NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Handling Destiny by Adrian Castro
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2009)
Adrian Castro is a poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist. He is also an Ifá priest who happens to be a herbalist and a practitioner of acupuncture. Another way of putting this is to say that he is a Babalawo (a father or master of mysticism), a title which, in the Yoruba language of Nigeria denotes a priest of a divination system that represents the teachings of the Orisha Orunmila, the Spirit of Wisdom. The Babalawo are priests who specialise in Ifá divination and philosophy. They claim to ascertain the future through communication with Orunmila. Their main function is to help people to find and experience spiritual wisdom within their experience of every day life. A Babalawo is not a title that is taken lightly -- most Ifá initiates train for at least ten years before they are recognised as “complete” Babalawos. It is necessary to know all this in order to appreciate his poetry, for Castro has an original voice that has emerged out of a long and detailed study of Ifá divination poetry which presents something of a challenge to the modern reader.
His first collection of poems, Cantos to Blood and Honey concentrated on the migration of Latinos to the U.S: the music, the language and the dissonance. A second volume Wise Fish : Tales in 6/8 Time continued this theme but this time it used the Caribbean as its principal place and point of departure. In common with the previous two, the present volume also maps the Africa, Caribbean and contemporary North American diaspora but this time its spiritual heart is West Africa, in particular Nigeria. Castro views Handling Destiny as the third and final part of what, in effect, is a trilogy.
The book is divided into three sections. The second section, which is at the core of the collection, contains sixteen poems from which the book takes its title. Each of these poems articulates intrinsic aspects of one’s destiny-- that is, place of birth, parents, children, lovers, spouses, careers, etc. These sixteen poems take as their starting point the content of the first sixteen Odu Ifá which, in themselves, contain countless poems, narratives, incantations, medicines and rituals.
The first thing I noticed when reviewing this collection was the number of references to William Carlos Williams. The references are not explained but I guess that there must be some measure of affinity here since Williams, in his work as a physician, was also in the business of healing. Several of Castro’s poems are headed up with quotations from the work of Williams. The first section of the book, Yes, Dr Williams, includes a poem that contains one of those “red wheelbarrow” moments with its opening lines:
on the bank forming a river
river forming a bank….
only this time the red wheelbarrow is a red rooster.
None of the poems in this collection have any punctuation. Again, the influence of Williams may be behind this but more specifically the refusal to be bound by punctuation seems to suggest that these poems have no beginning and no end, that they are merely, to quote a line from one of Castro’s poems:
el hilo de la conversación
…a thread of the conversation.
Reading through these poems it became clear to me that they are meant to be seen in the context of the book as a whole and not just as entities in their own right. For example, in …We’re Leaving…
The chameleon that changes its skin when in danger
is also the chameleon in Song of the Chameleon which is placed much later in the book.
Similarly, in Handling Destiny: The Supremacy of Water, the water which is described as
is the same water that is described in exactly the same terms in the poem entitled Ontological Afro Logic.
Music, the music of instruments and the music of words, is a powerful force in bringing home the message in this collection. According to Afro-Cuban and Yoruba culture, words are imbued with ashé, divine energy, and much of this Cuban-Dominican poet’s work derives from this philosophy of activating power and change through poems and incantations. To Castro, poetry is music and music is poetry. Living in Miami has given him with an abundance of inspiration. Its rhythmic Afro-Latino culture and its cosmopolitan lifestyle provide a good backdrop to his work. The poems are enlivened with Yoruba words and phrases which help to strengthen the link with his roots and the relationship between poetry and sacred texts.
Frequent references to the power of water, music and dance; cupped hands, herbs, birds and animals occur throughout the book. The image of the crossroads is used to good effect in relation to the question of destiny.
In a Babalawo’s practice, poems and incantations derived from the Odu Ifá are frequently chanted to activate the spiritual power of herbs, stones and animals found in the natural world. These elements are brought together expressly in the poem entitled Prayer for Naming Ceremony which Castro wrote for his daughter. The poem opens in an incantatory way typical of his style with the threefold repetition of the word “Today”:
Today we wake to touch forehead on Earth
Today we wake with brow burrowed into the richness of hope
Today early when dew feet
spread through the theater of daylight
we pray that
at the night of our lives you will
witness our last ritual
The poem then goes on to mention an assemblage of “herb bundles” and other foods that are important and significant to the occasion and then continues with the theme of setting a destiny:
Today we begin to sketch the verses
you will sing through life
The poem concludes:
We pray that you are careful where to alight
that you fly forward while
That your verses do not scatter if
a storm tears your memory
That you understand the songs you will sing
And you remember the language you once spoke
The reference here is to Sankófa -- the “bird who flies while looking at history” an image which is at the core of his work. In the poem Itutu Sankófa Castro writes:
You keep flying forward
looking back into history at us
For Castro, the past (where we were before we were born into this world) is just as important as the present moment and the moments still to come. Finding this narrative helps us to make sense of our lives. Migration brings with it its own sense of displacement and this often leads to a yearning to go back and know the past if only to be able to move forward with a sense of belonging.
For me, the final section of When Hearing Bàtá Drums, which beat a message spiralling into sound, provides a neat summation of Castro’s work. It is a:
myriad of words
impregnating rhythm in them
the flavor of who we are
our history rhythmic
bitter & sweet
This is a highly individual and original voice interpreting and administering ritual. It is one man’s attempt to make sense of historical knowledge, to preserve the traditions of a peoples’ past in order to make sense of their future. In it, Castro reconciles what he considers to be his own destiny - devotion to the word, spoken, sung and written, and its spiritual power. A challenging read.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).