My Book of the Dead
By Ana Castillo
University of New Mexico Press
We are caught in a time of collective mourning, moving through yet another year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic even as the violence of structural racism continues to wreak havoc in the US and elsewhere. Even the season turns to grief, as we approach Halloween, Día de Los Muertos and All Souls’ Day, each one dedicated, in its own way, to honoring those who have left us. Ana Castillo’s fierce, elegiac My Book of the Dead steps without hesitation into this space of grief and fear and loss.
My Book of the Dead is divided into three parts, each of them bookended with what looks to be either an ink or a charcoal drawing, all created by Ana Castillo herself. (Castillo’s name as the artist does not appear anywhere in either the book or on the publisher’s website, which is an odd oversight both from a copyright and a creative standpoint.) The four drawings, elegant in their simplicity and far more complex than they may seem at first glance, add an additional layer to Castillo’s poems.
Three of the four drawings are of women, and remind me of that ancient triptych of maiden, mother, and crone, though they don’t appear to be quite so clean-cut. They are a young woman in a dress, a snake wrapped around her like a feather boa; a masked woman, young or middle-aged; and an older woman, fierce in profile, her cane its own declaration. The final illustration, meanwhile, looks to be a god, and fits a section that explores faith a bit more than the preceding two. The illustrations are fascinating, telling their own stories even as they compliment Castillo’s poetry.
The themes with which Castillo works in My Book of the Dead make themselves clear in its very first poem, “A Storm upon Us.” It reads almost as a warning cry as she links the devastation of the Earth with the devastation wrought by politicians preaching violence and hate, the danger of looking away: “We mourn. / 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. / Disaster has happened to someone else.” That reminder of disaster happening to someone else, of moving on and consuming more until it’s too late, plays throughout the rest of the poems in My Book of the Dead, a call to action. Don’t, Castillo seems to argue, look away. Don’t fall back into complacency because, this time, “Disaster has happened to someone else.”
Castillo was born and raised in Chicago, and the city’s neighborhoods and people move across the pages of My Book of the Dead, sometimes with beauty, sometimes carrying rage colored by grief. It’s impossible to read several of the poems here, particularly the heartbreaking “Homage to Akilah,” without thinking of Laquan McDonald or Adam Toledo, or of the ways in which disinvestment and inequity have been baked into Chicago’s funding models and policing strategies for generations. Castillo refuses to look away from the devastation of police brutality and gun violence, reminding us “The killing fields are everywhere— / under the viaduct or over the freeway / Chicago LA Detroit Denver.” One could argue that we’re all in it together, all of us caught in this web of violence—but, as Castillo makes clear, we aren’t all affected equally. Instead, this too is a product of our society’s structural racism.
My Book of the Dead moves seamlessly between grief and fury, elegy and call to action. It also, amidst the detritus of coloniality and gun violence, honors and celebrates the diversity and beauty of this country (and of the wider Americas). Seven poems appear in Spanish followed by English translation, two translated by Castillo herself, four by Castillo working with another poet (Sylvia Mullally, Tyehimba Jess, Julieta Corpus, and Sara Solaimani), and one by Solaimani alone. Each translation captures its original in rich and nuanced shades, translations both good and true. (They don’t always match up.)
Cultural threads run through the poems as well, from the lands of the dead to Walt Whitman and beyond. In “Click (Simple Present),” a love story of a poem in six parts, Castillo and her unnamed lover explore the arts of New York City, from the Met to the Jewish Museum and beyond. Castillo nods to the past as she looks to the present throughout My Book of the Dead, and “Click” is no different, though the tone might be a shade brighter: “One day we pay a visit / to the City of New York Museum. / both aptly dressed as Haymarket anarchists— / he in snappy newsboy cap, me a Steampunk hat.” While “Click” is clearly a (love) story told in poetry, it is hardly the only story Castillo tells here. And, even in this love story, the themes of environmental destruction and rising hate are an inescapable presence.
My Book of the Dead is a thorny book, furious and beautiful, elegiac even as it demands action. Castillo’s anguish and her fury is raw and righteous, and reading it, in the time of COVID and ongoing collective grief, can be both difficult and cathartic. Castillo doesn’t turn away from the world’s ugliness, and she refuses to sugarcoat the lived realities of communities of color. But, even as My Book of the Dead cries out for action and breaks its readers’ hearts, it is a work of great, elegiac beauty, a perfect companion for this season filled with days of the dead.
Updated with information on the artist, Ana Castillo