In this highly lyrical, imagistic debut, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo creates a nuanced narrative of life before, during, and after crossing the US/Mexico border. These poems explore the emotional fallout of immigration, the illusion of the American dream via the fallacy of the nuclear family, the latent anxieties of living in a queer brown undocumented body within a heteronormative marriage, and the ongoing search for belonging. Finding solace in the resignation to sheer possibility, these poems challenge us to question the potential ways in which two people can interact, love, give birth, and mournsometimes all at once.
About the Author
Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan and grew up in Southern California. She is the author of Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), winner of the James Laughlin Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG, 1999). Shaughnessy's poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harper's, The Nation, The Rumpus, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
Because the bird flew before there was a word for flight
years from now there will be a name for what you and I are doing.
I licked the mango of the sun
between its bone and its name between its color and its weight,
the night was heavier than the light it hushed.
Pockets of unsteady light.
the seed inside the bone
the echo and its echo and its shape.
Can you wash me without my body coming apart in your hands?
Call it wound
call it beginning
The bird’s beak twisted into a small circle of awe.
You called it cutting apart,
I called it song.
Each pepper field is the same.
In each one I am a failed anthem.
I don’t know English but there is so little that needs translated out here.
For twelve hours I have picked the same colored pepper.
Still I don’t know what country does death belong to.
My skin is peeling.
Cual dios quisiera ser fuente?
If only I could choose what hurt.
Those lost mothers bound to the future of their blood.
I am walking again through the footage where the white dress loses its shape.
Even moving my hands to sort the peppers is a kind of running.
The child will sing because I was once her flag.
She will take my picture
both groom and bride
a country she has never seen.
I will give her the knife to make her own camera.
The gift of shade and water
the likeness of a star to possess.
And I am only half sick
if being sick is just a bone waiting to harden.
I could be a saint since there exists no pleasure that wasn’t first abandoned to us out of boredom.
We traffic in the leftovers of ecstasy.
How lonely and inventive those angels were.
If I could speak their language,
I would tell them all my real name
And with my curved knife,
I would rid them of all their failures.
First Wedding Dance
The music stopped playing years ago but we’re still dancing.
There’s your bright skirt scissoring through the crowd
our hips tipping the instruments over.
You open me up and walk inside until you reach a river where a child is washing her feet.
You aren’t sure if I am the child or if I am the river.
You throw a stone and the child wades in to find it.
This is memory.
Let’s say the river is too deep so you turn around and leave the same way you entered
spent and unwashed.
It’s ok. We are young, and our gowns are as long as the room.
I told you I always wanted a silk train.
We can both be the bride,
we can both empty our lover.
And there’s nothing different about you
about meabout any of this.
Only that we wish it still hurt, just once.
Like the belts our fathers whipped us with,
not to hurt us but just to make sure we remembered.
Like the cotton ball, dipped in alcohol,
rubbed gently on your arm moments before the doctor asks you to breathe.
Table of Contents
Origin of Drowning or Crossing the Rio Bravo 17
Immigration Interview with Don Francisco 20
Esparto, California 22
El Frutero 24
Chronology of Undocumented Mothers 25
Dear Ramon 33
Century of Good Metal with Three Prayers 34
Rituals of Healing 37
Fifteen Elegies 39
Immigration Interview with Jay Leno 42
Origin of Birds 44
"What You Can Know Is What You Have Made" 51
Origin of Prayer and Eden 54
Musical in Which You and I Play All the Roles 55
Essay on Synonyms for Tender and a Confession 59
Azúl Nocturne: Act 1 Scene 1 64
Your Sweetheart, Your Scientific Theory 66
First Gesture in Reverse 67
Gesture and Pursuit 69
Miss Lonelyhearts 70
Nuclear Fictions 73
Sub-Erotica Papers 75
First Wedding Dance 77
Pulling the Moon 79
How to Grow the Brightest Geranium 80
Origin of Theft 83
Love Poem: A Nocturne 91
Gesture with Both Hands Tied 92
"You Must Sing to Be Found; When Found, You Must Sing." 93
Rima: Notes and Observations 95
Origin of Glass 97
About the Author 105
What People are Saying About This
“I know this book changed me. The book itself knows change, how to change itself, knows so well how transformationvast essential change which would seem to oppose a selfbrings a person ever closer to their truth.” Brenda Shaughnessy
"In the spirit of Whitman, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo slips in silently to lie down between the bridegroom and the bride, to inhabit many bodies and many souls, between rapture and grief. 'I want everything to touch me.' These are poems that open borders both personal and political, a map of silences and celebrations. 'You called it cutting apart/ I called it song.'" D. A. Powell
"Federico Garcia Lorca described duende as a struggle, not a thought, and the deep and natural lyricism of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle is a paragon of that struggle, where ‘it’s easy to make honey/from what is beautiful and what is not.’ In this exquisite debut collection, longing twins with inheritance to consider the interiority of nationhood and the legacy of masculinity and exile. Castillo’s finely-honed poems celebrate and reveal the contours of physical and historical intimacies, a feast for the eyes and heart." Carmen Giménez Smith
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your debut collection of poems, Cenzontle. The book seems both very specific to you but also applicable to a larger audience. Can you talk a little about how the book got started?
