Rigoberto González: 5 Poets Who Changed My Life

Any poet will say that it takes a community of poets to shape a single life, so it is with plenty of hesitation that I single out five of them, all but one of whom have passed on. Highlighting five makes me feel ungrateful to the other five hundred, but as I write and revise my list, I keep coming back to the following names for very different reasons.

1. The poet Ai

Ai recently passed away, and I have yet to overcome that grief. Her work is fierce and fearless, tackling subjects since the 1970s with poems that read so far ahead of their time. Even in my third book (which I dedicate to her memory) I can still detect traces of her influence–we shared a love for the dark and disturbing narratives and gave them homes on the page. She used to say that the “scoundrels” were the interesting folks, the ones worth inviting to the dinner table because their presence guaranteed a thrilling conversation. And I imagine that so many of those “scoundrels” have been our fathers, our sisters, our cousins, our tíos–the men and women who do us wrong, who damage the world, but who we, nonetheless, still love.

From her poem, “Cruelty”:

The thing I want most is hard,

running toward my own teeth

and it bites back.

2. Francisco X. Alarcón

Franciso was my first out professor and a force to be reckoned with back in 1992, when he joined the teaching faculty at UC-Davis and I began a graduate writing program. He had so much energy he couldn’t even sit without swinging his knees together. He was the reason I began to identify as Chicano—a designation I had rejected before because I couldn’t connect with the urban kids who grew up in the city barrios. I had grown up in Mexico and in the agricultural fields of the Southwest. But after I took his Chicano culture class, after I saw him burn sage at his poetry reading to invoke the gods of the four directions (Tahui!), after he came into the class to announce that César Chávez, my family’s hero, had died, there was no turning back. When I became a book critic, Francisco’s book was the first title I reviewed.

From one of his love sonnets:

as you doze like a lily at my side,

I undo myself and invoke the moon:

now I am this dog watching over your sleep

3. Gloria Anzaldúa

Though she’s known more as a prose writer and the mother of border theory, in which she broke down the complexities of life, language, culture and art in the world between the North and the South, English and Spanish, gay and straight, high art and folk art, la Gloria penned some socially-conscious verse that makes up the second half of her masterpiece Borderlands/ La Frontera. Like many people, I ignored those poems for many years, choosing instead to reread and re-absorb the theory half, until one day, out of curiosity, I dared to go beyond page 120 and I was blown away. No wonder she titled that second section Ehécatl/ The Wind.

From her poem “horse”:

Dead horse neighing in the night…

only it is red red in the moonlight

in their sleep the gringos cry out

the mexicanos mumble if you’re Mexican

you are born old.

4. Elizabeth Bishop

What endears me the most to Bishop is her patience. Her body of work is small, but perfect, celebrated across cultures for its finely-crafted lines, the exactitude of her word choices, it’s flawless rhythms. I couldn’t pick out a favorite Bishop poem because there are too many riches, but I will say that I have “The Moose,” “The Fish,” “One Art,” and “Sestina” permanently branded on my mind. Her poems inspire me to write better. She wasn’t out in her work and she spent many years in Brazil, a place that nurtured her poetry, her watercoloring, and her lesbian love life.

From her poem “Sonnet”:

and the rainbow bird

from the narrow bevel

of the empty mirror,

flying wherever

it feels like, gay!

5. Federico García Lorca

No self-respecting Spanish-language queen can call herself educated without having fallen in love with García Lorca. He was as fierce and unapologetically queer as Constantine Cavafy and Salvador Novo and Truman Capote. He’s the best poet to reach for in the midst of love, lust or loss. You know, during the drama. But I reach for his work whenever I feel the need to refresh my poetic vision and imagine the heights of language, emotion and fiery imagery.

From his poem “The Poet Asks His Love to Write Him”:

But I suffered you, tore open my veins,

tiger and dove on your waist,

caught in the duel of lilies and bites.