Book Review

I'd Rather Be Mexican by Charles Ries. W. Somerville, MA: Červená Barva Press, 2010. $7

Reviewed by Alice D'Alessio

I must confess I was drawn to this chapbook by its title, since I've also had the impulse to trade in a pale Anglo self for a Latin persona, particularly when in Mexico.  Also, of course, because I know Charles Ries to be a fine poet and was curious to see how he would express this yearning.  He didn't let me down, leaping directly into cherished images.

I'd Rather Be Mexican was originally published by Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry in 2005, and reprinted in 2010 by Červenà Barva Press in Massachusetts.  A number of the poems have appeared in more recent publications—five poetry books, total, for which he has received a number of Pushcart nominations.

Starting with the cover of this book—a photograph of iconic fancy-dressed skeletons, taken in a museum in Guanajuato—to the imagery throughout, the book tugs at the sensibilities of anyone who has been captivated by the color, music, romance and exuberance of our neighbor to the south.  Red is frequently invoked in flower, dress, red lips (interestingly enough, the name of the publisher,  Červenà Brava means "Red Color" in Czech); the imagery is erotic.  Mexico becomes "a full woman whose face glistens like polished copper in morning light…She satiates me into silence and I willingly dissolve into her olive colored thighs."

His introductory prose poem, "Just Stories," gives his first impressions: " the women are all beautiful …the men wear tight black pants" … "They all talk and sing in the snappy Mexican way"…"Mexicans choose to be happy." Predictable, perhaps; even  cliché.   (And probably something with which many Mexicans would take issue).

This rambling interior monologue reflects the disorientation of entering a foreign culture, along with the euphoria of escape—"Free to be free of them, floating higher" (like the helium balloon at a family picnic) " Out-reached hands.  Out of sight." Escape from dailiness, ordinariness, obligation, to an exotic, more inspiring existence. Freedom. But also, a place where he can write: "Heaven on earth is the freedom to wander in  one's mind. To line words up in single file, filling in the gaps, letting fantasy lead the reader to their [sic] own conclusion." What writer can not relate to that?!  The poem ends with a Ries observation that he will return to in subsequent books: "And when I gaze at the stars' abundance…I weep at the oddness of/ life."

The remaining 16 poems visit the predictable sites—the bars and cathedrals, the graveyard, bullfight and Holy Friday festival where, in "Mexicans Love a King," Ries tells us: "On Holy Friday they roll their King out of moth balls/and carry him through the street on the/shoulders of twelve strong Indians/ while the beer and tequila flows, and the ladies weep."  One gets the impression that for someone raised Catholic in Wisconsin, this Mexican interpretation of holy days delights him. 

But it is not only the festivals, women and tequila that inspire Ries.  In his poem "Reading Octavio Paz," he imagines the Mexican poets "impregnating my fiction with new possibilities"—releasing him from the prison of his Wisconsin imagination and evoking two of the most lyrical metaphors in the book. "What is my dream?" he asks in another prose poem "Fly, Fall Dreaming," "In Mexico, I become Latin and romantic."  He assumes his Latin persona, Carlos, and mines a rich new source.

The urge to escape to warmer, more exotic places for creative fulfillment is not new. All the English poets made tracks for Italy, rhapsodizing on the climate, the ruins, the scenery, and littering the landscape with their odes and tombs.  Ries follows a well-worn path. Is it the cold that stifles us, or the lingering tenets of dutiful upbringing? Or just that here is where home and obligations—the need to earn a living and lead honorable lives—"the jail we carry in our hearts "—chews away at our longing to be unfettered, our 'time to wander in our mind?'

These are not carefully crafted or edited poems.  The line breaks tend to be erratic, and copy could have used some editing.  But the poems enchant with rich language, evoking a place and a longing that is as familiar as travel posters, but as exotic and full of the senses as our dreams.  The lines flow, ramble and leap, as thought, dream and memories collide. 

Perhaps with recent socio/political upheaval in Mexico, drug war horrors, and immigration issues, the poems feel almost dated, evoking a simpler, more innocent time.  But fortunately, poetry can eschew politics and leap directly into fantasy. Ries takes us along with him to his early enchantment with his Shangri-La, and we enjoy the journey.  It does raise the question: once enchanted, can the poet ever come back to Birch Street, to where 'his ass is nailed to the porch'?     

Reading Octavio Paz
            (Early Poems 1935-1955)

Mexican poets often leap from sidewalk
to roof top.  One foot on the earth and
the other on a cloud of cotton candy.

They gaze at death and see dancing skulls
with smiles stretching as far and wide
as the Milky Way.

I close my eyes and see within myself a naked boy
sitting beneath a vast pecan tree.  From its branches
hang stars.  This canopy of shade becomes my universe.

Carlos blows into Olivia's ear a love whisper,
sending a waterfall of kisses cascading out her
mouth onto brown soil where white flowers erupt.

A prisoner of my imagination, I turn to face myself
and shout, "who's there?"  The Mexican poets have
impregnated my fiction with new possibilities.

Alice D'Alessio is the author of the biography, Uncommon Sense: the Biography of Marshall Erdman. Her poetry book, A Blessing of Trees, was winner of the 2004 Posner Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and her 2009 book, Days We Are Given, was first place winner in the Earth's Daughters chapbook contest.  She is contributing editor to Woodlands and Prairies Magazine