Undercastle by Feliz Lucia Molina

Reviewed By

Undercastle is a lonely book, a book about how to barely live, in which all communication and connection are mediated by literal and/or figurative distance and screens.  “Ghost (1990): A Romantic Fantasy About a Dead Banker’s Attempts to Communicate With His Living Wife Through a Psychic Who Doesn’t Know Her Powers Are Real” forms the glowing third in a triangle between the writer and the person she’s sitting with, whose body it is her job to tend:

I think Patrick Swayze is  the only real thing we have in common, hardly Demi Moore. I wonder if it’s because of a younger and brighter Patrick Swayze that the situation of being here is a little more interesting and tolerable. Obviously there are things like nostalgia and death that can lighten or darken any situation but those things are too awkward to talk about with someone whom you take to the bathroom so often.

What realities are shared, and shareable? Is it a simple matter of having lived through the same years, or of reblogging a gifset? We all have to shit from time to time, and at least some of us recognize and respond to Patrick Swayze. Many of the poems in Undercastle form pairs or recurrences—one augments another (as with “Reality Was the One Who Ate Toilet Paper” and its “Postscript”) or explicitly revises another (“This One,” “Or That One”). Others form sequences that fill in gaps: the four floating lines of “Phantom House” are augmented by the chatty and recappy “Full House (1987-1995) An American Television Family Sitcom.” “Gabriel Papaya Soap” shows up on p63, but it’s not until pp71-72 that its purpose is revealed: “Gabriel Papaya bleach soap. / In the Philippines there’s tons of soap to bleach skin. In the Philippines there are soaps that make Filipinos look like light-skinned Spaniards.” For me, this gives the earlier poem’s lines “Several soap advertisements / shine on your face / … then there’s Michael Jackson / they say is yours to sing” a retroactive significance, but another reader would have picked it up the first time around—would have filled in the bleaching properties of the soap, and its complex chemistry of history and colony, profit and loss, in the same way I heard the Full House theme song playing in my head as soon as I read “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah … shoobie doo bop ba dow.”

Undercastle stamps its passport with poems titled “Paris, Las Vegas,” “Ibiza,” “Saudi Arabian Dream Machine,” “Italy Italy,” “Buenos Aires” and “Blockbuster Operator in Manila,” and name-checks many other cities; in time, its territory ranges from the ‘90s to the present. People, words, habits and products who share this time-territory are young, but not as young as we once were; we may not know more, but it seems true to say that we know differently. Molina ends a poem “and we’re all gonna basically die,” but Undercastle has already witnessed the death of the body and knows its difference from the death of the spirit:

the day you shot yourself on video
the day you made high school bells ring us all back home

a black cloth blew and harked back I thought you were calling
from bullet hole from brain dead from ambulance corvette

Letter (email? voicemail?) poems invoke the dead simultaneously as ancestors, commodities, consumers, patron saints and friends, addressed in a mix of lyrical lines, CAPSLOCK OF RAGE and pager codes.  In “Dear Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things” Molina delivers one of the more concise and damning versions of the American Dream—one of our few remaining exports—that I’ve seen: “And as long as everyone is treated equally, everyone can work hard until death for sweet candy.” Jean Baudrillard in particular is a hovering presence—in the letter-poem addressed to him and also in the time-suck websites, Karl Lagerfeld epigrams, and “procrastinating around graham crust in military swagger / feeling like an expired Abercrombie and Fitch model” of other poems. A vein of Baudrillardian smugness surfaces from time to time, in which the only pleasure left is being right:

We waited for a century

like a breast on youtube none of us got fed

yanking voicemails out from the dark

saving and deleting

old selves

new selves

But I don’t believe that these poems are as “post-heart,” as supine to “future nostalgia,” as Baudrillard would have it. They may question the validity of connection, but they believe in it enough to crave it:

basically, I’m tired of laughing out loud in each other’s absence when

sunlight smears itself all over a computer screen
and you can’t see what’s there

just an electric silhouette
pretending you’re here with me

If someone is basically dead, you can make fun of them, but if “A deadly hurricane swept through Manila like someone got paid,” you demand “where did all my cousins go?”  “[D]usty letters powered by the sun,” Molina writes in “Weathered Emails,” “and years from now, who cares.” But Undercastle reads like a tape made to pop into the belly of a robot beast in some far dry future, in case there’s someone left to hear how hard it was when things kept mattering despite concerted individual and structural efforts to make them stop.

Kate Schapira is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, including The Soft Place (Horse Less Press) and How We Saved the City (Stockport Flats). Her 11th chapbook, Someone Is Here, just appeared with Projective Industries, and two more collections will be out next year with Horse Less Press and Trembling Pillow. She lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches writing, co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and periodically offers Climate Anxiety Counseling. More from this author →