Jesus Castillo’s first full-length poetry collection, Remains (McSweeney’s, 2016), is a stark collage of voice, nature and the breakdown of culture. Castillo successfully paints a world in which “the bombs had fallen with the majesty / of gods shitting (48).” The poems have a modernist, dystopian feel to them, and yet the speaker’s voice remains strong throughout. Castillo puts his solitary voice in conversation with a collective voice, creating layers of consciousness and philosophical thought.
Remains is made up of a series of small poems split up into six sections. Each poem reads like a mini journal entry which gives it an intimate quality even as the collective voices running through this book are so expansive. Each poem is packed with nature images, personal statements, and philosophical musings. Even the most simplistic declarations glow with insight when the speaker proclaims: “Aren’t we all / just doing our jobs?” or “I just want to be left alone sometimes” (8, 46). Variation also occurs through the use of repetition, caesura, and line fragments. For the reader, these changes are much appreciated as a contrast to the default paragraph-like, narrative style:
Figments apertures smallness
infractions Under the desert Here we make
our home skylights In sleep skipping
our eyes again (30)
Castillo gives the reader another lens to view the anxiety and disjointed landscape of this disrupted world where a more cohesive perspective is not possible.
The poems in Remains light up the most when the lines hold the strongest rhetorical tension. Castillo has a bounty of rhetorical gifts, so many that it would be impossible to comment on all of them. Castillo’s best moments occur in the sections that depart from the solitary narrative voice:
A hinge turning in a stranger’s life. A friend walking
toward you in a crowded room. A sound like a sketch.
A blank drawn. An awkward moment in conversation.
A letter in the mail. A mode of transport. A set
of excuses. A distance. A pain in your left temple.
A finite dream. A slip of the senses. A closed lid.
A garden fountain. A fear vector. A need
to be addressed. A need for sound. A brown lawn.
A sky littered with faded jet trails (5).
Castillo attempts to bring order to chaos in this particular list of images while at the same time interrupting the steady narrative rhythm of the book. The mixture of abstract feeling/sounds/images in this passage escalates with “A fear vector. A need / to be addressed. A need for sound” but then dissolves with the last two images (“A brown lawn. / A sky littered with faded jet trails”) that leave both the speaker and the reader to make sense of the aftermath of the decay and violence that has occurred.
Castillo is also great at playing with surrealistic images. He sprinkles them all through Remains. The most prominent section includes a series of images involving limbs:
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 (8).
This section’s success hinges on letting the reader picture the war-like, dystopian energy that surges beneath the surface of the book. There is a feeling that something horribly violent has happened to the modern world, but there are no specific details given. Instead, the reader is presented with morbidly artistic images and is expected to connect the dots. Each poem is a highly-compacted little puzzle without a single tangible solution.
Remains could benefit from multiple analyses; Castillo is a renaissance man when it comes to rhetorical variations. He’s a master of contradiction: “To retrain the eye we close it. / To start again we make our way through mounds / of garbage” (7). Remains is a philosopher’s paradise where musings are so plentiful they are like fruit bursting from trees: “Is it possible to get rid of time by refusing / to make machines?” (12). And this image is hauntingly radical: “If you liked the slow sex of winter, you will / love these dead flags flapping in the sunset (27)”
Castillo doesn’t just focus on fragmented destruction. The book also demonstrates the way narrative defiantly moves forward, but it’s about more than just survival skills; it’s an assertion of life that focuses on youth: “Your children are pulling guns on everyone because they / have to…Your children / can be found under the rocket’s light, making love to fight music, / giving each other a thousand new names and taking them off again / gently, like earrings (62).” Renaming of life is wild and inevitable, even in the most toxic situations. It adds another note of tension to the book:
When the bridges folded, we sought solace in the words
of our past minds, found ways to praise ourselves,
aware we were nonetheless falling apart.
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… (73)
And yet, Castillo complicates this idea further by introducing a nihilistic god:
And once it was finished, he turned himself
into a small brown cricket, and set himself down
on a patch of grass, to live and die in his creation,
having made himself forget he ever made anything (76).
This kind of recreation vs. nihilism is what makes Remains so thought-provoking and complex. According to the world Castillo has set up, humanity continually asserts itself in resistance to a god that wants to fade out of existence.
Remains is a riveting first book that is best read a little bit at a time, the kind of book that should be savored and mused over. It’s full of fragmented, dystopian energy, but it also insists on the renaming of life through narrative techniques, promising the reader that there will always be “clearings in the forest only the lost / can find” (80).
Originally published in New Orleans Review, 2016