A Review of Rigoberto González’s Unpeopled Eden

Bojan Louis

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.

Gonzalez writes, in the final section of “Unpeopled Eden,” VI after the communal burial:

This is the place to forget

about labor and hardship and pain.

No house left to build, no kitchen

to clean, no chair on a porch, no

children to feed. No longing left

except a wish that will never come

true: Paint us back into the blank

sky’s blue. Don’t forget us

like we’ve forgotten all of you.

This stanza, with the internal rhymes and cadences that exemplify González’s ability to write the collective voice of the grave, is a moment for reader and author to reflect on the Los Gatos Canyon plane crash and on the themes of borders and border-crossers that have saturated the book. “The Soldier of Mictlán” visually and poetically shows the reader, with its use of soldier to end every line, both the loneliness of journeying across a border and the heavy foot traffic of Mictlán.

González continues this exploration of departing one place for another — his poems seek borders in both “In the Village of Missing Fathers” and “In the Village of Missing Sons.” Both begin with opposites and the idea of aging; while the titles suggest age or youth, each poem begins with an image of children or of the elderly, respectively:

From “In the Village of Missing Fathers”:

Children run without shoes

because no bottles have been

broken there and no one knows how

to climb a tree or fly a kite.

From “In the Village of Missing Sons”:

The old do not call themselves old,

they call themselves dead. They call

themselves forgotten and silent, the footprints

made by water that evaporate and erase,

leaving the ground thirsty for contact

all over again. They call themselves

banished, abandoned, invisible —

These poems show the reality of absence. The absence of family and joy, completeness and pride. Unpeopled Eden is a record of and for the forgotten, for the “border crossing soldiers” who risk all they have, which isn’t nothing: if they have anything, they have their homelands, family, and countrymen — and they risk it all in order to starve, suffer, die. They are not only taken advantage of, but they are also confronted with policies and ideologies set to dehumanize them. Easy to gather and dispose of numbers, to wage “war” on nouns that reflect invasion and not persons. In González’s collection, the land and its creatures know more than citizens and their media. A Gila Monster comments on his reward of being able to crawl on its belly in a paradise where trees drop fruit to his level. Where the dead have made their journey.

From “Gila”:

          Though there are ghosts here —

               they strip down to wind

                    or slump against rock to evaporate.

Though González’s poems concern themselves with death, the underworld, forgetting, and inhumanity, this is not a collection of apocalypse. Unpeopled Eden shows us ourselves because we all seek a border, we all seek betterment. But when it comes down to it, more often than not, we don’t exactly have, inside of us, what we think we have:

               In the end we are like the shark

          that swims with a treasure chest

               in its belly. Poachers slice us open,

          extract a string of kidney stones, a license plate. (“Señorita Juárez”)

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