I’m always a little puzzled when people say they never have the reader in mind and are only writing for themselves. Of course I have the reader in mind, otherwise I would never publish and just keep everything in a journal. All of the poems were a reaction to what was happening to me at the time. In effect, I wrote this book as a way of coming out of the closet to my wife after being together for ten years. It was a space for me to write the desires that I could not experience in real life. I’ve always been afraid to write about myself. This is a fear that I’ve developed over the years as a survival strategy for remaining in the shadows about my documentation status. When I publicly revealed my documentation status, I still had the lingering fear of saying too much. So, I hid everything through image, through metaphor, through surrealism. I wanted that image to carry the weight of all the emotion behind the act of immigrating, or behind the act of imagining making love to a man.
Can you talk to me a little about the title? “Cenzontle”? What does it mean and how do you see it working with the rest of the book?
Basically, it’s the Spanish word for mockingbird. It comes from the classical Nahuatl centzontleh, which in Nahua literally means “possessor of 400 words.” I’ve always thought that was beautiful. But if I left it at that, it would sound too reductive and obvious. The reason I chose that is precisely because of the poem with the same title. To me, what a lot of the book is doing is a mimicry of sorts. I don’t mean this in a sense of a copy, but in an effort to embody the totality of what cannot be ascertained or reached. And all of these allusions are created in a vain attempt to satisfy what we know is an insatiable desire to not be so fucking miserable. So, the title of the book comes from this inability to say what it is that we want.
I do see this mimicry happening, as Roland Barthes would have put it. There’s a lot of references to marriage. Could you talk more about the impulse to write about that?
First off, if there’s one thing that I absolutely detest, it’s middle class suburbia which is mostly white and characterized by a specific lineage of sitcoms. I feel like growing up that was always what I was supposed to aspire to. So, I wanted to reduce that to its simple desire. Beyond the critical aspect of marriage as a violent institution, I was also allured by its symbolism, and its imagery. I hope that the image of marriage, suburbia, and that particular way of living that I create is seen as a mixture between The Stepford Wives, Donnie Darko, and Beetlejuice.
There’s a lot of blocks of text that stand alone in the page as autonomous things. Can you talk a little about these blocks that appear in multiple corners of the page throughout the book?
So, most of those “blocks” of text are found in the “Origin” poems. I guess I’ve always admired James Wright’s ability to distill that perfect image at the perfect time in the perfect place. It’s haunting, really. I wanted it to exist completely on its own. Yes, each section is part of a larger poem but in that moment, singularly on that page, I feel like it creates a unique presence. The surrealism comes, I think, from the distance between two images, not the images themselves.
I have just one last question. It’s probably one you hear often, but, under whose literary shadow do you think this book lies beneath? Whose influence is looming above?
That’s a heavy way to put it. But, if I were to say whose work paints itself deepest into my book, Larry Levis would be knee deep in paint. Neruda, of course can be seen throughout, especially in regards to that distilled surreal image. Louise Glück for sure, as well as Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright, who I had the honor of working on a book of translations with before her passing, and also perhaps Merwin. One recent book that I think changed the course of my aesthetic from a more accessible one to a bit more associative would be Lucas de Lima’s book, Wet Land.