When you Google “Ana Castillo” the predictive search algorithms prompt you first to select “Ana Castillo, novelist.” That, no doubt, is because Castillo is widely known and admired for her beautiful, complicated longer fiction, particularly the passionate “Peel My Love Like an Onion” (1999), a Chicago story about a disabled Chicana flamenco dancer at a crossroads far from her glorious youth as a famed artist. Also: “So Far From God” (1993), “The Guardians” (2007) and “Give It to Me” (2014). It’s likely her five novels register because they received the most attention. Her first novel, “The Mixquiahuala Letters” (1986), won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. “So Far from God” earned widespread praise, including a New York Times Notable Book of the Year citation and a rave by Barbara Kingsolver in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
It’s also likely that the robots just don’t know what to do with Castillo. She is impossible to label, tag or reduce. Feminist. Scholar. Chicana. Indian. Activist. Eroticist. Her work has been linked to a host of literary schools, including post-modernism and magical realism. Essayist, novelist, poet, playwright. Several of her books have been banned. Who knows, right?
Ask Castillo, though, and she might say, “Poet.” The Chicago native’s new title, “My Book of the Dead,” is her fifth poetry collection, following well-received offerings such as “My Father Was a Toltec” (1995) and “I Ask the Impossible” (2001).
“My Book of the Dead” is, as the title suggests, a meditation on mortality, but not only the lifespan of human beings but of the Earth itself. Death looms over all life, a fact that manifests itself in these poems as a call to action. Trayvon Martin is among the dead, murdered walking home from a convenience store. Novelist Hache Carrillo is one of the dead, too, a victim of the COVID virus. Of course, most of the dead are unrecognizable to all but a few, like Akilah in “Homage to Akilah,” a teacher and mother whose passing is no less mournful because the public at large didn’t notice.
There is urgency in these forty-eight poems, divided into three sections. In Castillo’s poetic landscape, the storm is not on the horizon, we are standing in its eye, taking on wind and water. She writes in “These Times,” that “…earth lashes back like the trickster Tezcatlipoca, / without forgiveness if we won’t turn around, start again, / say aloud: This was a mistake.” It’s assumed that global warming is the unnamed culprit, but not only that. Implied or called out in this and other poems are greed, selfishness, bigotry and carelessness, character blemishes that reverberate through every tiny community until they threaten to overtake humanity.
The opening poem, “A Storm Upon Us,” recognizes complacency—in a world filled with tragedy, those who sidestep it continue unshaken until the inevitable disaster strikes home. “We start again. It could have been you or me, we say, dying / in public beneath a baton’s blows falling amid the spray of a sniper’s / bullets / but it wasn’t. We go on.” That poem is dedicated to the memory of writer-musician-activist John Trudell, and sets the tone for a collection in which the dead and the living commingle.
The tone of these poems is somber, a voice near the end and not always certain there is reason to hang on. There is little nostalgia, but many hard facts: loved ones sick or dead, whole populations in turmoil, rulers ruthless and the helpless preyed upon, the planet neglected. In fact, “Mass Shootings (2016 to 2019 and Counting)” simply indexes the statistics, eight pages that amount to a poem in name only, that is really there to make a statement on the world as it is versus the world as we choose to see it.
In “Tell Me to Live for Something,” the second poem, the narrator pleads, “Tell me, love, new friend, / why you think we, meaning all, / shouldn’t find what is in motion, / not an onslaught of indifference?” The poem asks a difficult question and at the same time teases some sort of answer. But this expansive metaphysical rumination defies simple explanation.
Mysticism underlies or at least informs much of the collection. That the dead enjoy or suffer an afterlife, or return as spirits or reincarnations, serves not as theology but more a sense of the world as a place only as good as its past lives. The blurred lines between literal and metaphorical shape a discussion in which we must acknowledge our existence as meaningful to humanity. More so, people continue to be present even after death, as in the humorous poem “Two Men and Me,” in which the narrator engages in a “three-way poem” with notorious misogynist writers Charles Bukowski and Roberto Bolaño.
Of course, not every poem in this collection bends to the central concern—nearly a decade in the making, this collection pulls strands from a range of historical, cultural and personal moments. Maybe the three-way poem is merely a playful reflection on the literary life, as is “What Is Your Writing Process?” Other poems, like “Fun House of Muted Desires” explore sexuality in a way that connects to a very prime-of-life moment, but in its surreal rendering still makes us sweat the implications of cause and effect in a larger context. Many of the poems, like “Whitman,” feature the dead in action rather than repose.
There are seven Spanish poems, all appearing alongside English translations. These serve to highlight language; their musicality and nuance celebrate rather than reject the global “we.” Their inclusion speaks more broadly to Castillo’s sincere and relentless quest to not only include but connect diverse cultures and people; in these poems, there is no life or death inherently greater than another.
The title poem comes last, a Biblical ten-part narrative that ruminates on the challenges to the human spirit and humankind, beginning with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, a moment compared to ancient ruling classes who used and discarded everyone and everything to benefit the elite. In Castillo’s treatment, the poor and weak are disadvantaged, but not powerless, in need of help but not helpless.
This poetry collection resonates like life itself, hardships piling on top of one another, a weariness that becomes harder to overcome, a zigging and zagging that isn’t part of any plan but just the way things play out. Each piece belongs to the other, which belongs to the next, some, like “Mass Shootings” and “Drops Fell on the Roof” explicitly so, others, like “Reflections” and “On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Black Panther Party” sinewy in their fit.
Maybe it’s impossible to label Castillo not because she is one thing and then another, but all things at once. This collection is consistent with her life’s work as a woman thoughtfully defying conventions and in no mood to forgive all the thoughtless choices wrecking the world.
“My Book of the Dead: New Poems”
By Ana Castillo
University of New Mexico Press, 144 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.