Echolocation & Proof


I begin with near-silence,

the droning refrigerator,

a dog barking far off.

You’ve just fallen asleep

as morning splinters

through the blinds.

He kicks off his boots,

braces himself on the dresser,

pulls at the leg of his jeans.

Something wakes you—

a knocked over jar of change,

a picture frame falling flat.

You must miss the feeling

of waking in the night

knowing exactly where

you are, hearing only

your brothers’ muffled voices

through the wall. Years later,

nights when my friends and I

stay up until dawn,

you’ll wake this way again

to laughter resonating

down the hall. One night,

to meet our girlfriends,

J. T. and I will sneak

to Arroyo Vista Park.

You’ll wedge a drumstick

in the window-track and wait

for our knock at the door.

After sending J. T. home,

you’ll say When it’s quiet, I know

somethin’ aint right. Because

this all feels close enough

to the truth, and because I have

no evidence I was made

the usual way—not even a picture

of you and my father together—

I’ve made this:

In splinters of

morning, you pull me from

his open mouth while he sleeps,

piece me together from handfuls

of his running breath, the small

sound of whitewater.



The fact is I was made

from what Whitman called

“father-stuff,” from a current

of you and from being held.

This—the raw physiology of it—

may explain why most fathers

think only of pushing their sons

into the world and most mothers

only of keeping them from it.

But the facts only tell us

half of every story, and never

the half we need. I have

a photograph taken just weeks

after I was born. I was

sleeping on your bare chest.

You were slouched in an armchair

with your fingers laced like rivulets

under my feet. These are facts—

even if you forgot, and even if all

I remember from being with you

before Arizona is the smell of

shop grease and dipping tobacco,

you once held me the way

a riverbed wants to hold a river.



I bring the watered-down wine to my mother’s lips

hold the plastic cup at an angle, tilt the straw.

Pleasures remain, and we practice them.

The body in water.

The anticipation of spring.



Above the deck, a string of lights levitates

below the sunshade like a globed consciousness

working only in the night.

Below the deck—small animals,

bundles of rustling nerves.

How many worlds?


How many dimensions hiding

in our perceived walls? In the dark of summer

we watch insects give themselves to fire

and we take in my father’s stories with more wine,

more water. When it is time, we will rise together

on the homemade lift into the living


room. We will wheel down the hall and

my brother will cradle the arc of my mother

in his arms and lay her to sleep in bed.

This is the geometry of dying—

and our grief is a closed circle

concentric in its company but radiating


like the fire does, and the glass festoons do,

and as all light will, arriving

from anywhere and touching anything.

O, the starlight—

when moved by a turbulent atmosphere—

how it spreads.


Things You Left in Accra before Moving to the Bronx

Grandma and her weak leg,

your sister at 18, still with one good iris,


your mother’s British jewelry hidden under the bed,

the places in the carpet you soiled with urine,


all the red dust,


your seat at Calvary Methodist Church next to Marie

who’d always chat with you when someone talked

about Jesus and his power to bring you all the things you needed,


your gymnastic booty shorts (your mother sent

them from America because the heat in Accra overwhelmed

you but you still wish you’d saved some for America’s winters),


warm Tea Bread sold at the YMCA between 6:30 am and 7:30 am,

the scent of air conditioning and ice cream at the SHELL gas station,


Grandma with her good English,


Mercedes and Pamela, your neighbors who borrowed everything from salt to ladles,


Asaana, Yooyi, Aluguntuguin, Nkontomire,

Living Bitters, Mercy Cream, Lion’s Ointment &


a Saturday listening to wind turn on pawpaw leaves.


Natural Order

I’m a little more prairie than you, Mom.
Grew up a stone’s throw from winding,


forested trails. Trees arched over gravel
roads, and the place in the powder sky


where their branches met, a cathedral ceiling.
You buried downed birds in shallow graves,


in a vacant lot by your apartment. I watched

a whole deer decompose in a field. Made a school


project of her. Every quarter, on my class trip

to buckthorn country, to the task of weeding-out


invasive plant species, I saw the same doe
sink deeper into the ground. Drew her outline


on a worksheet more and more skeletal
with each visit to her muddy bedside. Mom,


you too have watched the seasons change.
Your childhood rotted into caretaking,


like a sun-bleached cordgrass giving
its whole self back to the ground.


