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Rigoberto González’s memoir draws its title from Pablo Neruda’s “Explico Algunas Cosas” (“I Explain Some Things”), a poem about the destruction of a Madrid suburb during the Spanish Civil War. The speaker of Neruda’s poem invites one Frederico to remember “mi casa con balcones en donde / la luz de junio ahogaba flores en tu boca” (“the balconies of my house where / the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth.”) It’s an image both sensuous and fragile, lush and slightly macabre. It’s an image only possible, perhaps, in remembrance, and in loss. González relies on similar images throughout What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: making cascarones (confetti-stuffed eggshells) as a child with his aunts and, much later, finding an early photograph of the father who abandoned him. But it’s clearly the next line of Neruda’s poem–“Hermano, hermano!” (“Brother, brother!”)–that most immediately connects “Explico Algunas Cosas” to González’s memoir. In What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, González explains some things about growing up poor, queer, and Chicano, and about growing up at these things in relation to his straight brother Alex.
The memoir opens with González learning that his adult brother has been kidnapped. It’s 2010 and González is attending a writer’s conference in Vermont. His sister-in-law Guadalupe calls from Mexico. The brothers, we are given to understand, are worlds apart: one safely ensconced in American academia, the other vulnerable to a not-uncommon crime south of the US border. The news functions as a cliffhanger, for the memoir then turns to the past, to Rigoberto and Alex’s childhood in Baja California. Their mother dies, and their father leaves them for another wife, a new family. Their taciturn, brusque grandfather provides their most stable male role model. The brothers consequently flounder their way into adulthood–Alex into rocky relationships with women, and Rigoberto into alcoholism and abusive relationships with other men. But as they flounder, brother and brother also grow closer. Evidence of this bond occupies much of this book: we read of yearly visits, listen in on their frequent phone conversations, and witness Alex’s breezy acceptance of Rigoberto’s homosexuality. They develop their own body language, signaling their desire to talk by laying down on the bed until the others lies beside him. Over halfway through the book, Alex’s kidnapping can only return as a deft anti-climax. This is not a thriller. It’s a sentimental memoir about male vulnerability, about two brothers learning how to be brothers.
One of our most celebrated poets, González is also a noted memoirist. What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth is his third, following Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (2006) and Autobiography of My Hungers (2013). This new memoir covers some of the same territory, as it eloquently memorializes the desire to be a man who has mutually supportive relationships with other men. Near the end of the book, González compares his and Alex’s brotherhood with their manhood: “Our manhood was shaped by what our father taught us and what he didn’t teach us, by his presence and absence, and by those things he did and what he couldn’t do for his two oldest sons. But brotherhood–that was shaped by the two of us from the very beginning, and that relationship was still in progress.” Brotherhood, in this account, in a species of manhood, not simply given but also formed and forming, mutable. What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth a memoir about fashioning forms of manhood, of brotherhood, from the flawed models of family. It’s a poignant study of Latino masculinity written with the poet’s sensitivity for all that can be contained in an image, a moment.
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood
By Rigoberto González
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299316907, 191 pp.