Book Review: Remains by Jesús Castillo

remainsRemains by Jesús Castillo

McSweeney’s, 2016, $20

Reviewed by Daniel Simonds

Amid Jesús Castillo’s book-length serialization, Remains, the poet asks of his ever expanding domain: “Do I sit before the question now or later?”  That “question,” among others in a series, is the non sequitur rhetoric of the virtually episodic—an in medias res reference to the modern implausibility of having a legitimized corporality or not: “Will this/ new touchscreen help me hide my body?”

By a series of “hinge turnings,” the ubiquity of the what’s on your mind? question at the top of our newsfeeds both disquiets and sooths as it documents or subsequently deletes. The implications of such a prepositive meta-sphere both obscures and peels back the minds’ overlaid face, prioritizing, at least ostensibly, that which is in the mind, or that, as the poets say, is on the inside; this universal tactic is disingenuously endearing in this way. It both exposes and hides those who really think they are included as they answer: “I never had control/ to begin with, over the patterns of the day or the/ movement of bodies,” whether their own or others. (italics mine). Thus, the serialized interrogations of what’s on one’s  mind threatens to become a “country of masks… a country that slaughters precisely, clean of hands,” by way of disembodied thumbs. While “Screens” and “Televisions” tend to play as much a part in the recording of today’s epic as the myriad “sidewalks” and “parking lots,” both of these transient non-spaces can work to give oneself or others away; Their nearly unscreened openness of one’s serialized “colors” can save or help destroy you as others reveal “you.”

Hence, Castillo’s migrating voices strive to be informed by their own serialization: Each room of sorts, (usually three rooms per page, until it opens into a “set of margins”), forms the stanzaic dimensions of a “touchscreen,” consciously or not; each stanza is a daily screenshot of the contiguously assimilating mind. Each is a precarious safeguarding of his ongoing heritage, as if bursts of “glimpses” at “the border…full/ of armored faces.” In this way, driven from “room” to room or stanza to stanza, by a familial history of transmigration, such a record becomes a kind of residual meta tissue, that which is transferred from “wall to wall,” even as one’s natural memories reemerge in the epical push for more than a virtually conjunctive space. The poet’s raison d’etrê here for a serial mode of craftsmanship is to keep afloat the basic essence of one’s being—without too much attenuation, through laws of (in)completion—as one enters or exits “Each room [that] has a different way of returning sound.” In order to work both of these gadgets, as it were—memory and live data, which is which one has to ask too often—Castillo is logistically able to keep his sense of shape and language by strategically weaving both of these into a serial versification that accumulates to something more concrete than a mere post, since the latter can be only be relayed as a short-circuited, if impetus-rich, marker for storytelling. And so, as one migrates across such changing landscapes, those sonic “borderlines” of the typographic, topographical, and temporal, with such an integrated method—one just “might” be able to “fill you past/ completion, give you music as you step into a crowd, make you borderless…” Such an ontological methodology both stores and develops metaphorical information for what are initially, in their original states, technologically unsound carriers of transmigration.

Aged eleven, Castillo travelled with his family and sister from San Luis Potosí, “Where I’d catch dragonflies by their tails,” to California, where the “rooftops” and the “precision of machines” formed the ends and means “of brittle language.” Once settled, economically much better off than before, news cycles kept arriving as if a chorus threatening to replace his journey’s narration(s), bothering the poet’s family, and threatening to disarray their daily interior recording of their minds as each tried to behold the new language at hand. Which collective narrative would win out, crush the other by anything less than the sum of its parts; or could these audible and visible aforementioned strains ever emerge to recognize each other cohesively? Castillo seems to respond to the latter and take issue with reductive former: in that he channels “air waves” of external devastation into his serial stanzas, those which are always singularly on the verge of becoming personal “touchscreens,” so as to become paradoxically “unhooked” from—but simultaneously one with—the collective data splurge.

And so, the question remains: How does a present day narrator compete against or alongside the modern tools of the data dumping epic? Does the narrator act singularly or preserve himself through multiplicity? How does the epic poet, his heritage and identity, as well as his words, not vanish wholly into its own web, the poet’s history of early poverty and adversity not pushed aside for progress, just as the original storytellers were usurped by the blind progressions of the traditional epic? Well, for one, he works in a mode both ancient, homespun—and at times outsourced—so as to be serially resurfaced. He creates a serial projection which could be distilled into “A word meaning international disclosure of a private/ history.” In other words, once said stanzas or screens can be made to be seen at a remove—only then can any synesthetic of modern habits become strangely permissible: “Writing notes on my arm,/ to have the feeling of flesh in motion.” The “Remains” or byproducts of memory are transferred or sent across via death-defying metaphysical “bursts” of imagery that evoke the expanding relationship between the physical and virtual inputs and outputs of the immigration experience. From “Amusement booths that simulate a hurricane,/ $2,” to where  