When you were seven, you started buying
the family’s groceries each week—


cans of beans stacked in a bike basket,
cradled by cornstarch and white flour.


In elementary school, all my teachers
had the same four-pronged chart


of the seasons: spring turned
summer, then a gentle decline


into fall and a snowman

smiling through winter.


Nothing in nature actually follows

this pattern. A field mouse breeds


too many young, swallows
half of them back into herself.



Fumble on the big screen, everyone

up in arms. My daughter grasps my shirt

 while nursing and can’t let go. Across the room,

 my mother applies Chapstick without taking

her eyes off the screen. It’s Christmas. Everyone believes

in miracles and wants to hold the baby. My grandmother

 sits at the table holding a doll. Beyond her, a train

 slips through the snowy field carrying—what? Time

moves backwards on the field. Less than a minute left

on the clock. My grandmother’s lips barely close around the red

 spoonful of Jello with coconut. A marshmallow falls

from the spoon in all its puffed-up,

childhood ecstasy. The game is nearly over.  Pins

 and needles. The tree is heavy with color

 and ornaments of beans and children’s faces.

My grandmother tightens her fingers around the hanky

she has always held. Eventually, there is nothing

 left beneath the tree. Everyone kisses the baby.

 They each slip a finger into her palm,

and she struggles to let them go.



My father dies in the morning

& a candy jar


in the middle of the house

wants also to be empty


objects in our living room

float like hot flies,

blue couches clutch the ceiling

& the coffee table whispers into the wall


The people, the fallen people,

the loved ones, my loved ones

sitting in the patio

we still laugh at the joke

about the giraffe.


We may cry in our fluorescent rooms,

when no one is looking.


We may be strong, we may, we may

but first we will tear our own

skin from our own skin

first can we go find

the other side where he went

find that place is not empty too.



A long car trip to the desert in the outskirts of Juarez. A Tecate in a coozie between my dad’s legs and my mom’s arm outstretched, her hand caressing his neck.


Loud Mexican music plays on the car radio, either Pedro Infante or Luis Miguel. Depends on their mood.


My brother and I look out the window at the cotton fields and abandoned farmhouses.


My dad turns on to an unpaved road and keeps driving. Dirt hits our face in the back seat.


The car stops. The dust settles and reveals we are on the edge of a mesa. He gets out of the car and we follow.


As far as the eye can see: coarse sand, spirited tumbleweeds, a sunset like an erupting volcano.


My dad takes one last sip of beer and looks down at me. With one swift move, he launches the bottle into the virgin desert.


“Don’t litter, kids,” he says dryly.


I roll my eyes, and he erupts in laughter, loud and piercing in the open space.


It was the decade AquaNet was eating away the ozone layer and I, an impressionable pre-teen, had been very vocal about recycling. I thought he hadn’t been listening.


“Vamonos,” he says but I stand on the precipice a bit longer, the humiliation cementing itself into my consciousness.


In the car, he snaps open a fresh bottle of beer and my mom resumes her pose in the passenger side, playing with his hair. The drive back home is darker. Not even Luis Miguel can break the silence.


Driving East at Christmastime

My father is outside the car, hugging the guardrail on the I-35 bridge. Cars are honking. He’s under a lot of stress, Mom says, like we haven’t noticed this festering since Thanksgiving. We’re driving home from Fargo. The sun blinks through pregnant clouds, melting snow on the shoulder. Stay here, Mom says, like there’s someplace we can go. The car idles.


Hey, fag. My older brother, Kyle, punches my shoulder. I twist to return his blows, and he spits a Skittle that strikes the bridge of my nose. I swing at his face, but he ducks and pounds my thigh and yells, Charlie horse! My brother, Kyle, only fifteen, already a hyper-masculine caricature of his younger self, the Kyle who only a year ago planned D&D campaigns with me, whom I once believed would protect me from anything.


I can see Dad’s shoulders heave. Mom crouches next to him, rubs his back. Whispers into his hair.  Kyle unbuckles his seatbelt and climbs over me and into the driver’s seat, kicking at my face.


I ask him what he’s doing.


