Electra in Ana Castillo’s My Father was a Toltec

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2017-02-12 11:10:51

(Part II)




Note: What follows are section II-IV of the essay which appeared last month (see http://www.elbeisman.com/article.php?action=read&id=1291)


II. La Heredera

Aptly entitled “Heredera,” Part II of My Father takes us to the young adult Electra now living through and transcending her complex to assert her multiple roles and identities. The first piece is a rush of prose kind of poem, Alternatives,” which says it all with a “yes—yes [is this a yes-saying but now also doubting, perhaps backsliding Molly Bloom?]/we—no/ so/ maybe i can be / and then lists so many possible identities emerging from adolescence, so many alternative directions and places to be explored, until “it would be October … when bones turn yellow and all things return to what they once were or really never stopped being.” The very next poem, “For No One, Or Perhaps You,’ picks up the same sense of alternatives, relating the poet’s identity as “carnival,” an annual holiday from her lover’s masquerade as mythical hero: marbled Ulysses” —another father figure on his way home after a long absence (but surely not the Dublin Jew, nor the barrio stud). She is the cities and Mexican villages he visits, “the house maids therein”. “i am the spy/ in the hole of your conscience,’ she concludes.

Much in the same vein is her “Woman of Marrakech,” a site Castillo will later configure as a core identity space in Xicanisma, where women are reduced to being sex. Next, “Recordando un disparate,”the first of several poems written completely in Spanish, portrays a woman poet growingly indifferent to her lukewarm lover, and wrapping herself up in her own world of words and music.

Y cuando iba a tocar otro disco tú 
salías del baño peinado y oliendo 
a mi jabón. 
—Me voy, Madame —dijiste. 
—Sí, como es tu costumbre —dije yo. 
—Y antes, me crucíficas, como es la tuya
—Siempre traes tus propios clavos y tu cruz.—

Te fuiste. 
.. Me fui a bañar. 
Tenía un compromiso a las ocho.

Here we have Electra, so much sounding like her father at her own birth—a matter that comes out with greater force in another Spanish language poem, “Mi Comadre me aconseja,” where the poet’s told to forget her lover, and is reminded of her mother saying, 

—Tu padre/
ese hombre, esos hombres,
que no trabajan
que no les importan sus hijos
que no más andan con la bebida
y ‘tras de las faldas’…


And yet, the poet confesses of her father-like lover,

Y nadie, ni mi comadre sabe
Cuánto me gustas …
Aún más, cuando te hago sufrir 

In “Poem 13,” the poet says she “can publicize [her] birth given name/ can … become [her] father’s extension … satisfied/with all [her] acts/ content/amidst [her] ignorance.” The Electra story continues, even if it now mixes with many other stories and never re-emerges pristinely.


III. Ixtacihuatl Died in Vain

Some of the poems which follow in Part III take us to Paris, Spain or Mexico; more than one explores Mexican mythological roots. In a special one, she makes love with a woman’s brother, while imagining she’s coming with the sister. But nothing is more dramatic in this sequence and returns us more to the Electra theme than “Wyoming Thoughts” which begins with the sharp declaration, that she makes as daughter and mother of Mexican men:

I will never
In my life
a Mexican man
with deep devotion
“Sí, mi señor.” 

This is not to say she won’t have Mexican male lovers, but on her own terms, “and where/no one else sees,/ drive an obsidian blade/ through his heart, lick up the blood.” So Electra avenges her father, killing him too—and more than once, as she seeks to liberate herself. Are we to believe her declaration in this part’s final poem? Can she really hold on to her creative, cultivating side when she still seems caught up in a deep-seated conflict? 

I am the daughter/mother
Who has learned…
to mend
the irreparable
and to cultivate.


IV. Another Country

Only three poems draw my attention here, but they have much to tell us about the future beyond this book. First is “A Christmas Gift for the President of the United States, Chicano Poets, and a Marxist or Two I’ve Known in My Time,” where, after debunking most poetry as expressing male privilege or the female side of the same, she goes on to fashion her own Ars Poetica, telling us that her verses are not poems, but graphic efforts as she “grapple[s] with non-existence/ making scratches with stolen pen.” Indeed she writes with metaphoric extensions of her working class and Mexican background:

One word is a splinter of steel
That flings from the drill press
Into my father’s eye;
That one, embedded in the thumb
Of my child’s father.
Another word, also steel,
The rolling pin
My grandmother used for the
Last torillas of her life.

As if to distinguish her work from that of privileged white women, she tell us that “rape is not a poem./Incest does not rhyme.” In fact, she says,

My verses have no legitimacy.
A white woman inherits
her father’s library,
her brother’s friends, Privilege
gives language that escapes me.
Past my Nahua eyes
and Spanish surname, English syntax
makes its way to my mouth
with the grace of a club foot.”

And yet, she knows that 

Something inherent [in her] resists
The insistence that I don’t exist.


It is this special something that propels her to write—to write, and dance, we might add, for the club-foot reminds us of that myth so parallel to Electra, that of Oedipus, of course—and where does that club-footed dancing emerge, if not in the flamenco dancing of Carmen la coja, she of Peel My Love Like an Onion, where the very handicap of the dancer becomes the singular characteristic that gives special distinction to her dance, just as Castillo’s club-footed writing becomes the basis of her style and literary propulsion, taking on every genre and writerly possibility until we may wonder if there was any clubfoot or limp at all.

Of course, we have another poem which also anticipates Peel My Love, “Tomás Utrera’s First Poem of Spring.” However, this poem, with its references to Spain, Guatemala and Chicago’s Southport Street, seems, like many others in Part IV, to spread out in diverse topical paths, indicating the many ways and byways liberation from patriarchal demands may take, but taking us thereby far afield from the initial Electra conflict which is the core of the book’s poetic unity. The major poem in the entire section which transcends and to a degree negates the Utrera poem references, is the section’s title poem, “In My Country.” Here, Castillo contrasts an egalitarian post-patriarchal peace-loving country so different from all the spaces she has known, including perhaps most centrally, Chicago and the family world where she lived with poverty and male abuse. In Castillo’s country, she is

a poet
who can rejoice in the coming of
Halley’s comet, the wonders
of Machu Pichu, and a sudden kiss.

In my world the poet sang loud
And clear and everyone heard
Without recoiling. It was sweet
As harvest, sharp as tin, strong
in the northern wind, and all had
a coat warm enough to bear it.

This is a country, where, the Electra complex and other complexes and abuses subsumed, many can become poets or poetlike, and all can potentially move toward liberation. In the meantime, what writers like Castillo can do is seek to draw on their life problems and seek to transcend them by creating ideal worlds, countries that contrast with and answer to the worlds in which they have lived and still somehow live. This is what Castillo, like Carmen la coja and other characters of hers have done. What she did and how she did it, living in and going beyond her initial Chicago turf, and her initial Electra syndrome, is crucial to this book of poems, to her art and to our understanding of it all.


Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.


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