“The symphony lifts you up, out of the city, and never/ drops you in the same place it found you,/ but lower down, somewhere deep and unfinished.” (30)

Thus, there is still plenty of depth here for a corporeal poetics, which arrives out of the blue from elsewhere, if still in the realm of the politically inclined, “colorful,” push notification:

“In a faraway regime, new radicals stand on rooftops/ and signal to each other with colorful scarves. From the air/ the drones capture the rustle of cloth that covers/ the country. Is this the genesis of art? Not revolution/ but the need for solace?”

Consciously or otherwise, by collecting the serial liminalities of our minds, by scraping and scarping the data of decades-old dura mater for the feeling of locating a trans-navigated terra incognita, here the poet is paradoxically enacting an onward reversal, a simultaneous return sender and “sending” forth of the sources of one’s past for future assimilations of sound, body and mind. And “Before its

Over, you’re allowed to steal an interaction.
To say goodbye to a friend as she walks out the door,
drops her keys, reaches down for them. Her glasses
sliding off, hitting the tile and shattering. To see her die
in the collective dream. To bear witness as she stops providing data.
That I can tie you down and undo your buttons,
that you can dismiss me with a simple sound. (23)

One epiphenomenon, the actual “sound” of the virtual, must inform the other, more traditional blocked point of access, i.e. the dropped “keys” and vice versa. It hurts to be dismissed or shut off by someone either way, keyless or not, but momentarily removed from one, the other often becomes the only viable, if bearably sane option, begging the question: “Did we fail these/ spaces?”  Perhaps not, this poet thinks, if the “The methods of transmission are as complex/ as the message.” There is a hidden empathy inherent in the ritualistically physiological return to the duplicative medium or the serially-connected screenshots—the sheer replicative recognition of that previous handheld “jolt of need,” even if one decides:  

“Here the only option is to start/ forgetting everything. On the rooftops of the city,/ we look up and write the stars down in our tablets, renaming each of them at whim. Only impulse/ can save us.”

The “renaming each of them at whim” is an allusion to the epic tragedy of the diaspora, the free will that comes with enlivening or obscuring another’s identity with a whimsical processual—instead of discrete or case by case—intentions; the elemental renaming of “stars” is a metaphorical gesture for combating such an emotional experience. If such a technique can be criticized for its obliqueness to the “actual” story, this is the flaw of the immersive serial epic; and yet, the stories of transmigration in all their uncomfortable associations are sadly (surprisingly so) related in theme to those whom were swiped left or right on, doomed to be less than “goodbyes/ like digital animals in dying clothes.” This is the modern ingeniousness of the tone and content of Remains.

At the same time, his sounds are prophetically formed by ancient channels of (un)documented sound, unlost in “broken time.” Thus, the bard is holding onto the detritus—from dētēro, rubbed away—by an amassing of that which the traditional epic has discarded, i.e. the speaker(s) identities or stories themselves: the epos or voice(s) at the root of epic are its enduring strain(s), as “Time/ stretches itself to accommodate our brand new minds.” His series continues stretching itself: “My friends and I wanted some way/ to see our wreckage as material for a world,” which is to say to make a poem that repurposes its form and content into a more accessible, if not documented, set of identities; i.e. those who texted their families before or during the moment of dying. Thus, Castillo works as Rilke sings, to “be brought back from stone/ into life redeemed”

Standing over the well, he tries to picture the stones
he has thrown in the dark. Their impacts bounce up
from wall to wall, out into the open air where his ears wait.
When the villagers walk by and see him there
alone in the clearing, leaning forward, gaze fixed
on the spot where earth has opened,
some put down their loads and watch for minute
while they rest. Those who venture to ask why he’s there
are always given the same answer. I once had a field of dandelions,
he tells them. And then centuries of human death fell upon it.
It was next to this big green sea, where the severed head of Orpheus
Floated by each morning with its song

One wonders if the “Big green sea” is referent to the Pacific Ocean or some giant green screen in a dark warehouse of oracular data, a simultaneously virtual and actual template for the buoyant relocations of once drowned-out sound and image? Remains’ technique of serialization is a counterintuitively bilateral conveyor belt or river of the current “day’s remnants,” and it accesses and assumes that capably negative detritus or “waste,” that “logic of mistakes.”  Castillo’s is “the kindness of looking away from the broken parts that hint at something/ broken,” which means the mode of conveyance will allow you to move around in its images across time without being drowned by forward progress. Thus, Castillo is able to move across thresholds of space in a Whitmanic, electrically limb-like manner, as “was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?”