Getting away from you, he says.


I catch Mom’s eye, and she winks. It’s going to be okay, she’s saying, to all of us, to everyone on the freeway. My mother, the steadfast. Unfazed, as always. It’s going to be okay. I climb into the front passenger seat.


Dad is yelling at the clouds. Under stress. This all began when Grandpa—Mom’s dad—died. We were packing for the annual trip to visit Dad’s family in Wautoma when Mom’s phone rang. A stroke. Seventy but healthy. So of course, plans change. We head west instead of east. In Fargo, Dad called the office and said he wouldn’t be in on Monday. On Monday, they said come in or don’t come back. And, of course, he couldn’t. And he said as much, but they wouldn’t back down. So then there’s the stress of holidays plus death plus, now, what we can and can’t afford. He said we’ll need to cancel our summer vacation. That Christmas might be leaner this year. And Mom doesn’t even blink. A rock, always.


And then there was the flat tire on his motorcycle. The car broken into, the driver-side window smashed (still covered with fluttering plastic and duct tape). All this in the last month. So of course, after he received pity money from his widowed mother-in-law; and traffic has been stop-and-go for four hours; and at last there’s a respite, a sigh of collective relief: finally, let’s floor it; and then brake lights re-emerge like angry fireflies—of course he was going to snap.


It began with yelling, with cussing. And Mom whispering sternly: Jeffrey. And then he started smacking the roof, the dashboard. Alternating open palm and closed fist. And Kyle and me in the back seat, silent for once. And then he stormed onto 35 and left the door hanging open; 35, packed with its slow and stopped cars and Minnesota plates and Minnesota Nice yelling and honking, and he’s on the guardrail letting God know.


Cars begin veering around us, the gap between their fenders and our bumper shrinking with each pass. Kyle engages the emergency lights like he knows what he’s doing. He’s quieted, and the space in the car seems endless. I’m startled to feel lonely, to feel nostalgic for the times these trips weren’t so miserable, when we would lean our heads together and he’d read from The Two Towers or Dune.


I crack the window and press my face against the cool glass. Dad hasn’t moved. A cop pulls behind us on the shoulder, lights flashing.


Good afternoon, sir, Mom says. He’s just stressed is all, just stressed. You can understand. The cop’s stride is measured, and he hasn’t said a word. He tips his cap. My brother is holding his breath. There’s tension in the car I can’t grasp. It’s all above me, like I’m submerged beneath the Mississippi. But I’m buoying toward the surface, about to break through: Kyle’s hands are on the wheel. Everything registers at once like oxygen flooding my lungs. My parents on the shoulder. The cop, mid-stride. The car casting its long shadow across all lanes of stagnant traffic. The smell of a warm winter, of exhaust fumes and evergreens.


This is what will happen: Kyle will put the car in gear. We’ll jolt forward, the pedals unfamiliar beneath his adolescent foot. He’ll swerve, smash the taillight ahead of us. And we will be rear-ended by the impatience behind us. And the cop will ticket everyone, and traffic will crawl and crawl and crawl, and my father on the bridge will call a tow truck.


But first, the cop approaches my window. He instructs Kyle to turn off the vehicle, to please remove the keys from the ignition. But first, the sky sears open and heavy raindrops spill down. And my father, this large, aching man screaming at the sky, feels he has rent the heavens. He releases the railing and sits on the shoulder. He begins to laugh. It will be okay.


A Woman’s Journey

Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, by Ana Castillo
The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016
350 pages, paper, $16.95



For years, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth has served as the definitive narrative archetype. The seventeen-step adventure from the known to the unknown and back again describes the challenges a character faces on the path to become a hero. From “The Call to Adventure” through trials like “Belly of the Whale” and “Woman as Temptress,” the character comes out on the other side forever changed into a more mature, more capable man. Toward the end of Ana Castillo’s memoir Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, she draws attention to Campbell’s monomyth of the journey of a male hero. As an aside when discussing how she spent the two years her beloved son was incarcerated for robbery, Castillo tells the story of when she taught the monomyth in a feminist course at a university and had to adjust Campbell’s linear narrative for a woman’s journey. Castillo writes, “… female archetypes had three life stages: lovely maiden, fertile mother, and (sterile, hunchbacked, saggy, wild-haired, banished from-the-village-to-a-hut-where-she-concocted-poisons-to-harm-men-unworthy-of-love-although-wise-and-yet-despised-for-her-wisdom) crone. Me, in other words.”


