Rufino Tamayo. Animals. 1941. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 × 40" (76.5 x 101.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Inter-American Fund

For this year’s edition of our Poetry Project, we asked poet Ada Limón to select nine distinguished American poets to respond to artworks from the Museum’s collection. Here, Rigoberto González shares his poem inspired by Rufino Tamayo’s Animals.

Rufino Tamayo. Animals. 1941

Rufino Tamayo. Animals. 1941

–after Rufino Tamayo’s Animals (1941)

Or, in my grandmother’s tongue, uíchu-echa.
Or does it matter? The bite is just as cruel.
I would know. I stood safely behind the gate
with the family dogs at my side. Pepe, so
hairy and loud. Pina, so small but vicious.
When the boys who pestered me at school
walked by, I threatened to let the dogs out.

The boys laughed at my sudden courage.
Me, flanked by these nervous animals
whom I had not seen attack anyone.
Not even my uncle, the man who stuffed
their puppies in a sack. The log struck-
struck. And then the night grew quiet
without the whimpering. Pepe and Pina

became even angrier after that, barking
at passersby with such force, my mother
was certain that one of these days the dogs
would lunge from the roof and tear a body
apart. I began to imagine canine teeth
sinking into flesh. A fountain of blood
and a fountain of tears, cartoonish yet

horrifying, like Ojo Canica’s fake eye.
How at birthday parties he would grant
a boy’s wish and place the eye on top
of his slice of cake. The children cackled
while the old man looked sullen, resigned
to the truth that this was the only reason
he was ever invited. Oh, the aches of my

of childhood. Here is how to fill a dog
with pain—by clobbering its heart; here
is how to pluck a man’s dignity and
pretend it’s all in fun. And here is how
to tell the boy who made me touch
him that I like him too: with the hook
of my finger, I open the gate’s latch.

Rigoberto González

Rigoberto González

1. Why did you choose this work of art?
Rufino Tamayo was an artist from Oaxaca, one of my favorite places in Mexico. But his presence and influence are everywhere. Each time I come across one of his works, I’m filled with pride but also amazement that his paintings still dazzle me after all these years.

2. What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
Tamayo’s Animals captures the harm that people will do to each other in the name of fear, and love, and hunger. I reached back to my childhood memories to consider the earliest moments I discovered how one person can exert power over another, how one person’s power keeps the vulnerable even more so.

Rigoberto González is Distinguished Professor of English and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.