WATERCOLOR WOMEN, OPAQUE MEN: New Edition. Northwestern University Press; Fall, 2016

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Independent Publishers Book Award Winner: Best top ten books of 2006
“Storyteller of the Year”

(Excerpts from Intro to new forthcoming edition by Carmen Tafolla, current Poet Laureate of Texas)

In Watercolor Women Opaque Men Ana Castillo has painted a masterpiece of Latina identity and self-empowerment, and has given expression to mythic images of colossal strength alongside the dredging of pus, mud, and sexism. It explores the sweaty underbelly of the Chicano experience in the U.S., ranging from the injustices of workers without “papers” and without rights to the invisibility of Latino contributions to this nation…

Reflecting a strong sense of historical process, Castillo transports to the reader elements of the long-neglected and suppressed history of the Indo-Hispanic peoples whose presence preceded that of the United States in the Southwest, West, and far Southeast of this nation. She also portrays, simultaneously, the incredible strength of a Latina at the bottom of society’s prestige ladder, who defiantly pursues her liberation and her actualization, crossing lines, mores, and expectations, to transform and grow and claim her own power.

In esthetically crafted epic poems, Castillo follows this personal transformation…

Another characteristic of the literary trajectory of this powerful novel in verse is that while it is constantly remembering and integrating its history and the multiple instances and possible outcomes of each situation, it moves steadily and powerfully forward like an inevitable force of nature…

This book is the essence of mestizaje, a blended world of opposing root cultures, where the reader finds both Allah and Für Elise, both Fun with Phonics and a temazkal sweat lodge, both Our Lady of Guadalupe and Elvis, as in the lives of millions of mestizo bicultural Latinos, taking from the mythologies and experiences of different cultures to craft their own survival instructions. Here, the reader finds the dreams of two cultures and two genders expressed through Amazons and heifers, and identifies with both…

Exquisite and beautifully crafted, Watercolor Women Opaque Men is filled with messages and metaphors that are liquid and translucent, in sharp contrast to the opacity of the men described in the title. Its feminist and humanistic stance grows steadily stronger, despite the onslaught of blows, and simply reaches a clarity that comes from the big picture, the larger canvas of perspective gained from years and experience at all levels of the economic structure…

And in characteristic Castillo fashion, no lines are absolute, no categories exclusive…

There is an epic grandeur here…

Perhaps the most delightful of these earthshaking woman figures appears in La Amazona (or, the Eighties in San Francisco) where Castillo’s mastery of character and profound eloquence of human spirit lay bare the strength of women. Here, both genders dare to defy traditional roles, with endearing affection and connection across the lines set for them by society. “He adored/ The masculine/ in a woman/ the feminine/ In men. / We are all/ one of each.”

The feminist themes in the novel are consistent throughout, but it is significant that when the resolution of this story finally begins to unfold in the concluding poems of the book, when life begins to come together with all the features visible as in a puzzle about to be completed, it happens within the context of a feminist society…

The portraiture of the oppressions is gracefully painted on a much bigger canvas – the tale of the other self…

Castillo’s word choice is compact but eloquent, with just enough metaphor to transport the reader into the realm of the novel:

You can forget everything
about your life
when you ride the train.

It goes underground,
then comes up into the light.
You watch what used to be

This liquidity of language is continued in In A Night Without Stars on the Isthmus…:

A wash
of dusk rose and aquamarine
on coarse amate paper –

Casually, at first, he noticed
her, a stone
along his labyrinthine walk. –

The metaphor is neither overdone and forced nor underutilized and dull, but minimalist and natural, effortlessly evolving to build the intricacies and depth of each character…

The style Castillo uses is polished by her years of masterful word-crafting; not an extra adjective or useless adverb clutters these pages. In her concise and vivid word choice, nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting, and the power of the actions and relationships is enough to seize our attention without ornate descriptions or decorations. “Lose the dead weight / if you’re going to fight. / It’s in the manual.”

The rhythm of Watercolor Women’s phrases is melodic and deft, without hesitation, but dancing gracefully from one concept to the next in the least steps possible as a dancer would move.

Put a name to her
so by the curve of her calf,
slope of her hip,

Hollow of her waist,
length of her neck
down to the collarbone

As she turns to you
in her sleep –
you know you exist

Apart from her.

The men are painted within their opacity, but still, their motivations, failings, and dreams are plumbed with authenticity and the voices of their own realities. Yet they are opaque, a word that speaks of non-transparency, clouds, blurriness, or being “impenetrable to light; not allowing light to pass through.”

While sentence length and style, thematic issues, directness of humor, and mythological references vary to the most adventurous ends of the gamut, there is no variation in literary quality, a standard hard to achieve in a novel in verse. Even in moments of culminating action or tragedy, the images are sharp, the words sparse, and the metaphor a fluid fit, as in the following lines from the resolving poem A Night Without Stars on the Isthmus from the denouement of the book.

No one noticed
when she fell

Just as the world has never
Noticed
When she stood.

She fell by the crude wooden table,
like a morsel of tamal,
sniffed at by stray dogs, stepped on by dancing feet.

The deepest resolution in this novel of introspection and interaction is still this blending of realities, human faces and voices into one diamond displaying its facets as if they were dreams…

Dr. Carmen Tafolla
State Poet Laureate of Texas

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