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The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body

Overview

National Book Award finalist

Alberto Ríos explains the world not through reason but magic. These poems—set in a town that straddles Mexico and Arizona—are lyric adventures, crossing two and three boundaries as easily as one, between cultures, between languages, between senses. Drawing upon fable, parable, and family legend, Ríos utilizes the intense and supple imagination of childhood to find and preserve history beyond facts: plastic lemons turning into baseballs, a ...

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Overview

National Book Award finalist

Alberto Ríos explains the world not through reason but magic. These poems—set in a town that straddles Mexico and Arizona—are lyric adventures, crossing two and three boundaries as easily as one, between cultures, between languages, between senses. Drawing upon fable, parable, and family legend, Ríos utilizes the intense and supple imagination of childhood to find and preserve history beyond facts: plastic lemons turning into baseballs, a grandmother’s long hair reaching up to save her life, the painted faith jumpers leaping to the earth and crowd below. This is magical realism at its shimmering best.

"Alberto Ríos is a poet of reverie and magical perception, and of the threshold between this world and the world just beyond. With humor, compassion, and intelligence, Ríos's poems overlay a child's observation and imagination onto our society of daily inequity, poverty, and violence. The light of memory shines on culture, language, family, neighbors, and friends saving them all in stories that become legends, a light so sensual and full it is 'swallowed into the mouth of the eye, / into the throat of the people.'"—National Book Award Judges' comments

"Alberto Ríos is a poet of reverie... Whether talking about the smell of food, the essence of a crow or a bear's character or of hard-won human wisdom, Ríos writes in a serenely clear manner that enhances the drama in the quick scenes he summons up."—The New York Times Book Review

"... Rios's verse inhabits a country of his own making, sometimes political, often personal, with the familiarity and pungency of an Arizona chili."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Alberto Ríos is the man you want to sit next to when it is time to hear a story."—Southwest BookViews

"In The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, Alberto Ríos doesn't borrow a myth. Rather, he finds the myth underlying his own life—myth that translates effectively because it is not confined by language. The images of Ríos' life are so vivid, it is as if he has written a picture book that anyone can understand."—The Home & News Tribune

"In his new book of poems, Alberto Ríos has given us evidence and motive for celebration. Ríos' poems follow a path of wonder and gently move us to emotional truths that grab our breath and link our inner and outer landscapes. His alchemy works a transformation in the inner vision, turning us toward the deeper mystery of life itself."—American Book Review

Alberto Ríos teaches at Arizona State and is the author of eight books of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir about growing up on the Mexican border. He is the recipient of numerous awards and his work is included in over 175 national and international literary anthologies. His work is regularly taught and translated, and has been adapted to dance and both classical and popular music.

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Editorial Reviews

Ken Tucker
Alberto Ríos is a poet of reverie. His concise poems --- often stately columns of couplets --- drift off regularly into memories of a Mexican-American childhood in Arizona. He recalls family members, childhood friends, and (he's especially vivid about these) animals. In "My Coyote," he writes, "It is not a dog, but a dog / Exponentially, a dog / Taken to the third power, / The algebraic dog / Made entirely of those parts / We do not want to think about." Ríos creates a dreamlike intensity by repeating small words, like "dog" in the poem above, and, in "Chinese Food in the Fifties," "Wings / The way the wings from birds, / From hummingbirds and bees, / From June bugs, the way in their moving wings / One sees nothing." Ríos's poems also tell short stories that are both elegant and prickly, like one about an unnamed man who strolls across the Mexican-American border to do a little shopping for his wife and is arrested. Left forgotten for days in a small jail, he is asked, "Why didn't you say something?" Ríos concludes, "This question was a trick. / The man would not be fooled. / The man had manners. ? He knew going in what was right. Speak only when spoken to. / And in jail, in jail especially. / It was a simple thing to know." Whether talking about the smell of food, the essence of a crow or a bear's character or of hard-won human wisdom, Ríos writes in a serenely clear manner that enhances the drama in the quick scenes he summons up.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556591730
  • Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 110
  • Sales rank: 1,371,221
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author


Alberto Ríos served as the Arizona State Poet, teaches at Arizona State University, and is the author of nine books of poetry, three collections of short stories, an a memoir. His book of poems, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry.
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Read an Excerpt

Oranges in a Tree

1
The oranges in a tree won't fly away
If you're quiet. If you're quiet
You can see them in their nests
Loud in the song of their great need,
Mouths tethered to the green beaks
That feed them, hushing their cries,
Pushing their infant noises into color,
That unmistakable sound, orange.
If you make noise, enough of a noise
And not just anything, a noise equal to theirs,
The oranges take flight
In a spin of movement that's dizzying
But which takes weeks.
Some fall to the ground in the excitement,
Falling from the fear of what you've said.
So many fall this way.

2
But some escape. Some move up,
Racing, onto the avenue of the birds,
Speeding at first, unruly and desperate
To get away. You can't see them,
They're so fast. You can't see them
Until they slow down, these oranges
In the air. They use up their color as food,
Finding places to hide, but they are plain enough
In a new rabbit's eyes, in the faraway
Lights of small towns, in falling stars, in the contrails
In the sky, in sudden sounds, orange sounds.
But those that land inside us, those that find their stopping point
Just where we stand: Those we feel
As flight inside ourselves, as the moment
We leave  how hard it is!
The place where we had been.

3
As human beings,
We have a long history with birdsWe have eaten them as chickens and pigeons,
Doves and turkeys. We have caged them for amusement,
Made them fight each other for sport.
We have imitated their whistles and used up
The magic in their feathers.
After centuries, some birds have given themselves up
To this fate: They huddle themselves
Tightly as they can into anything but what they are
They began to look like oranges and grapefruit,
Melons and squash. These were the birds
Who gave up flight, who gave up the air and the wandering.
Scientists have traced oranges back to oranges.
They did not know
To look for wings in the folds of the white rind.
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Table of Contents

A Physics of Sudden Light 1
Day of the Refugios 5
The Birdman of Nogales 7
The Weekly Morning Meeting of the Town's Civic Band 10
A Simple Thing to Know 12
Mr. Palomino Walks By Again 14
At the Street Parties for the 16 de septiembre, Nogales, Mexico, 1962 16
Los voladores de Papantla 18
Appointment Houses 20
Kid Hielero 23
Refugio's Hair 26
Small Risings 31
Signal Right 32
French Postales 34
In Second Grade Miss Lee I Promised Never to Forget You and I Never Did 37
Eating Potato Chips in Middle Age 38
The Venus Trombones 39
My Chili 41
In My Hurry 49
The Nipplebutton 51
A Small Motor 53
The Cities inside Us 54
What We've Done to Each Other 55
The Impossible Still-Life 59
Oranges in a Tree 60
A Yellow Leaf 62
The Fall of the Bears 63
The Gathering Evening 65
Gray Dogs 66
Common Crows in a Winter Tree 68
My Coyote 70
What Happened to Me 72
Under Mesquite Trees in the Sun 73
Rabbits and Fire 74
The Dog inside Mine 76
Chinese Food in the Fifties 79
Summers, About 1959 82
In the Strong Hold of Her Thin Arms 83
A September Death 84
If I Leave You 85
Cups of Frothed Chocolate 90
The Lemon Kind of Baseball 92
Domingo Limon 94
Holding My Shirts 98
Writing from Memory 100
Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science 102
Notes 105
About the Author 107
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