What’s common, nearly erased, ugly, or individual in the absurd theater of collective reality—these are the sources of beauty in Jesús Castillo’s poetry. What Remains, his cool and gorgeous monolithic first book, worked with a single repeated shape—forming a wall of text, page after page, built up from bricks composed on three-by-five notecards while waiting for the bus or looking out of train windows. Castillo’s new collection, Two Murals, splits that in two and loosens it. In this latest, there are two sections, each a long poem in a meditative and vaguely narrative vein, a voice thinking, but doing it partly by telling fragmentary stories of contemporary life split between two countries, Mexico and California. The poet’s ear for lithe mysterious language he owes in part to the two Middle Eastern poets to which he pays homage in the sections’ titles: part one, “Variations on Adonis,” part two, “A Mural after Darwish.”

In a powerful address to “Dear Empire,” “Variations” resists disappearing into abstraction or simplified politics, and the results are severe and stunning. He challenges Whitman about the blindness to the whiteness of the myth—“O Walt Whitman … how could the slave have been the same in sleep as his master?”—but likewise stares into his own complicities. “The voice of our victims,” he writes, “is silence we talk around at dinner.” He means the victims of the privileged, the ones whose suffering seems to make possible someone else’s comfort. Castillo’s contempt for the self-satisfied haunts his poems.

His second mural, meanwhile, depicts a bewildering breakup, and a floundering mental voyage back to childhood sources of being and vibrancy, as if those might offer some way forward in the shadowy grimness of adulthood. Castillo’s style is that of a vagabond lingering on the borders of surrealism: “I will call this city a sad marionette / And call the continent’s shorelines roving wolves.” There is a purity as much as there is a wildness to this imagination, and the plainness of the poet’s speech renders that wilderness intimate and beautifully meditative. The poet brooks no god and refuses to see poetry as a game. If, as Leonard Michaels has it, “first sex, then truth,” Castillo’s poems are the effervescing record of a lover’s mind hellbent on the truth.

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JESSE NATHAN: The word “mural” calls up panorama. I know you’ve written short lyrics, but your books so far seem to favor longer poems. Why, in this latest collection, “murals”? What does the idea of the mural allow you to do?

JESÚS CASTILLO: Thinking of a long poem (or even a short poem) as a mural helps you imagine it as a visual, painterly space. You can work on it as a landscape (or dreamscape) of scenes. The framework of the mural is an opportunity to hold several disparate subjects close to each other, which can mean weaving them together smoothly by connecting them via some common element or notion, or it can mean juxtaposing them abruptly and having that jump create a poetic space for the imagination to leap across. The different scenes in a mural can fold or transition into and out of each other with a poetic logic that allows them to be part of the same world, even if in real life they exist far apart in time and space. It is also an opportunity to paint something big, to “let loose” or “have at it” in terms of the size and scope of the vision you want to paint.

I think murals also allow you to make large and visible certain elements of reality that we don’t usually see when we move about the world. I guess all art can do this, but I like the way murals work in this sense. The socio-political murals of Diego Rivera are the most obvious and famous example, probably. They show you the historical components that make up the modern world, and so they give you an awareness of a deeper reality than the one you see if you’re simply out walking the streets of New York City. You see, in his murals, not only the skyscrapers and factories but the human visions and dreams that built them, and scenes that remind you that a lot of violence and oppression, as well as hope and cooperation, went into making those skyscrapers and factories.

But during the roughly six years I was working, off-and-on, on this book, the word “mural” itself didn’t really occur to me that much. My goal most days was to spend time thinking about the three (at the time) poems that comprised the manuscript, if not adding new lines and stanzas to them. I had a definite idea of how long each poem was going to be, so I saw each as a big canvas that I had to fill in, and it was good to have these blank spaces of (at least in my mind) defined size. I worked at completing them whenever I found the free time to sit down in front of them and see how they were doing, what the blank spaces seemed to call for, what scenes should be painted next, filled in, what scenes needed re-doing or erasing. It was at times very fun and at times very arduous, frustrating work.