Although the various chapters are not broken into separate sections, this three-stage female monomyth forms the base structure of Castillo’s memoir, placing Castillo on her own hero’s journey from daughter of a Mexican Indian immigrant family to well-established Chicana novelist and poet. Through this journey of becoming, Castillo reflects on multiple generations of her family (her parents’, her own, and her son’s and grandchild’s), weaving together these generations and the trials they faced once the family became citizens of the United States.


The backbone of Black Dove may be the female monomyth, but Castillo mostly avoids an obviously structured approach and instead strips down on the fictive elements often found in memoir, such as detailed scenes and dialogue, and opens up for an intimate chat with the reader. For the most part, chapters cover large periods of time, placing her own journey beside those of family members. She jumps from story to story, transitioning back and forth in time, moving as though a new story has just popped into her head. For example, at one point, Castillo relates a story about her aunt dropping a busted television out a second-story window and it narrowly missing her aunt’s husband. After this story, Castillo writes, “That wasn’t the story I wanted to share about my livewire tía Flora, although that one was a good one, too.”


This stream-of-consciousness approach allows the reader to get closer to Castillo, to feel as though there are no fictive elements masking the author. She exemplifies the need to share everything about her “becoming,” with no topic off limits (childhood, love, sex, immigration, gun violence, motherhood, writing, marriage, feminism), but she also backs away from naming other individuals, thereby protecting identities and showing her compassion and understanding.


Throughout Black Dove, Castillo seems uninterested in offering readers answers, suspense, or even new revelations on the immigrant experience. This sounds like a weakness, and it may be in other books, but Castillo’s honest and affable voice easily carries the memoir through to the end. Castillo remains so likable, the reader wants to continue reading only so as to not leave her presence. Sharing her experience, trying to connect to the reader, person to person, seems to motivate Castillo’s narrative. It is difficult, if perhaps impossible, to read Castillo’s memoir without thinking of the xenophobia, especially regarding Mexicans, that has intensified in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidential race and into his presidency. Castillo recognizes this and begins her introduction with:

Perhaps some of you may come away from this book feeling that my stories have nothing to do with your lives. You may find the interest I’ve had in my ancestors as they were shaped by the politics of their times, irrelevant to your own history. My story, as a brown, bisexual, strapped writer and mother, constantly scrambling to take care of my work and my child, might be similarly inconsequential. However, I beg your indulgence and a bit of faith to believe that maybe on the big Scrabble board of life we will eventually cross ways and make sense to each other.

Castillo, then, discusses the importance of knowledge and how, growing up, she never saw people like her in history books. She does not mention the current political landscape (where recent inclusion of Native and other minorities’ histories are once again being stripped out of schoolbooks), but the connections are clear. She wrote her memoir to show readers a life they may not have lived, to show how similar that life is to each reader’s own or at least to increase understanding of the forces that have shaped her own.


The memoir, however, mostly avoids political comments, with the exception of a digression here or there. Most of these exceptions come during chapters focused on her son, Mi’jo, as though in her role as a mother, Castillo recognizes how little control she has in protecting her child, how she must turn to larger forces for explanations and understanding. For example, while discussing her son’s incarceration, she writes, “in a country proud of its wealth and resources, healthcare and public education are not guaranteed to all citizens.” Castillo’s dialogue with the reader draws connections between political, cultural, and, most of all, personal history to show how multifaceted a person is and how linked together so many aspects of our lives are. She goes deeper than her own experience by including so much from other generations of her family. One whole chapter is given over to an essay co-written with her son Mi’jo, allowing his voice, for a moment, to be just as important as Castillo’s. In Black Dove, Castillo shows the hardships faced by immigrants, hardships that last generations, well beyond those who immigrated, and most importantly, she shows that one vital way to combat prejudice is try to connect person to person. In this, she succeeds with brilliance.


Please also see our interview with Ana Castillo here in Aquifer and an excerpt from Black Dove in 41.2 of the print Florida Review.