Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Prize
Boa Editions, 2018. 112 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria

Cenzontle: From Classical Nahuatl centzontleh, shortened form of centzontlahtōleh (“mockingbird”, literally “possessor of four hundred words”), from centzontli (“four hundred, a count of four hundred”) + tlahtōlli (“language, word, statement”) + -eh (“possessor of”).

- Wikipedia

Before I walked into the poems in Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle, first I read the introduction by Brenda Shaughnessy in which she both warns and swoons: “Who talks over beautiful music? Who doesn’t yearn to be dissolved, breathless, in the deep, dark waters of true art?” And it’s true: entering it, I didn’t quite know how to explain the feelings of arriving in the middle of scenes of unutterable despair and violence, alternating with a kind of lyric possession. I am ushered into this book by Castillo’s language, and it is a current delivering the shock of rapturous recognition along with the simultaneous moment of its withdrawal.  

Poems in Cenzontle abound in paradoxes and images that pit one state of experience against another, reminding me of some of the best ways in which mystical poetry (think Rumi and Donne) present the human condition: that is, in terms of the primary desire to find union with another—with the beloved, or with God—from whom one has been painfully separated. 

Hernandez Castillo, whose family migrated to the United States when he was five, had received DACA status through which he was able to obtain permanent residency. This enabled him to accept an assistantship and complete his MFA in poetry at the University of Michigan. Along with poets Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto, Hernandez Castillo formed the organization Undocupoets, whose mission is “to promote the work of undocumented poets and raise consciousness about the structural barriers that they face in the literary community… [and to support] all poets, regardless of immigration status.” 

That sense of mystical longing for the separated other therefore is mostly defined through the gritty and often harrowing narratives and contexts of im/migration and un/documentation in this work.

Take these lines from “Origin of Drowning or Crossing the Rio Bravo”—

If they can kiss you,
they can kill you.

                Let’s continue this drowning
to remember what we look like.

Let’s keep waking underwater
until one of us gets it right.


and from “Esparto, California”—

I don’t know English
                but there is so little
                that needs translated out here.

If only I could choose what hurt.


In one poem, a father teaches his son that “love is violence, that violence is the way of men.” In another, an unnamed woman calls the cops, buys and loads a gun, “fixe[s] the man in [her] story.” In “Chronology of Undocumented Mothers,” a mother carries her child on her back in passage, and declares:


She will dream.

She will swing the hammer at anything that moves.

She says try it motherfucker.


Here are burned-down farms and ranches, their soil giving forth plums or a sifting of bones. Here is the author’s uncle, a migrant agricultural worker, who succumbed to cancer after years of exposure to pesticides. Here are honey on the branch, bees on a string, birds in the orchard. Like the cenzontle, northern mockingbird found in British Columbia, the continental United States, and in Mexico from Oaxaca to Veracruz, the voices in Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s book sing in different registers about every fulfillment, consistently undone: 


The bird is on the low branch
trying to put itself back together.


Like the cenzontle, which in the Nahuatl language means “possessor of four hundred words,” the poems in this book also carry traces of and pay homage to other poets’ words— Li-Young Lee, Giambattista Vico, Larry Levis, W.S. Merwin, Tomas Transtromer, Cesar Vallejo, Cathy Park Hong, and Edward Said, among others.  But Hernandez Castillo’s voice is all his own—original, musical, lovingly and laceratingly attentive: 


The bird sings what it hears, is a historical record, and becomes its song. 

Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com