Poetry as catharsis

by Rhonda Brittan | December 1, 2021
5 min read

My Book of the Dead CoverMy Book of the Dead: New Poems by Ana Castillo, High Road Books, University of New Mexico Press, 111 pages, hardcover and ebook $24.95

This small volume of poetry reveals its author to be a woman of unfettered passions and ideals, unafraid of exposing herself to a troublesome but beautiful world. One reviewer says that Ana Castillo is “one of the most significant figures of modern Mexican-American literature.”

Castillo was born in 1953 in Chicago, the birthplace of her Mexican-American father. Her mother was Mexican-Indian, and Castillo’s rich heritage is reflected in the many mythological references in the book associated with Mexico’s Indigenous cultures. Invocations of such storied places and personages as Quetzaltenango, Iztaccihuatl and Coyolxauhqui lend a spiritual quality to her writing.

This prodigious writer—the author of five novels and at least that many poetry collections—has a master of arts degree in Latin American studies from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D from the University of Bremen, Germany, and an honorary degree from Colby College, among many other achievements. For her first novel, “The Mixquiahuala Letters,” Castillo received a 1987 American Book Award.

After leaving academia in the 1990s, she began to write full time. Her ideas were shaped by radical Chicano thought of the 1970s. Now regarded as one of the leading interpreters of the Chicana experience, she says: “It was not at all premeditated. I just started writing, and it got out of hand.” Castillo currently lives in southern New Mexico, where she is working on a collection of stories and a novel.

Portrait of Ana Castillo
Ana Castillo, a leading interpreter of the Chicana experience, now living in southern New Mexico  Photograph courtesy of the author

The author, who began drawing as a child, illustrates “The Book of the Dead” with five stark pen and ink sketches, deeply augmenting the poems. The first image presented is of a woman who appears to be wearing a dress with a beautifully patterned bodice, which on closer viewing turns out to be a snake. The woman is fearlessly facing inevitable death.

Another illustration is of a woman wearing a protective mask, but it seems to be silencing her and hiding her true self. How strange it is that people are getting used to seeing each other restricted in this way.

Castillo’s poems speak of the strife of having a despicable president, insomnia, ignoring the pain of others, same-sex love, the death of a loved one, climate change and gun violence. Poetry is cathartic for Castillo, and she takes the reader through intense insights of injustices and deaths, loves and losses, making a few of her poems so difficult to read that the reader may need to pause to draw a breath. By confronting death, the poet imparts a universal perspective on these highly personalized topics.

Yet Castillo also has an appreciation of the mundane, which comes to light in “What Is Your Writing Process.”

With mop in one hand,
cocktail in the other,
at 9:00 am or night,
flies swatted,
roach corpses swept
Lola Beltran belts “Mi ranchito”
through house speakers
from room to room.
I hum off key.
Mares fed, dogs let out,
sun beating on the flat roof,
moon rising behind a cloud—
verses take form.

Castillo suffers from insomnia.  One sleepless night she writes down her thoughts in a notebook by the bed.

. . . one thought comes after the next.
Phrases look like trees,
words have wings,
thoughts, webbed feet.
I’m writing in hi-er-o-glyph-ics,
a new language even I’ll have to decipher.
“Keep going” something urges.
“Nothing’s kept you quiet thus far.
Not then, not now, most likely not even from the grave.”

In “Tell Me to Live for Something,” the author begs her readers not to be ignorant of the world’s dilemmas:

Tell me love, new friend,
why you think we, meaning all,
shouldn’t find out what is in motion,
not an onslaught of indifference?

“Hache ¡Presente!” tells the reader of the loss of a dear friend, and how painful it was to not be allowed to have a funeral due to the virus that killed him. At the end of this poem, Castillo bids the reader to accept death without fear or sorrow.

A Castillo illustration
Castillo, who began sketching as a child, provides her own complex and haunting illustrations for this addictive collection. Drawing copyright © by Ana Castillo

Don’t be alarmed
if you spy a phantom tonight
moving merengue-smooth in the rain outside the window.
It’s your friend come to say good-bye,
Hache ¡Presente!

Having a Spanish dictionary handy is recommended if you lack a casual knowledge of Spanish, as the occasional Spanish word or phrase appears in many poems. Several poems are written solely in Spanish, but these all have her own English translations following them.

This addictive collection is as fascinating and tortured as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Readers will find themselves returning to these poems to traverse the breadth and depth of human experience as seen from the perspective of this gifted writer.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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