Content warning: suicide
In inventive narratives reminiscent of Russell Edson’s work, in Blue Whale Phenomena, Steve Castro contemplates questions of life and death, order and disorder, spirituality, and suicide. These poems are at once fantastical and metaphorical, yet firmly grounded in place and time. The poems span different countries, ages, and languages, as well as different emotional terrains. After researching the “blue whale phenomenon,” an online game that has led to the deaths of teenagers worldwide, the collection’s title adds yet another layer to the poems and further lends itself to the tongue-in-cheek tone of many of the poems, as if adding an absurd tone to poems about life and death is not any more accidental than suicide is.
To clarify the aforementioned game, it was one that began in 2016 in which teenagers goaded each other into doing 50 tasks in 50 days, the last of which was to kill oneself. In Castro’s poem “The Savior of a Small Town,” a priest comes to the speaker to accuse him of witchcraft after a “German who lost that game to [his] father committed suicide.” The supernatural vs. human destiny is played with throughout Castro’s book, as it was in the real-life game in which the beaching of blue whales became a metaphor for suicide. Castro’s collection ends on a different note, however: in the last poem, the speaker has risen from the dead, finds love, and “lives happily ever after.” Perhaps, this is to signify that the speaker was a participant in the game, but couldn’t be goaded into finishing. Perhaps, this is the point where the speaker reaches for hope, instead. Perhaps, the phenomena of the poems before this turn is that we never know quite what people are capable of. Perhaps.
As for the poems themselves, I say Edson-esque because Castro’s use of metaphor is so strong in trying to illustrate these deaths that the tone is one of absurdity in some cases, and of the grotesque in others. Take “An Origin Story,” for example:
The crown on the decapitated head was birthed in blood.
Every previous wearer was generous to destruction and chaos.
No one dared to pry that crown from that headless ruler.
The peasant who walked up and snatched the bloody crown
from the head in the guillotine basket, and placed it on his head,
moved to a village filled with serial killers. Within six months,
only one inhabitant would remain. It was the peasant
with the bloodstained crown. He wore a crimson cape. It is rumored
that after our poor farmer protagonist vanquished every serial killer,
other doers of good started to wear capes…
This poem is only one example that is suggestive of the myth in the title: the boy who instigated the suicides was kicked out of school and arrested on 15 charges. Only one stuck, yet the story became international news. Were his deeds those of a serial killer? Are depressed adolescents simply looking to be persuaded into a game of this nature and a community of their peers, willing to do anything to belong?
The strong narrative stance of the poems is also reminiscent of Edson’s prose. Though these are not prose poems, Castro’s story-telling style lends itself to myth and parable. There are several references to both Jesus (including the book’s dedication) and Shakespeare, one who was known as a savior and one who was known for writing great dramedies, as many of these poems read. In “April 23, 1616,” the speaker meditates on “the fact that Cervantes & Shakespeare had died / on the same day,” as well as the fact that King Lear was written as a fool who couldn’t see his impending downfall, which is what made him a tragic figure. The speaker leaves Shakespeare’s work enlightened by this new “seeing.”
The poems are free verse, non-formal poems that don’t rely on music to do the work of creating tone as much as they rely on image when in English. Yet, Castro weaves Spanish and English translations into some of his tales, leaving footnotes as to which language each poem was originally written in, which makes for beautiful tonal shifts throughout. As for image work, the title poem combines image and idea into myth—:
The blue whale that fell from the sky,
shattered through steel, concrete
and disappeared into a sea of chaos and destruction.
The helicopter’s cable snapped—the ensuing
explosion was a firework display of technological
failure colliding with a mountain—if the pilot
had lived, the whole world would have called him
“the human impossibility.” I would have called him
Whereby, “the blue whale that fell from the sky” is a reference to a painting that was posted online by a victim of suicide during the height of the game. In the poem, the speaker fantasizes about selling the dead whale for parts in an Alaskan restaurant. The tone is of the absurd, as in “the human impossibility,” which is a phrase repeated in the poem. Is it living that is the impossibility, or is it any manner of death, including murder and suicide? The poem does not come to conclusions, but suggests that certain types of human devastation exist because of an almost Darwinist attitude about survival. Therefore, nothing is impossible when it comes to human behavior, the “pilot” of the whale’s course being compared to Jonah, who was famously swallowed by a whale in the biblical story.
Thus, the question might linger: what is the whale? In Castro’s poems, is the whale the event of these many suicides? Is it the seduction and lure of the game? Is it the predatory nature of the boy who created it? Are we all looking to be swept into a greater narrative, something larger than ourselves, when entering a poem/religion/language/country? Can we fault the person who chooses to suspend their disbelief in any story in order to find something they desperately need? Castro’s collection asks all of these questions with straightforward language and a tone of wit or banter amidst bloodshed that is often Shakespearean in nature. All in all, a fascinating phenomenon.