I Ask the Impossible, by Ana Castillo (Anchor Books). Paper, $12.
There is a tiny window of time, on the river, dusk, at the end of the day, when both bird and fish go after the same fly. I could build this metaphor either way, but let's say the bird is a novelist, riding the currents of plot and scene as it spots and then swoops down upon its prey. Our fish, dear fish, will be a poet--swimming the depths of lyric meditation, or confession, or even the depths of joy, whatever, then rising, rising, always hungry, intent on breaking the surface to have its way. The fly, of course, is what they want, what everyone wants: a human moment. I suppose there are other animals that want the fly also--dancers, sculptors, painters, composers--but that would make this all too complicated. Bird gets the fly in its bird way. Fish gets the fly in its fish way. Enough said, right? Maybe not.
There's this fish: He wants the fly but he doesn't want it in the fish way. He throws himself into the air, shimmery and breathless, hovering above the only atmosphere he knows will love him, if only for the sheer, desperate, temporary thrill of freedom from the water's grasp, and in that weightless click of time between the rise and fall, the leap and heft and tumbling back, makes a place for himself in pearly light on the wrong side of the water line. This fish is pretty cool, right? Now imagine what would be possible if this fish could fly.
Somehow, both Russell Edson and Ana Castillo have grown wings.
The Tunnel: Selected Poems is not a new book. Though printed in 1994 (not that long ago, really) it includes poems that were first published 30 years prior. And yet, this book is still terrifyingly, hysterically drop-dead stunning. No one writes like this. Or, more accurately, everyone who writes like this sounds like Russell Edson. Celebrated iconoclast, literary curmudgeon and inarguably the foremost writer of prose poetry in America, Edson revels in the liminal area where parable and poetry overlap.
"Poetry and fiction are two sides of the same coin. But neither succeeds without being something of the other," Edson proclaimed in a 1999 interview with Peter Johnson. "Pure poetry, for instance, is silence. It was fiction that taught poetry to speak." And speak it does, especially in Edson's hands. He's also got a creepy sense of humor.
The poems in The Tunnel are written in paragraphs and appear, on the page, deceptively short. Though very few poems are more than one page long, the distance traveled from beginning to end is, well, spooky. Not meditative poems per se, these pieces are the shapes of thoughts, relying more on gesture and sign than on reality and meaning. Full of odd happenings and swift shifts in tone and point of view, and replete with ordinary nouns turned just enough to make them new and strange, these 171 entertainments, culled from seven books, take hours longer to contemplate than to read.
Ana Castillo is no stranger to hybrids, either. Winning an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, Castillo has continued, in both prose and poetry, to flummox notions of tradition, language and culture. A self-taught writer who is deliberate about her decision not to participate in traditional MFA programs or workshops, Castillo is a self-proclaimed member of the no-school-that-I-know-of school of poetry. Writing not out of a desire to become a writer but out of a firm conviction that she has something to say, Castillo mixes the personal with the political, intent on revising cultural metaphors while speaking to the cost of living as part of a marginalized group.
OK, sure, being marginalized doesn't make you an artist. But paying attention certainly does, and so does the "making it up myself" attitude. Self-taught doesn't mean craftless. And perhaps it is this refusal of a traditional academic poetry track that has allowed Castillo to blur the boundaries of poetry and politics with unparalleled grace. The poems in I Ask the Impossible are crisp, tight and powerful. Written mostly in English (though there are some poems in Spanish), this personal collection memorializes real-life heroines, provides special words to her son, and offers odes to mortals, gods and goddesses.
While she would like for her work to be admired and have a wide readership, what is most important to Ana Castillo is to be understood. Literature, for Castillo, is not just a way of writing, it's a way of thinking. Russell Edson doesn't care if you read him or not, he just likes writing the darn things. My advice: Read them both.