Limbs bursting through bolted doors. Limbs marching
through a crowded room. Limbs dancing to the pull
of unhinged minds. Limbs lying. Limbs contracting
in pleasure. Limbs with newspapers. Limbs
at the border between madness and boredom.
Limbs free from thirst. Limbs falling out of broken time
slots. Limbs seated in neat, cushioned rows. Mute
limbs. Limbs moving in tandem with the ground’s
vibrations. Limbs discarded on a Sunday morning. Limbs
meeting silently for dinner.

The poet’s response to the silence from those who can’t afford smart phones as they cross into dangerous migrations is to find a form of elasticity, a “drifting” quality which upends the tones and lenses of the traditional epic, logging more than the latter’s fearsome onslaught. Castillo’s prosody is more kaleidoscopic, “fed by glimpses into small windows,” and therefore subversively controlled in his seeming arbitrariness, with more layers of light adding to its exposure for a record that is a “taking stock” of the lives of the poorer people, those swept aside by the bygone epic; it retains the form’s tone of the prophetic, but this time one of disillusionment from the (in)ability for most people to tell their own stories of failure and for whom the corrective lenses and outlets may never overlap with a byline or a handheld newsfeed:

“No one goes into a cave lightly, even to hide. Mighty/ are the numbers drifting out there. Try turning off the lights/ and paint what you remember. Paint the wall of screens/ that caught you…What remains are not stories/ but moments of color that stain.”

Castillo has noted: “I was born and spent my first few years in the city of Valles, which is a small industrial city towards the eastern part of the state:”

A short walk from my grandmother’s farm
There was a waterfall. I remember my mother could
Dive from the top of it into the pool below and
Somehow survive, intact and smiling, every time.
From the pool itself, I watched amazed, my arms
Wrapped around the inner tube of a large tractor
Tire, my only guarantee of buoyancy. (78)

Today’s sense of buoyancy is a phone, whether crossing the sea in an inner tube or the average person trying to connect to their precious mobility, or the close-up, pre-phone selfie made afresh: “I stared…and thought of my grandmother with her lonely face,/ climbing wooden ladders in the sierras/ and tending her chickens.”

Castillo’s “gaze” finds itself mining elegiac data for an unhidden “place with enough memory to store our lives’ echoes/ thus far,” where storage is more than what is bought on a smart phone.  

These are successive stanzas peopled by those “who keep building/even as skin flakes off our hands.” But what if somewhere along the assembled, dissembled line “To arrive at our own absence/ we [decided] upon a new name?” Castillo combats the unrecorded, untitled disappearances of his own delineate “limbs” and lines by arming each unnamed narrator “with our own camera, our own flash/ [containing] its negation like a coin.” His stanzas, like mini-cameras, drift resonantly into each other, oozing into each other like Hopkins shook foil that gathers to a greatness until it is crushed into a byproduct that is nevertheless never entirely spent or dissolved. Any blind spots are mostly counteracted and redeemed by an inverse questioning of every object that is “digitally” intermixed deep within the “dark” of the poets own deeply subconscious vibrations or stone-sounded “wells” of electrically aligned empathy.

As the poet chooses to cross borders via “memories of touch and go,” “curious for a last form of listening,” in order to rescue pieces of the subconscious once set aside for a semblance of upward mobility; these pieces are “constantly shifting shapes,” which, contrary to current popular opinion in nihilistic poetics, can be somewhat recovered, if with an ironic awareness of what it means to physically and psychologically carry across so much that is labeled to “last”:

Everything I wagered would last, I placed in the suitcase.
Everything I wagered would last at least until my
fortunes were again proven wrong. Most photographs
I took for the purpose of breaking my own heart later.
The convoys that passed us on our way to the border
were full of armored faces. There were eyes
behind glass and machine guns held in relaxed fashion.
Smile and wave to the feeling of impermanence.
Halfway through the drive we turned the steering wheel inland
to see where a strange dirt path led.

Castillo and his passengers/audience intuit that turning the wheel “inland” is synonymous with “inward.” To me, however, these lines’ resonances are epically geared toward both a literal and metaphysical interpretation of the transmigrational condition. They will help people “forget about shame and the rules that it stands on.” Which is to say the unsayable: That if a giant wall were indeed erected, these voices would be inside, outside, on top of, and dismantling and repurposing it “wall to wall,” into the open air for all eyes to see that “the terror of freedom” is an adjacent “sort of comfort.”


Daniel Simonds is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Simonds is currently at work on a series of stories about Winslow Homer  and the Civil War. He lives in Massachusetts.

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