My 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.
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,
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.
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,
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.