I sat, criss-cross applesauce on my back deck in the direct sunlight, waiting for that hint of inspiration to come down from the heavens or whatever magical place one believes exists if they think heaven is a con. I had just read Elizabeth M. Castillo’s book “Not Quite An Ocean” published in 2023 by Nine Pens Press. This complete work of beauty, pain, anger, love, and personhood, inspired me yet is so perfect in its execution it left me a little dizzy. Thus it is a perfect example of someone’s poetic inspiration lighting a fire under my behind: I must write about this, and immediately. But there I sat, dumbstruck.
I would like to say it was the heat, but what happened was that I read the piece “Poem after my 4-year-old’s bedtime tantrum” for the first time. I found myself immediately connecting with Castillo’s words. Suddenly it was twenty-eight years ago and I was alone with my daughter amid a standoff over putting on pants. My wishes, and desires that were seemingly simple within the chaos of child-rearing, now seemed fraught with regret. I remember wishing eighteen years would hurry up and pass, and that I could matter again to myself. I could barely keep the tears from breaching the sills of my eyes. Castillo’s honesty is tinged with melancholy in this piece, a beautiful look backward and forward at secret regrets, selfishness, and unconditional love.
I think we have all experienced the drifting away or the sudden removal of someone who has fundamentally shaped our existence. Castillo bravely explores father-daughter dynamics in “Things that have replaced my Father”. Whether the absence of the father is figurative or literal, the deep dive into the wreckage left, as well as the beauty inherited is powerful. There is a temptation as a reader, to get to know the protagonist in this poem. I want to understand and relate, which seems to be the miracle of Castillo's writing. You care about this work and the subject.
“In Which Bertha Mason Cannot Sleep” is a poem I wish I had written. Simple, to the point, this piece harkens back to an iconic fictional character through the lens of a modern, privileged woman who realizes she has been painted as the bad guy for far too long. That her melancholy may just be justified. It’s not easy to make an impact in so few words, but Castillo can paint a vivid picture with very few strokes.
“In summer I am beautiful” is another direct hit to my heart. As I read this I was sitting lizard-like in the sun. Castillo’s description of the seasons in conjunction with the self, and the perception of who we are within the ebb and flow of nature is absolutely lovely. Case in point, the line “In summer, I wear beauty like a shroud, and my solitude becomes a wildflower crown” is the perfect description of how it feels to come out of that cocoon of bitter cold and gray of winter, to the warming sensuality of summer; to the blossoming of the fruits of flower ‘sex’, the exposing of hidden skin, to the water. There is a distinct quality to the writing in this piece that reminds me of Mary Oliver, where the seasons and humanity are wrapped around each other, returning to the order of things.
I can’t tell you what makes a poem feel personal, but I can tell you that whatever that is, this one has it in spades. “Love song” so aptly named, reads like a Country song. It flows, it fights, and it wills itself to be understood. Again, there is a tinge of sadness and a conclusion that feels inevitable. I read it to my husband, who is often my poem-reading audience, and said “This is how I feel about you”. Like a song dedication on the radio, he was flattered. The helplessness in the decision to love an imperfect person is palpable. What we sacrifice and what we hold onto so desperately for love. This poem could be the beginning of something or the end, you decide. But I’ll tell you one thing, you can sing it in your sleep.
I left my little backyard inferno, and picked up the iPad to begin this review, a little stunned and more brave for having had the experience of reading “Not Quite An Ocean”. It’s a task indeed, to find the right words to convey how perfect and impactful Castillo uses hers. I don’t think I will ever have it in me. But I will say, you should pick up your copy of “Not Quite An Ocean”. You may get lost in the beauty, you may have to feel around the walls in the dark rooms of your heart and feel something you thought you left behind. You may look at your own writing and want to burn it in your fireplace. But you will learn something about yourself, you will see yourself in this work, and you will love something in this collection.