Jesús Castillo

McSweeney's, 2016

Remains, Jesús Castillo’s fragmented epic, opens with a provocation: “This is a test. A set of margins created / for company. For waiting in train stations / or asking a stranger the time. You’re allowed to freak out this much only.” From the beginning, the poem asserts itself as a location for meditation while the world produces spectacles and horrors that are at times impossible to bear: “At some point, air support was requested. It was / mostly children. But the claims were exaggerated. / 140 casualties, in this instance, is an acceptable / mode of living.” Castillo concludes this section by posing two questions that drive the momentum of the book: “Is painterly kindness enough? Or what is it, exactly, / that we’re saving from extinction?”

“Painterly kindness” is an apt description for Castillo’s work, as Remains places a heavy emphasis on the image. There are sections composed almost entirely of lists of people and things, but Castillo doesn’t subscribe entirely to William Carlos Williams’s assertion of “no ideas but in things.” Rather, the central concern of Remains is Castillo’s determination to understand the relationship between language and the physical world, and the implications of this relationship in our inner lives: “The ornament twirled and shattered. The inside world fell / into the hands of men. The hands fumbled.”

Much like the houses that “fragment / into endless iterations of themselves,” the poem sprawls outward to include an array of landscapes, memories and revelations. In less skilled hands, the constant shifting of scene and perspective would give the reader whiplash. Castillo manages, through consistently sharp descriptions, to reach in all directions without losing coherence:

The power plant’s gray fumes blend into the low, gray
clouds. The tide is way out. Blind to its own end
the hummingbird moves in eternity.

By its conclusion, it becomes clear that Remains is Castillo’s answer to the poem’s opening questions. “Painterly kindness” may not be enough to save anything from the omnipresence of atrocities, or from the ways in which we fail ourselves and one another (“We’ve done, over the years, the worst already”), but that shouldn’t stop us from “waking up to fog / and walking into it.” The persistence of language is the book’s emotional spine; even as we see “the sky happily failing,” Castillo doesn’t allow us to despair, because he also shows us “language attempting to capture the pieces of blue in its net.”