Gracing the cover of Jesús Castillo’s latest book Two Murals is a bi-sectioned black-and-white image: half a fingerprint merged with half a section of tree rings. Both signify the natural coding system for each of these organisms and are conjoined to suggest inherent connectedness. This symbiosis is the theme that underscores Two Murals: humans’ relationship and identity with nature–both the natural world and the natural (primal) self. Sustaining our environment is imperative to sustaining our literal survival and the very essence of humanity. Taking up the mantle of Eliot’s The Wasteland and Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Castillo’s two long poems, “Variations on Adonis” and “A Mural After Darwish”–part epic, part elegy, part testimony, part diatribe, part ode–present a sweeping catalog of ecocritical indictments against a first-world Empire whose insatiable consumerism and neoliberalism lay waste to the infrastructure of the environment and the vulnerable populations that rely on it. “Adonis” surveys the collateral damage inflicted upon a collective society, complemented by the focus in “Darwish” on the fragmented self. In both poems Castillo’s speaker negotiates daily living and a love affair against an urban backdrop that encroaches on his physical space and peace of mind. As a disillusioned judge in “Adonis” and as a spiritual wanderer reminiscent of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in “Darwish,” he longs for an existence within the natural state and the natural self, both in which he locates the inherent joy of being. Consequently, he issues a quiet plea to return to the natural world that will outlast the industrial one–even if such a return is only possible in death. Indeed, Castillo does not view Death as an enemy (even befriending and accompanying Death in “Darwish” as they attend a tour of the human theatre), but rather he castigates the industrialized havoc wreaked by “the plush side of the planet” upon the land, its populace, and the human soul.
“I will call this city a sad marionette / And call the continent’s shorelines roving wolves …” So opens “Variations on Adonis,” a twenty-two-page lyric indictment upon the American empire, where he signals danger with the reference of wolves, monsters, raids, a “netnerved sky,” “the corpse of a lake,” and the ever-pervasive presence of dehumanizing industrialization. He links Manhattan, the quintessential metropolis of America, to Lot’s Sodom and Gomorrah and to the bombed Hiroshima. “… the wasteland is still the same.” He directly addresses Walt Whitman, whose famous love for the city and appeal to unify the country contrasts Castillo’s own disenchantment. He is the opposite of Whitman, announcing his intent “to reclaim our differences. To cleave bridges, / to bathe the mutilated culture and sift / through the hemorraging inheritance it left us.” Defying the melting pot ideal whose assimilation equates to erasure, Castillo implicates Whitman’s scope for an audience by dividing the “We” between conquerors and the conquered. “We don’t need to ask forgiveness on Sundays. / There is no shame out here, in the porous world. / This borderless place build on bodies.” Castillo puts Mexico on trial here as well, indicting the statesmen who “sold our veins / to decorate their silverware,” thus recalling the bloody history and complicated cultural identity of Mexico. Whitman and the country he signifies are under stronger scrutiny: Castillo’s speaker sings the cities, his language like “a bag of stones/ casting echoes at the buildings.” In this seat of judgment, he surveys the invasion of the skies and the mind given over to screens:
To our dear Empire, I say: the spell of your history has faded.
Forget holidays and safety nets
and learn like your old frontiersmen to tread carefully
on the soil of a New World.
Later, he precisely catalogs the signposts of an affluent country that blindsides all others, targeting:
Your running water, your sports teams, your cancer treatments, your
personalized entertainment streams, libraries, co-ops, academies, pop
songs, your free speech, your space stations, satelittes, wide freeways
and clean coastal towns, your research labs, drones, Christmas Balls,
shopping sprees, cell towers, barbeques, your bright organic produce
aisles, your cotton shirts and tennis shoes, electric cars, your fitness
clubs, your museums: are these
the fruits of your chaos?
Conspicuous in his indictment is his inclusion of the progressive, whose existence (however self-proclaimed enlightened and empathetic) still relies on the luxuries from neoliberalism and gentrification that strip power and dignity from the less privileged. He takes to task the lessons that “this land was worth dying for, / worth the bloody mixing of the races” and rejects Whitman’s New York City in favor of Lorca’s by recounting slave markets, architecture and beauty “bought by missiles and signatures,” plastic in the gutters and the “rats in Mexico City and elsewhere, dressed in White House / cotton.” In the delirium of the States’ houses and urban camps, he “watched abundance destroy itself / and still we led everyday lives through the waste / and slaughter,” witnessing like Pound’s metro station speaker in “a train and a window / opened to the radiant day / any day / and I’ll not shy from life’s accounting.” Here, the speaker intuits the need for reckoning, the culpability of human activity, ignorance of which is a form of complacence. Dialoguing with Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War,” Castillo confesses:
As the air rotted we danced in our rooms.
So do not say: Poetry was a rose that became blood.
Say: Earth forces man to face man
and collects the accounts payable
from war’s entrails to sow the next day
where lovers are sleeping
while the sky storms its story.
It is to the Earth itself that Castillo insists we owe an explanation, an apology, but “How do we apologize to animals we drowned? /…/ How do we give a starfish its last taste of salt?” The speaker enters a symposium of grass juxtaposing a skyscraper, loves an apple tree that stands between highways. It is in the crowded landscape of buses and city lights where the body succumbs to terrors and laborers to dreams, where a child–the last remnant of innocence– “wandered, pure as violence, / in the music of sped-up days.” He asks of the Empire, “Are you civilization’s slow grenade?” and of its audience, “Who is there to shake the First World? / To pierce its excess and boredom?”
Castillo offers us a remedy. He reminds us of how fleeting human existence is. “… my body a chariot searching / for its immortality before the Earth / claims it for its musk and its trees’ seeds.” A singular life is evanescent: love will prevail, “even in the midst of wars / when love flooded towns and birthed generations.” Life is nebulous and shape-shifting, fraught with potential however undermined by the violence of war and greed. In “A Mural After Darwish” the speaker invites us into evocative intimacy with an unnamed lover. They sit in a cafe in Mexico City, they reach for each other in a rainfall. He lets go of language, of time, sometimes speaking like a prophet describing the last days of Earth, sometimes whispering conversations with other poets. He subverts Darwish’s position on not inquiring after the self with his refrain to himself: Who are you? And he confesses, “My self is a bounded mess.” There is accountability, one which the speaker absolves himself by not claiming ownership (and thus obligation) to anything, but instead considers the multiple identities as naturalist, hedonist, teacher, potential father, poet, adventurer who invites Death to sit and drink with him. He likens the sweet succumbing to death to the sugar cubes dissolving in tea. The joys of life he likens to summer and urges both reader and self:
Tend to it well.
Don’t just wander from shelter to shelter.
The summer air is made for those in love with lingering,
those who know health is not a goal but a means.
While he urges his imagination to persist, he looks to his life, this moment, as enough–to live fully without the dread of death. He asks ultimately, not for a reckoning, but for a recording, to remember the light on his skin, a loved one’s hair, the spellbound dream that interweaves these two poems as the speaker emerges and resumes life: “All I want is a continual re-making of the world.”
Two Murals, by Jesús Castillo. Brooklyn, New York: The Song Cave. 100 pages. $18.95, paper.
Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.