The Sad, Dignified Gaze of Rigoberto González

By Philip Gambone

Rigoberto González, a self-identified Chicano writer, is the author of a considerable number of books of poetry and prose, 20 at last count. His work includes four novels, six volumes of poetry, four memoirs, two collections of essays, two bilingual children’s books, and a short story collection, and he has received an impressive roster of awards, including a Guggenheim, a PEN/Voelker Award, and an American Book Award.  

González, who was born in California, but grew up in Zacapu, in the state of Michoacán, has just released his latest book, “To the Boy Who Was Night” (Four Way Books, 2023), a new and selected edition of his poems. The volume, which covers 25 years of his poetic work, is not for the timid reader. These poems are haunting and brooding reflections on suffering, sickness, shame, loneliness, and grief; on sexual and romantic frustration, family violence, and poverty; on the aches of childhood and “the sad architecture of abandonment.” González writes about hunger: the hunger for food, justice, dignity, a voice, and the longing for tenderness in a world where tenderness is absent. Many of these sad, dark poems manifest how, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, “the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.”  

In a poem like “In the Village of Missing Fathers,” González depicts a desolate Mexican landscape where the women “have traded their silks for meats, their kisses for bolts on the doors, the curves of their hips for a place to carve out the names of the dead.” In a companion poem, “In the Village of Missing Sons,” a bartender “nods off into dreams because, at 55, he’s the youngest in the village.” All the young men have been broken “like an egg beneath a military heel.”  Several poems take their inspiration from the tragic newspaper stories of today: unaccompanied migrant children, COVID, crooked politicians who “sold our town to the outsiders,” and gay bashing. Except in González’s world, these events are not the stuff of news articles but hard-felt personal experiences.

The book includes a section of new poems written since 2019. Here González, who is in his early 50s, opens up with even more candid and personal material. Many of these latest poems revisit difficult and heart-wrenching childhood experiences. One entitled “Things I Find in Abuela’s Bathroom Closet” is about the fascination and shock of rummaging around in a cubby full of his grandmother’s intimate things. “Family Reunions” is about “my need to comfort the lonely child in me.” “Our Lady of the Wound” concerns the psychic damage done to a “queer boy with painted nails.” “Unfathered” is about his distant father and “how I yearned for his approval.”

Indeed, many of these pain-filled, astringent poems concern González’s memories of the lonely, alcoholic father he tried so hard to love. Others are haunted by memories of his overworked mother, dead at 31. The mother’s absence was, he writes, “the puzzle that his father’s presence couldn’t explain.” The soundscape of so many of González’s poems is suffused in wails, screams, and shrieks of distress and agony.

Other themes in this collection circle around unrequited love, the lost magic of youth, and the ephemerality of things, “as temporary as piñata stars.” A recurring motif is the difficulty of shaking off past humiliations and burdens: “You stopped trying to glue your youth back together, because that which has shattered remains shattered.” 

As a gay poet, one for whom “joy was denied in México,” González is candid about the psychic damage done to a child who had to maintain a secret, who knew that male-male affection “wasn’t make-believe,” even as he had to hide it from the gaze of others. Though he still lives with the deep emotional wounds of his earlier closeted and repressed life (the “frock of scars and bruises”), González resolutely declares his resilience and endurance. “You are solid rock,” he proclaims.

González, who is a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times and currently holds the position of Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers, is not immune to moments of beauty in the world. The beautiful monarch butterflies in his native Michoacán remind him of the brilliance of fire. He knows the “magic of a child who can bite into a cherry and roll the world inside his mouth.” And he writes tenderly of his “own soft fist inside her fingers years ago, when my mother could roller skate and guide me.” There are poems about the beauty of the body (“my left nipple like a rose”), about the taste of a tangerine, about “the palm of a man’s hand wiping juice off another man’s chin,” about the “shining word” México.

In his memoir “Butterfly Boy, González noted that his family “had been moving north and south for four generations, which explains why my great-grandfather and father were Mexican-born citizens, while my grandfather and I were U.S.-born citizens.” Despite his American citizenship, he is a poet who embraces Mexico as his true love, as “mi amor.”

Praised by one critic for his ability to “shape a magical landscape from the ruins,” Rigoberto González affirms again and again that the “heart’s at the center in everything.” Like Moctezuma’s profile on a tostón, the old Mexican 50 cent piece, González maintains a “dignified gaze” over the ruins of his life, a gaze that announces, in the words of the final poem in this notable collection, “What is done is done. No use crying over what can never change. Or what is gone.”

Philip Gambone has been writing fiction, nonfiction, and journalism for almost 50 years.  His latest books, “As Far as I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II,” was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by the Boston Globe.  He has just finished a new collection of short stories.