Ana CastilloOct 25, 2021
My Book of the Dead
University of New Mexico Press 2021
“My poetry captures a moment,” remarked Dr. Castillo when asked about the process of writing her most recent collection of poems My Book of the Dead: New Poems (University of New Mexico Press, 2021). While many of us would be immobile at the news about the effects of climate disaster, school shootings, and anti-black racism which often resulted in extralegal violence, Ana Castillo reached for pen and paper. She processed these events through writing carefully, intentionally, and vividly about the world which gave rise to these catastrophes. She forces us to feel that moment with her – confusion, anger, grief. My Book of the Dead is the result of Ana’s mourning turned artistic bodily expression.
Each poem offers a snapshot in response to personal and national tragedies. Ana mourns loss at all levels – from the passing of artist friends she danced with to the national news of slain schoolchildren. “You hear of his death by the virus and // it all comes back – // meeting in Chicago, // celebrating his first novel, // dancing to a sweat together in New Orleans,” Ana writes in “Hache ¡Presente!” (8). Eight pages later she launches into an exhaustive yet incomplete list of mass shootings in the United States between 2016 and 2019. “+ Plus más – // domestic violence // deaths // at the hands // of someone that loved you, // loved your baby, // mother, // the neighbor upstairs who came running,” Dr. Castillo writes in “Mass Shooting (2016 to 2019 and Counting” (16-23). Sixty-three incidents of mass shootings span eight pages, each indicating the number of deaths in bold. These two poems sit alongside poems about anti-Black racism, police violence, and the threat to Democracy posed by the Trump administration.
Dr. Castillo’s My Book of the Dead also carries with it a sense of urgency about the future of the United States. By connecting the relationship between domestic terrorism (i.e., mass shootings and anti-Black racism) and the imperial violence inflicted across the world by the U.S. through bombs and other warfare, Ana takes to task the history and the present U.S. In “Xicanisma Prophecies Post 2012: Putin’s Puppet,” Ana writes, “Putin’s Puppet sees color and it revolts him. // Blacks belong in Africa, he opines, and Muslims must stay in the Mid-East. // Mexicans are the scourge. // Like with his father, // his father before him, and so on. Darker races serve their purpose – // servitude or genocide. // As for women – // you kill a rhino for sport or for its horns. // (A woman is worthwhile only if she enhances your status.)” (80). In several poems such as “Gotas caían en el techo” (31), “A Storm Upon Us” (3), and How to Tell You Are Living under Rising Fascism (A Basic Primer in Progress)” (41), she indicts the Trump Administration for advancing white supremacy, their attacks on history, and their denial of science. Ana is insistent about calling out every aspect of exactly how the rights of people of color, the elderly, and women are continuously being restricted. She is particularly focused on the plight of mothers.
The centrality of motherhood is reflected multiple times throughout My Book of the Dead. Both at the scale of the individual, such is the case in the poem “Homage to Akilah” (25-28), and at the scale of the planetary, such as in “By the end of the Twenty-First Century When” (90-92) or “A Amazônia está queimando” (93-95), Ana forces us to reflect on the role of mothers, motherhood, and care work. In the poem “If I Pray,” which Ana wrote the moments after she first heard of the murder of Trayvon Martin, she writes, “As happened with any child’s loss, the earth ceased to rotate, // I said a prayer for all mothers’ children, for my own, for myself” (24). Ana reflects on her own experience of raising a child of color who could just as easily be stereotyped, followed, and murdered. The racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist society which we inhabit comes to rear its ugly head at the desk of our children. The surveillance and policing of children of color have grave consequences for them and their mothers. “Why // does the world not long for him [Ana’s son] as I? God made us strong, this thing // called mother,” she writes in a poem titled “When Snow Turns to Rain and It Is Still Winter” (15). She forces us to ask: How do we take better care of children, mothers, and Mother Earth at a moment in which all are under attack? Ana’s book dedication reads, “In memory of the dead, and to all the survivors, including our beloved Mother Earth. May the gods heed our prayers.”
Still, Ana offers hope. In her final poem, which holds the same name as the book, Ana takes us on a journey through her ancestral Underworld. Here she reflects on her own mortality, fears, and sadness as she interacts with various Native American deities. Eventually, Ana returns. “I rode a mule at one point, // glided like a feather in air at another, // ever drifting towards // my son, // the granddaughter of copper hair, // sound of a pounding drum – // we found you there, my love, // waiting by the shore, // our return” (111). My Book of the Dead includes forty-eight poems over one hundred and fifteen pages. The book is a meditation of the Trump Administration as well as of our current moment. Where will we go as a society? Will we continue with the violence that currently pervades our everyday lives? Dr. Ana Castillo’s writing forces us to confront the world we’ve made and allows us to choose where we go next. My Book of the Dead should be read broadly by anyone seeking to critically reflect on the loss and life that has occurred over the past six years.
Jonathan Cortez is currently the 2021-2023 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @joncortz