Poetry for Southern California
Book by Fernando D. Castro
Redeemable Air Mileage is an impressionistic travelogue. It takes us into South and Central America, across Europe, and deep into India. While it provides a detailed and interesting picture of these areas, it is not a straightforward description, and certainly not a catalog of tourist destinations (although some of these do appear).
Redeemable Air Mileage is more concerned with Castro’s reactions to the places he visits than in the places themselves. While this at times veers into solipsism, it is an emotionally honest portrait of travel. One of the ironies of travel is that, at the same time it is exposing us to others, often vastly different from ourselves, it can also provide many opportunities for self-absorption.
Sometimes this self-reflection is inevitable, as when Castro visits his childhood home in Imbague, Colombia, and finds its reality very different from his childhood memories:
Seven hours later, I am entering Imbague
where I was born, but God forgot to tell me
that my hometown was no Granada.
Lonely Planet warns that there is no tourist interest.
While it hurts my feelings, I confirm the finding:
humble adobe homes as I enter the outskirts,
holes in walls for windows.
None of my siblings’ descriptions match the factual town
We Colombians love to say we come from beautiful cities.
We prejudice nostalgia with aesthetics.
Many of his reactions are more general, but still born of his personal tastes, interests and quirks. Many of the poems deal with politics and architecture, obviously interests of his. Other reactions are understandable, but not necessarily relatable for every reader, such as his repeated lust for the beauty of foreign men, or his own body’s reactions to certain foods. At others times his responses are more surprising, as in his boredom with the languorous beauty of a Costa Rica beach town, or his disappointment with Paris, which fails to live up to the images of New Wave films he so admires. But the key is that these reactions take center stage; the book is more about them than about the actual places visited. But this still creates a vibrant and interesting account.
This emphasis on reaction fits with the impressionistic style of the book. He doesn’t analyze his reactions, he just gives them. This carries over into the writing itself. A cross between poetry and prose, it describes the events, the sights, the reactions, without ever quite becoming straight narrative.
I’m assailed by Peruggia’s flags of its local museum –
more history, more quattrocento exhibits –
no, I’d rather wander and photograph, escape through the orifice of the camera.
The path crooked with cobblestones at the entrance;
two French musicians captivated by the town lull
try to make a living with a guitar and a hat – add a coin for a picture.
At a patisserie the two lovely twenty-something waiters
give me more coffee and sugar cookies.
Yes, I want to stay and contemplate them.
(“Peruggia Home of Chocolate Bati”)
The staccato phrasing also captures another aspect of Castro’s character: a certain restlessness runs through all the poems. Part of this may just be the structure of the book, several years of traveling packed into one volume. Still, there is a definite sense of hurry. Throughout the book Castro attempts to relax into his surroundings, but, as in Costa Rica, he never quite can. Those few times when he wants to linger in a single place, the airlines won’t let him, by refusing to change his ticket. But it seems he is just as often to blame; he simply can’t sit still.
Further, he always feels the stranger, the outsider. Even when he has friends to guide him, and welcome him into their societies and cultures, he remains removed from it. Even at a meditative resort in India, he is unable to completely relax into the experience. Instead he takes it all in with a critical, even judgmental, eye:
Mama India of faith and love you invested in a master
that permitted a rebirth in you I cannot understand,
but you have kept wanting to share, you insist on your truth;
just like my poems are strange, offensive with abusive thorns
by which I describe our brief encounter; an abrupt welcome –
exterior tough membrane that protects you,
and I knew no better; you and I didn’t know any better ¬
cruel victims of our own sensitivity.
On the other hand, the India section, the final section of the book, is the only point inhere he steps outside of himself, and writes some poems in the persona of other characters (“Darjeeling Monkeys” and “I’m a Sharp Blade Good Morning Sidewalk Barber”).
In the end, the title of the book does not hold true. Castro does not find redemption in traveling. Instead, he finds himself, all his peccadilloes exaggerated. Yet, in this way, the book provides an accurate portrait of how most of us actually experience travel – hauling our old baggage around, forever removed from the places we are visiting. Even with the deep personal nature of many of these poems, the rest of us, especially those who travel regularly, will find much to relate to, as we get absorbed in Castro’s travels and personality.
— G. Murray Thomas