A Review of Rigoberto González’s Unpeopled Eden
by Rigoberto González
New York: Four Way Books, 2013.
84 pages. $15.95 (paperback)
Borders are, or can be, symbols that actualize more than imagined lines for “Do Not Enter” and “our national pride begins and ends here.” A border can separate life and death: can be a gateway, a portal to the underworld, or some salvation in the sky — the “sky” being, perhaps, opportunity and a better wage, not, as you might expect, eternal peace or surrender. For the Aztec, there lies a border between being alive and dead, a four-year interim journey one takes over mountains, rivers, and fields before becoming completely dead. That underworld is called Mictlán, and it is in this place that Rigoberto González opens Unpeopled Eden, his fourth collection of poetry.
González knows — and his poems exemplify — this concept of being on either side of a separation. Each of his previous three collections of poetry establishes, in its own way, a stance against a norm or popular ignorance. González’s debut collection, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), is a genesis — the ground from which the poet spins memories and tragedy, introducing readers to the sometimes stark, and more often beautiful, realities of migrant workers, immigrant families, and the complex realities of being a product of the México–US border. Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006), is tense, erotic, and dangerous — dangerous because it challenges us to play voyeur and to be participant. It asks us to hold the book and its bodies; to feel the various sensations of men who want both danger and one another; to take the hand of González and say, “Ok, you lead and I’ll follow.” Black Blossoms (2011), González’s third collection (and the first published with Four Way Books), faces darkness — and challenges the abyss for an echo. Much like Roberto Bolaño’s fourth section of 2666, “The Part About the Crimes,” the poems of Black Blossoms are witness to the wilting of the female body, bodies that worked to survive, to love, to raise families, to not disappear from a population, underpaid and overworked, that employers and consumers neglect to acknowledge exists. It is from these places, from borders González has crossed and defined, that we enter Unpeopled Eden (2013). A region of the dead: the often nameless and the disposable (“disposable” because they journey from the south and seek of the north a new beginning — a paradise perhaps untrue, but held as a belief because it is a part of the myths and the stories that ground and drive us). For some, death may be the beginning.
At the center of González’s fourth collection is the title poem, “Unpeopled Eden.” The poem remembers the thirty-two people who died after a deportation plane’s fuel pump ignited over Los Gatos Canyon, causing the flames to burn off a wing and the aircraft to spiral to the earth twenty miles outside of Coalinga, California, on January 29, 1948. In his notes, González recounts the forgotten and dismissed details of the event. Of the thirty-two who died in the crash, only four names were recorded: the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess, and guard. The remaining twenty-seven men and one woman, migrant farm workers, were dismissed simply as deportees and buried in a mass grave, which some considered racist, but which all should see as ignorant: a gesture of genocide, which is something deplorable that occurs today, though generally without (as far as we know) the mass graves. My home state — a state where González earned one of his graduate degrees — Arizona, seeks to militarize its border. ICE (formerly INS), the Maricopa Sheriff’s Department, and governor Jan Brewer, among others, hold no regard for family, stability, opportunity, or simple things like empathy or humanity. It is because agencies, leaders, and people in positions of power like this exist that we need González’s voice and perception. We need to know as readers, writers, and humans that American society is far from being any sort of paradise, though it may seem to offer opportunity, money, and money. We need to know that people who don’t look, speak, or live like us matter, because all things matter — or should.
González writes, in the final section of “Unpeopled Eden,” VI after the communal burial: