top of page

Tracing Memory & Cosmos in El Rey of Gold Teeth

By mónica teresa ortiz


Memory work isn’t an easy practice. Swimming through time, history, family, and trauma can be exhausting and complicated. Some poets don’t know how to swim. Some sink in diasporic tropes. Combined with imperial borders, the mighty myths of Texas, and the city's urban sprawl, a poet reconstructing lineage, movement, and politics in a hostile U.S. landscape isn’t a simple task. Reyes Ramirez's debut book of poems, El Rey of Gold Teeth, doesn’t promise us gold, but instead maps out poems of wonder that are critical of “the starry pupil of a panopticon” while simultaneously writing “A Gospel of a New America, where “your salt will not nourish the earth.”

Ramirez, who is of Mexican and Salvadoran descent and a Houstonian, deftly assembles a collection of poems devoid of the I, but the voice of the poems never suffers or struggles because of it. Instead, the book takes us on a journey of reflection, memory, connection, and family. There are poems that take us to familiar places, such as La Pulga (a flea market), but imbue them with imagery and craft that allow for a new visual experience that is also grounded in emotion, from “the fake sapphire/in this iron knife’s/brass handle” to “legally, i can’t sell/you these fireworks/but i’m American/here’s ten.”

Drifting between space and time, sometimes sitting in Houston traffic, Ramirez strikes a balance between family hagiographies and a “universe of joy within/a city of waiting within/a state of waiting.” The writing shines “within a nation of violence/within a continent of theft/within this last world” and allows the poems to breathe spatially on the page, allowing the reader to float from stanza to stanza, without feeling lost or overwhelmed. The poems are at their best when Ramirez finds a rhythm of image and action, allowing the language to bounce and move naturally, such as in “Asthma Attack” where “every inhale/scorched with oil/every exhale/gunked up/bayou water at/the curve of/my windpipe.” He reveals the strong connections between the interior and exterior, between the body and its environment, and trusts his linguistic lineage to guide the poems forward, taking readers with him into the deeper waters of the Gulf Coast. And we go with him, whether we know how to swim or not.

Many of us know tragedy in our families. We carry trauma in our shadows. But Ramirez never exploits the stories of alcoholism, accidents, or abuse. His poems witness the after-effects and attempt to sort out the impacts of generations of violence. El Rey of Gold Teeth is a heavy book, but Reyes’ poems never place that weight on the reader. Instead, there are four distinct suites of poems, interweaving el cosmos to the body to the city to el mar. He plays with imagination and opens up the landscapes of Texas poetry, intermingling the personal, cultural, and political into elegant verses in Spanish and English and engaging themes of violence, injustice, and identity as much as they do with place, history, and architecture.

El Rey of Gold Teeth also asks provocative questions, such as in “Pupusas,” when the narrator wonders, “what can this light nourish/but a body ripe with eonic exhaustion?”

El Rey of Gold Teeth also asks provocative questions, such as in “Pupusas,” when the narrator wonders, “what can this light nourish/but a body ripe with eonic exhaustion?” But we don’t really need a response, because we trust where Ramirez will take us next.

As the book progresses, Ramirez introduces uniquely specific cultural reference points to frame poems, such as “The Fabulous Wondrous Outfits of the Fabulous Wonder Twins,” which is one of the strongest poems in the book. Opening up with “everything has a twin, linked by invisible umbilical cords, & everything must meet its twin before completion,” this poem, in particular, demonstrates Ramirez at his best, combining stunning images with thoughtful critique and following up with a completely different poem that flows organically in “El Salvadoreño Americano as Decolonizer, 1929-1936.” While some of Ramirez's poems remind me of Octavio Paz, especially in “Sal del Mar on Brown Skin: A Language Lost in Sand,” his work also echoes Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning. When a poet writes lines like “salt dampens the sand/where i rise./i’m a man of the sea./i’ve licked clean the eyes/of charred fish & rub/my thumbs on/ocean’s grit,” I find myself excited for more. Ramirez makes the reader feel present with him, standing on the gulf shores, reminding us to slow down and look around, noticing the world and people around us. In Ramirez’s collection, we meet places “where the soil diamonds with salt.”

Ramirez is able to explore both his lineages, turning the second half of the collection into beautiful brutal elegies that draw on a city’s noise and pulse to power his poems as much as he challenges conceptions of home. Ramirez pushes language to break apart colonialism: “your home is borrowed space/to make others more subject/to this truth is the first & final sin.” The reader walks quietly with the poet, listening to the stories and truths hidden and laid bare. We don’t always need a machete to cut away the constructs of the US. Sometimes we only need a poet.


Reyes Ramirez is working on a third book, he is also the author of The Book of Wanderers, learn more about his writing via his website!

mónica teresa ortiz is a poet, memory worker, and critic born, raised, and based in Texas. they unconditionally call for the liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea, and believe the empire will fall in our lifetime.


Starting February 2023, #OffThePage is featuring Melanie Romero as our monthly columnist. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román in May 2020. Since then we have collaboratively featured over 25 stories and paid nearly 10 contributors from our community. Pitch Melanie a story or email us for more information!


bottom of page