Online Edition: Fall 2005

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Wise Fish

Tales in 6/8 Time

Adrian Castro

Coffee House Press ($14)

by Shannon Gibney

In order to tell a story, you must have a language in which to tell it. But what if the very subject you are writing about is the multiplicity of language—the fact that, in our postcolonial, postmodern moment, the poet, the shaper of language, the meaning-maker finds his arms stretched wide across many histories and many languages? What does language become then, and how does the poet approach his craft?

These are just some of the questions Afro-Caribbean poet Adrian Castro grapples with in his new book Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time.

And this here is an oríkí
in praise of the possibility of
ká-ká-ki-ták tún of tongue
in praise of those
claiming their language
tonal y todo
with a hoodoo whisper
like Miles Dewey Davis III
like the sho-nuff shaman man you am

writes Castro in “Hoodoo Whisper,” a taste of the vast linguistic and cultural expanses the poet travels in service of translating his experience on to the page.

It’s an ambitious project—one that Castro tackles with more and more power as Wise Fish goes on. The concluding “Misa Caribena” section of the book is far more vivid and linguistically interesting than the lengthier “Sound of Leaving” section that precedes it. Many of the poems in the first section feel languid and familiar, without much movement or exploration of form or content. In “Brincando el Charco (This is Called Courage),” for example, the lines “If this can be birth of courage / If leaving the known for the unknown / If jumping the big puddle / If they said you would not return for some time…” make the immigration experience almost sound pedestrian—as common as the words “courage” and “unknown.”

The full and indescribable complexity of the Caribbean is better expressed in the book’s second section. In the paradoxically ephemeral and visceral “Loisaida Haikus,” for example, Castro manages to pack the raw, dirty energy of New York into each bursting stanza:

The sidewalk takes a
cold shower another day
bereft of tropics
               *
Jackhammers sirens
other city music rrrat-
tat-tat fast & shit.

And the epic “Misa Caribeña” (the section’s title poem) features many rich meditations, such as, “This is good-bye—/ la grande despedida / circled by candles infinite / it can be a signature of sorts / una caja de muerto / the difference is we live / & we continue an odd embrace / rhythmic.”

In this way, Castro’s Wise Fish expands the lexicon (and the function) of what Edouard Glissant has termed “Caribbean Discourse.” This discourse, Glissant writes, is “a kind of revenge by oral languages over written ones, in the context of a global civilization…In such a context will perhaps appear global systems using imaginative strategies, not conceptual structures, languages that dazzle or shimmer instead of simply ‘reflecting.’” Though not without its flaws, Wise Fish employs such a language, expanding on what is possible for us to say—and therefore hear, understand, and feel.

Click here to purchase this book from Amazon.com