Sleeping on Fists by Alberto Rios


Sleeping on Fists
Alberto Ríos
Dooryard Press

It’s no secret that we here at The Olives of Oblivion are big fans of the chapbook, one of the fine traditions in poetry and bookmaking. Printed in an edition of 500, Sleeping on Fists has a letterpress cover, a beautiful frontispiece (shown below), and 16 poems printed on deckle-edged Rives Light paper. Tasty.

Sleeping on Fists appeared right before Ríos’s first full-length collection, Whispering to Fool the Wind, which was selected by Donald Justice for the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 and published by Sheep Meadow Press in 1982. Sleeping on Fists, however, is not Ríos’s first book; this honor goes to the very obscure Elk Heads on the Wall, which appeared in 1979 from UC-Berkeley’s Chicano Studies Program through their chapbook series. A slim 23 pages, Elk Heads on the Wall was the 4th title in this series (edited by Gary Soto), and had a run of 350 copies.

Born in 1952 in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, Ríos has earned a reputation as one of the finest poets now writing in the US. Border, perhaps more than any other word, best describes Ríos’s style and obsessions. The border between Mexico and the United States. The border between the mundane and the magical. The border between self and community. The border between the secular and the sacred. Ríos has spent much of his career exploring the implications of such borders, as well as exploring where these borders blend together. Indeed, the synthetic moment is where Ríos finds and creates his meaning-making as an artist.


Carlos is the name
by which loneliness
knows each of us.
Carlos the distant relative
worse off than we are
who drank the medicines
of poverty and died
not in his sleep
but wide awake
clutching the red chair
because alone
his most powerful act
was this.
Carlos who lives inside
pain in each of us
knowing the woman–
it was her brother that died
and that was all,
he was dead
and everyone was sorry
because her hands
were too heavy to lift.
Carlos at this moment
wanting desperately other women
looking out through my eyes
making my tongue his
speaking my words
hearing his meanings.
Carlos who is the name of a boat
and the fisherman and the anchor.
Carlos who is the cold
and the women and the night.
Carlos who wants only
to age with each of us,
to grow old, to be happy.



She didn’t raise her head for so many years
she forgot all about the sky.
Suspicions grew about the woman
who wore her purse close like an arm
in a third black sleeve.
But when she sat one afternoon
to wait for death in the plaza
she remembered the sky like her husband.
She waited. She didn’t look up.
Her intimacy now was the night
and it slipped into her
and wore her like a sleeve.

Several of these poems are reprinted in Whispering to Fool the Wind, which is a very common and inexpensive used title. For those of you in search of Sleeping on Fists, good luck. This title is quite scarce. Currently, there are no copies listed through the ABAA, nor are there any listed on abebooks or bookfinder. Don’t despair. Like any book on your list of dream books, it will be sitting on the shelf at your local bookseller’s one day for just a few bucks. For further reading, check out Ríos’s 2002 poetry title The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon Press).


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


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