Victoria Maria Castells: An ancestral homeland still shapes lives
On my mother’s side of the family, I am five generations removed from any immigration experience. On my father’s side, it’s six. Family ancestry wasn’t a significant topic of conversation on either side, except for an aunt (mother’s sister) and a cousin (father’s niece) who traced family genealogy. What this suggests to me is that families on both sides were shaped more by the land they came to rather than the land they left.
But the past is never really the past. I may not know how Great-Great-Grandmother Wetzel’s Teutonic obsession with cleanliness was passed down through the generations, but when my oldest son bathed his hands in teething biscuit, it was close to a catastrophe in my mind. (The phobia stopped there; he still doesn’t care about messy hands.)
Victoria Maria Castells is a second-generation American; her parents came from Cuba. All three still feel strongly shaped by “the island.” Cuba evokes strong passions, and it’s difficult to find anyone without an opinion. Those passions and feelings often flow freely, and that’s perhaps why she named her new poetry collection The Rivers Are Inside Our Homes. Geography may change, but homeland remains a strong influence.
Castells writes of Cuba and its politics. She writes of hurricanes. She ponders the Hispanic names in an American cemetery. She compares events in Venezuela to what happened in Cuba. She looks at a cookbook and sees both cultural dislocation and opportunity. And she compares the old homeland to the new.
So how to explain, English and Spanish
roasted together as one, hot and pleasing,
our beaches under a distant portal, time
rupturing and hurricanes passing between
like forgotten family members, while buried
is the carcass of boats among us.
Until how long is it 50 more years or if the continents
could seize together, a collision of capitals; to exit
la Torre de la Libertad, which clothed my mother
in Miami, and find yourself small under el Cristo
de La Habana, grand Jesus on the hilltop, tremors
cleaning the bloody waters so the drowned ghosts
of our immigrant ocean could unwind their deaths
and talk to the living once more.
Her poems pulsate with energy and imagery. Although carefully constructed, the poems seem almost stream of consciousness, image after image incorporating each other and building toward a final image or idea. You might also compare her poems to diving into the deep end of a pool, finally surfacing for air with a sense of exhilaration.
Castells received her MFA degree from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The Rivers Are Inside Our Homes received the Notre Dame Review Book Prize and is published by University of Notre Dame Press as part of that series. She lives in Miami, Florida, where she teaches creative writing.
This is a poetry collection you can read in small sips or down in one large gulp. For a double reward, try it both ways. It’s an amazing collection.