This delightful, provocative collection is subdivided into five sections that are not easily categorized. Rios, who grew up in the borderland culture of Nogales, Arizona, writes about this culture and his childhood (sections 1,5), family and local legends (section 1), the Sonoran desert and its animal life (section 4) and the complexities and wonder of human experience and human relationships (all sections). Rios deals with both the real and the imagined, often moving from the former to the latter. Deceptively simple language lures the reader into the rich, original landscape of the poet’s vision.


This poetry does not touch directly on illness or medical practice. Its utility for medical humanities is, however, manifold. We learn about the ambiguities of living in two cultures, as in "Day of the Refugios" (p. 5) where the Fourth of July has dual meanings, being both "the saint’s day of people named Refugio" [the name of many in his family] and "Still, we were in the United States now, / And the Fourth of July, / Well, it was the Fourth of July. // But just what that meant, / In this border place and time, / It was a matter of opinion in my family."

Or, about the dangers of cultural misunderstanding, as in "A Simple Thing to Know" (p. 12), in which a Mexican who wants to go shopping across the border in the U.S. walked past the border officials "who looked busy, / He didn’t want to bother them"-- landing in jail, where, for several days, he was forgotten. "Why didn’t you say something? // The man had manners. / He knew going in what was right. // Speak only when spoken to. / And in jail, in jail especially."

Or, about parental responsibility and the hindsight that it confers as in "If I Leave You" (p. 85) where a father who has given up his religion feels the need to bring it into his young son’s life: "I need heaven again / So I’ve got something to say, // The same way I needed something said to me / About dog heaven // And every other time / There was nothing else to say."

Perhaps the greatest lesson these poems can provide to medical professionals is to challenge them to think "out of the box" and to question conventional wisdom. So, for example, the reader is forced to entertain unlikely possibility in poems like "The Fall of the Bears" (p. 63) where "The bears have come out of their hidden canyons / . . . looking for a better life. They want jobs, / They want affordable housing . . . / Who knew . . . their language was our language?"

Similarly, in "The Venus Trombones" (p. 39) the speaker asks us to think about language and meaning, and about the value we place on things, supposing that "Questions become potatoes, / Answers become blood. / Not so easy, then, to pair / Questions and answers / so quickly, so immediately." "And a person without eyes . . . is this person more or less?" Or what shall we make of "Writing from Memory," (p. 100) in which one morning "My father got up and put on his dress" and mother "rub[s] her hand across the thick stubble of her face"? In this collection, the poet invites us to enter his unique world, to question our pre-conceptions, and to not fear the unfamiliar--skills and attitudes essential to good medical practice.


This collection was nominated for the National Book Award.


Copper Canyon

Place Published

Port Townsend, Wash.



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