Review by Peter Matera (email)

by Ana Castillo

Curbstone Press, 321 Jackson Street, Willimantic CT 06226; ISBN# 1-931896-20-8, 269 pages, $15.00

Before the first tercet of Watercolor Women Opaque Men has a chance to set the waltz-like pace of her first novel in verse, Ana Castillo reveals the themes of her composition in a concise and instructive dedication that proves to be the key that unlocks the deceptively simple language and - I'll use her word - courageous character study that follows. This book is about borders: who creates them, who upholds or crosses them, and how the history of one side can inform the future of the other. And it is about love in all its surprising manifestations, love that Castillo offers so freely and resolutely that it cannot be overlooked or even overstated, though admittedly she tries:

        An eternal moment of longing
        for the Divine
        not to be One or to challenge deities,

        But to escape the relentless agony
        of the uninhabited heart,
        in this life or in any other.

Such a stark confession comes very late in the book, and in fact it is a dream of creation by the Aztec goddess of love, Xochiquetzal, who sees herself painted by and in the image of the "two beings" who have come to worship her beneath the Tonacateuctli Tree. (Ah yes, a rudimentary knowledge of Aztec mythology wouldn't let you down, though Castillo tends to deliver the invocations as though she were handing off batons in a relay race. So breezily do they appear and with so little context - Ometecutli, Cipactli, Tamoanchan, Chalchiuhtlicue, Ehecatl, Xolotl, Tlaloc, etc. - that zero knowledge of it, which is what I approached the book with, will not let you down either.) It is this sort of interlude that Castillo uses to remind us to acknowledge the long line of those who came before and consider that there are those who will follow, not only through generations but through the trials of life, as she observes the hard, rock-bottom truth of real and metaphorical border-crossing:

        And we were on our way.
        The way of thousands.
        Some make it, some don't.

The dichotomous nature of the Aztec gods and goddesses, with which Castillo comfortably seeds her protagonist's path, nevertheless lends an ancestral flavor to the fruits of her labor, literally and figuratively. Before we learn anything about Ella, the prismatic and admirable heroine and primordial Watercolor Woman, we learn that she is "common as the rows of artichokes she picked … But more or less clever in a city dress." And so Castillo sets the terms of what will become a veritable tour de force of her indulgent, ribald, frustrating, broad, and sympathetic manner of storytelling as we follow Ella from her conception on "a lumpy sack of garlic heads" in Mexico to her spirited arrival in Chicago, and through a cyclonic procession of anti-scrapbook moments - lesbian trysts, thwarted rapes, bigotry, identity crises, poverty, abuse, and so forth - that deposits her finally at the end of her life.

We cannot fault Mamá Grande, Ella's great-Grandmother, for lulling her as a child into a "barefaced stare" as she combs her hair into a braid and tells her, "Know your worth," emphasizing this imperative by suddenly cutting Ella's long braid, unleashing her from the feminine restraints early on, and presumably freeing her to be her true self as she winds her way through life's obstacles and opportunities. She advises her to keep the braid, to sell it when times get tough, and prophetically declares "you will always be your most reliable resource." After all, Ella is a strong, surprisingly resilient woman who avoids the downward spiral.

Instead, the expected order of the universe is upturned and the rabbit hole of Ella's life is flush with sharp political, mythological, sexual, and cultural criticism that left me alternately reeling and captivated. Her spirit, her strength, is too large for cliché, and Castillo shows the clarity of her vision and range of her craft when she allows Ella's personality and persona to expand beyond their requisite boundaries and expose us to the huge sum of experience that, to be fair, comprises us all.

As it happens, this is also where Castillo's momentum retrogrades, the border between genders perhaps too tempting to treat with her usual rigor. True, we are warned from the get-go that the men aren't going to shine, and with the exception of two men (one-and-a-half, really) that is true, but worth mentioning is the incongruence of character, not to mention the carelessness of a finely-honed craft, that arises when framing gender inequality as gross misrepresentation. Men are explained as "sires" or "hunters," and they are portrayed for the most part as mere villains, raping their way into Ella's life and then hunkering, dopily, out of it. We are confronted with the following rumination:

        Are hunters born or made
        is not the only question.

        But equally provocative:
        does the prey
        have a chance

        To get away unscathed?
        I have …

which couples nicely with the flippant and piercing "I might one day love a man/if I ever find one." It is not that I disagree with the book's premise, clearly delineated in the title; rather I am disappointed with the lax treatment Castillo affords her men, as few there are. They may not deserve sympathy or even a fair shake, but we cannot be expected to embrace or celebrate the radiant complexity of the women if we are then to accept the opposite characterization of the men. With an eye always toward justice and equality, Castillo does us a slight disservice here by indulging in satirical stereotyping whenever Ella finds herself, however fleetingly, in the same room as a man. This technique might appeal to the comeuppance crowd, and it is certainly not without merit, but Castillo's center of gravity pulls us so close that when she wobbles, we feel it like a jackhammer.

That being said, perhaps the most striking and genuine section of the book concerns Ella's son, whom she raises herself to be as open-minded and experienced as one might expect to be without leaving the house much, developing an appreciation for a who's who of cultural and intellectual icons - Coltrane, Hesse, Lorde, and Rich, among others – while incorporating a strong maternal influence into his social and personal life as he begins a journey of his own through the environs of American higher education. Here, Castillo proves that she is capable of presenting men in a tolerable way without diminishing their opacity. He is the "lowly student" who,

        when he talked to a woman

        It was an internal and automatic
        communication from brain
        to pelvis


        … did not see
        any ground worth standing,
        without first pointing out its contradictions.

Castillo is at her best when she is introspective and curious, when she lets her characters direct themselves, a competence that sparkles when it's working and dims noticeably when it's not. There are uncomfortable moments in Watercolor Women Opaque Men and there are moments of sheer exhilaration, both of which are necessary to engage the reader beyond the well-trod roads of cultural narratives. "Words are a curse," we are told, "when they cease to ask // questions / and insist on a response." A noteworthy truism, indeed. Castillo's sincerity is obvious, and we enjoy how deftly a writer can wield her pen, her wit, her aspirations and visions.

Midway through the book it became evident that the three line stanzas weren't working for me. Their persistence became arbitrary, and the book would certainly read easier as blocks of prose because rarely does any stanza reach the formidable and attentive heights of poetry. (Sure, a beautiful stanza appears every so often, but how could it not, given almost 300 pages of possibility?) Further reflection begged the question why call it poetry at all, and not just square it off as a novella. Then again, free verse might better serve the ideas and overall direction of the work, something more dynamic or rebellious. But Castillo gave us tercets, over two-thousand, so to them we should respond.

In that case, I am reminded of Mamá Grande repetitively combing Ella's hair into a braid, only to cut it before encouraging her to determine her own borders in their precarious world - the thrumming beat of tercets lulling us hypnotically until the final one severs us from Castillo's tale, sending us back to indeterminate borders of our own. Like those who choose to cross, we make it or we don't.



Peter Matera is largely unpublished, though in his defense he doesn't write much. Instead, he reads mostly borrowed books and watches an inordinate number of films with his wife, all under the gaze of his Affenpinscher and his red mackerel tabby. He's mindful that entropy will get him in the end and therefore reads The New Yorker only for the pictures and has been steadily progressing from cooking his food in olive oil to butter to bacon grease to - one fine day, if he can negotiate it - lard. He welcomes your contact through the e-mail link provided above and wishes you a good day.



Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.