death of the Farm Workers' Cat"" or ""The Exhibitionist Umbrella Salesman"" at face value. But in this debut, selected by Ai for the National Poetry Series, Gonz lez works to tell such stories, and his own, without embellishment, like the deadpan, sinister fables and parables of Ai's own work. Steadily lovely lines function like directorless cinematography ""Catarina shakes the cracker crumbs off/ the lime dress with the collar crawling up the throat/ in Catholic schoolgirl fashion./ The torn hem above the knees won't show."" Most of the poems are as clear and cohesive as the above stanza, and the stories they tell are rich with the colors, smells and exigencies of daily life in differing corners of the Mexican diaspora. Poems like ""Perla at the Mexican Border Assembly Line of Dolls,"" ""Planidera: Professional Mourner for Hire"" and ""Rosario's Graveyard Shift at JFK Memorial Hospital"" show a particular interest in what often remains women's work. Others focus on the poet's childhood memories of Catholicism, nascent sexuality and literacy. Death--""that horrible truth spread/ like honey""--is never far away, foreboding and talismanic. Some of the poems' characters, purposefully deprived of depth, personality or self-expression, come off as social realist caricatures. But at their best, Gonz lez pushes the poems forward with grim authority--""Darkness can be so maternal:/ blood spots tip down like baby heads""--and startling beauty: ""We value the chrysalis of bone/, the blue shell that brings down the sky within our reach."" (June)