Reviewed by Peter Ramos
It’s heartening to think of Ray Gonzalez as the latest American poet to take up from his masters--James Wright, Robert Bly, and W.S. Merwin, among others--the long tradition of the deep image. This is all the more gratifying when we realize that Bly and Wright, among the first poets of this country to name and incorporate the deep image, developed this poetic tendency in no small part through their translations of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Octavio Paz. No less “American” than his masters, Gonzalez is linguistically at least, if not ethnically and culturally, closer to those Spanish-speaking poets whose work served as the original, mold-smashing model for Bly and Wright almost a half century ago. But Gonzalez brings to the deep image the very element so painfully missing in the work of his mentors: history. In its most Jungian aspects, the deep image tended toward the a-historical, seeking to recover some long buried universal object from the collective unconscious--some original stone or light we would all recognize, no matter the differences in our separate cultures. Gonzalez’s work never allows us to forget the striations of civilization and conquest one must break through to get to that image.
In this collection, one that spans almost twenty years and includes his newest, uncollected poems, Gonzalez’s practice directs itself toward the historical elements that force the speaker backward, illuminating the power and the transient nature of the colonial past. In “The Carved Hands of San Miguel,” the speaker begins by confronting the Christian, authoritative statue:
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch the child walking home,
so they touched me.
The carved fingers were cold and hard
and they jabbed me in the heart.
By the poem’s end, the speaker has broken through toward that original element out of which the statue was carved.
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch me, so I held them
until I could reach beyond the wrist
and the arm--the form of rock that
became the white body left behind.
Climbing up or digging down, the speaker in so many of Gonzalez’s poems begins from a particularly situated “home” in order to reach that place we might all recognize, despite our different origins.
In “Ascending the Stone Steps at the Gran Quivira Ruins,” it’s difficult not to hear an echo of Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” and yet, Gonzalez’s poems remind us over and over that one cannot confuse the particularity of home. This is not Peru but Southern New Mexico. It is only by way of a perspective--from below or from up above--that we can see beyond our particular, historically situated place. More often than not we can only imagine such a place. Reaching the top of the mountain, the speaker senses a universal clarity to be imagined, even glimpsed, but not secured:
I totter there and wait,
mountains to the north and south
threatening each other with
the black reach of a short day
when the valley below does
not catch up with the truth,
ignoring the impassable ceiling
of time I can’t reach, the ledges
above the holding place
where many died, some rose,
a few giving birth to the turning
tide that took the people away.
Translation, as Bly and Wright both demonstrated, offers poets and readers alike the chance to see the world anew. Certainly their contribution to the deep image practice depended on their ability to translate German and Spanish verse into stateside English. But, as Gonzalez reminds us through his own work, translation is only another term for transformation, new possibilities of thought through language. In this sense, each stanza in his poem “Another” addresses this multivalent characteristic of translation:
Another word for understanding is light,
as in the light that leaves the mind
and kneels over the garden.
. . .
Another word for knowing is darkness,
as in the falling bird that lands
in the green and disappears.
Combining elemental, transforming images with the kind of assertive biblical language that Merwin is known for, Gonzalez nonetheless keeps the poems particular in time and place: not any stone of any age, but this stone here. The repeating possessive pronoun in “My Brothers” reminds us that the speaker’s brothers here are not necessarily “ours”:
My brothers lie under the darkened stones.
When I wake them, they ask my name.
When I answer, they disappear
and I keep polishing the stones.
. . .
My brothers tell stories under the rubble.
When I am left out of the legend, tree roots
grow to the horizon, their underground
roads never crossing my path.
Such a separation often seems to exclude the speaker as well. These may be “his” brothers, but they are locked away, obscure, out of and beyond this particular time. In fact, throughout Gonzalez’s work there is this sense that history is the mark itself giving way to cultural and social division. Here is most of “Tiny Clay Doll with No Arms”:
Given to me by my sister as a gift,
the tiny Indian doll stands with no arms.
Received so I can raise my hands
and stop the world from getting closer.
Something has been taken from here--
a day when reaching out was death.
Something has been lost
with my own hands.
. . .
The clay doll stands on my bookshelf.
It stares out the window.
It does not have any arms.
I don’t know why it was carved that way,
Don’t know what it means, why
Invisible palms hold everything together. . .
As in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” this delicate, inscrutable object from an unrecoverable time and place nonetheless commands the living speaker in this present.
The power of silent objects, of dolls in particular, is a familiar poetic conceit: we see this not only on Rilke but in the work of many of the deep imagists as well. Charles Simic makes considerable use of such images. But in Gonzalez’s use of these silent objects, he is able to both include and question the presence of an historical, ethnic connection: the Indian doll points to a Pre-colonial past of what became the modern Americas. While the speaker feels responsible for preserving this object, compelled to hold it up at the end with “sweating hands,” he/she cannot read the significance of the object’s lack of arms, cannot understand what the doll is trying to say.
Again and again, Gonzalez’s verse positions the work of history itself on a particular speaker in a particular time and place, marking the transformations that separate. But such transformations also give rise to new possibilities. A once obliterated past might return transformed, as in “The Head of Pancho Villa”:
The rumor ran that the head became
the mountain surrounding the town.
Others said it was the skull that sat for years
on the highway west to Arizona.
It was true because my grandparents lived there,
told their children the skull glowed
on the roads, until my grandfather died
and his family returned to the other mountain.
I see the head of Villa each time I drive into El Paso.
It rises off the setting sun as the evening turns red.
By now, I am convinced the eyes are open, the hair longer.
After all, the moon is enough when I turn to take a look.
Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems plots the trajectory of Gonzalez’s work in the last twenty years. As the current and latest heir to the deep image practice, Gonzalez corrects an oversight of the earlier practitioners in so far as his poems remind us of the consequences of ignoring history and its effects. These are poems that repeatedly present us with a speaker who struggles responsibly to make something in the present out of a vanishing, hardly conceivable past.