Ray Gonzalez—poet, editor, and professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota—is a fellow Texas transplant in Minnesota, so I was eager to read his essay collection Renaming the Earth. It earned him his sixth nomination for a Minnesota Book Award.
Gonzalez is solidly in the middle of the Baby Boomer generation; he names Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration, along with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Beat environmentalist poet Gary Snyder, and Minnesota’s Robert Bly. Gonzalez has said he hated high school English and that it was the Beatles and other ’60s rock music that first drew him to lyrical language. He grew up in El Paso, shaped by life on the Texas-Mexico border and the surrounding desert. Family, political, and cultural history in El Paso root his poems, which are equally infused with the harsh light, animals, plants, rocks, and heat of that stark landscape. These new essays return to this terrain washed in memory like old Polaroids or stucco structures with dusty clues of former inhabitants. He writes with mysteries to solve. He’s the detective of his own family’s secrets and his hometown’s inevitable changes since his youth.
|renaming the earth by ray gonzalez. published by the university of arizona press (2008). $17.95.|
Part storyteller, part shaman, Gonzalez also has the social historian’s eye for personal details that illuminate both genealogy and the larger story of a culture and a country. In Renaming‘s opening essay “A Different Border,” Gonzalez describes living in El Paso and on the Texas-Mexico border as having not only two languages but, a third, sometimes called “Spanglish” or what he terms a “bi-tongue”: “Two roots, two mouths, two ways of expressing how we live and how we survive in a region that has redefined how we live in the United States…a unique America.”
Traveling Interstate 10, walking El Paso streets, Gonzalez finds—like so many Americans—that the places of his childhood have often changed almost almost beyond recognition or have disappeared entirely. Raised in a military town that is also a border town that’s never been able to uproot it’s Mexican origins, Gonzalez enumerates the cantinas, churches, barber shops, and traditions that span the Rio Grande River—a place that is both a place of childhood play and a centuries-old border crossing.
Figures such as his devout Catholic grandmother, his distant father, a mother heartbroken by divorce, and paternal uncles who he hasn’t seen in decades populate his quest to make sense of where he comes from. For all the particularities of his Mexican-American culture, Gonzalez’s struggle to understand his father and his family’s story is a journey most of us take sooner or later and can relate to, like our own.
In another essay, ”The Arches,” Gonzalez returns to an abandoned hacienda that he used to explore as a boy wandering the desert. A black imprint of a big cross that once hung on the wall haunts him, but the spell once cast by that place has been broken by the passing decades that have left the structure intact. He makes intriguing links between the evocative old building and the images of Mexican painter Ruffinfo Tamayo.
A voice as strong as Ray Gonzalez’s burns through like the desert heat at high noon. The border country he takes us to is a place we need to know.
Gonzalez tells another universal story in “A Break With the Past,” exploring the demolition of history, memory, gentrification, and industry in El Paso. “The Ladybugs” is a short personal gem where he reflects on his own personal response to the 9/11 attacks. It’s almost perfect in its execution of profound simplicty and quiet impact.
The book’s title essay, “Renaming the Earth,” roams from the bend in the Rio Grande at Hatch, New Mexico to planting a mimosa tree in the desert outside El Paso to explorations of the Chihuahua Desert to the NAFTA highway. His sojourn unites elegy and prophecy, honoring five hundred years of history and pointing towards a new century’s promise and perils.
The only inexplicable essay in the book is “Get on the Poetry Bus,” a look at the ambitions and economic machinations of the poetry scene, which Gonzales calls the “po-biz.” It’s full of name-dropping and jabs at foes only thinly described; it isn’t worthy of the book.
“Renaming the Earth” has evocative images and emblematic stories to tell. At times, Gonzalez appears to forget the poet’s first maxim, “less is more,” and muffles his own powerful voice with rambling prose that a sharp editor could have remedied. This sometimes undermines the power of these essays, so they fall short of the level of prose works by fellow poets like Wendell Berry or Adrienne Rich. But a voice as strong as Ray Gonzalez’s burns through like the desert heat at high noon. The border country he takes us to is a place we need to know.
Lydia Howell is a poet and journalist; she is the winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She is host and producer of Catalyst: Politics and Culture on KFAI Radio.
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