Undercastle by Feliz Lucia Molina
Magic Helicopter Press, 2013; 100 pp
Reviewed by Dillon J. Welch
Undercastle is a collection of fragmented internet dialogue. It’s an assemblage of well-known poems, reimagined through the mouth of a pager. It’s the light shining from the screen you’re looking at right now, the headache that’ll surely develop, the battery on your MacBook dying, the screen dying, the light dying, etc. At its core, this collection is an examination of the modern, internet-led life, the Bluetooth in our hearts, the Wi-Fi in our lungs.
What Molina does consistently well in this collection is remind us that our culture is one of a unique “newness.” The internet is a vein through which our lives beat emphatically. No generation before ours has had anything even remotely like it. Fashion and technologies come and go, and we simply live on, through and despite this harrowing fact. In “Indigenous Strip Mall American”:
We stood famous as front yard flamingos
in a foreclosed Blockbuster, we could have died
from too much Pamela Anderson
we would have been alright with that
because she’s so many things
made of all that beach and silver screen
There is a recognizable sadness at play here. The sadness builds from poem to poem, is both distant and familiar, unrecognized but subconsciously known. From “Dear Marguerite Duras”:
virtual funerals are the new death
I can even say new death
that we are as good dead as we are alive
because souls are information now
In a world where the deceased live on through inactive Facebook profiles—candid photos of once-happy and breathing individuals—the beauty of bereavement no longer manifests or exists like it has forever prior.
What makes this collection, for the most part, strong and cohesive, also impedes it. Too often in Molina’s poems, a heartfelt moment abruptly turns to quirky internet lingo, a shout out to American Apparel or Apple products, a vague emotion, a hurried signoff (“but I’m too lazy to even try / when everything’s on sale / and we’re all gonna basically die”). Mentions of “[thriving] on thumb likes,” multiple callbacks to “blurred screens” or “high definition” anything, “static green grass”—the examples are tiring and (seemingly) endless.
Is that, then, the point? Does Molina force upon the reader a variety of landscapes that revolve around the same technologies, the same distance in media communication, the same clothes brands and hipster supermarkets? If it is her intention to smother us with the modern world—a cold and incalculable place, filled with blinking cursors and disenchanted internet-goers—then she is doing so successfully. And, when Undercastle succeeds (despite its tendency to overplay “pop culture”), it does so on a grand, Technicolor level. From the poem “Gabriel Papaya Soap”:
ultimately you’re always in a living room
negotiating your way out of karaoke
they won’t accept it
they won’t let you leave
until you eat sinigang or sing
Is there anything more relatable than denying the spotlight of a karaoke mic? Isn’t that what poetry revels in—creating compelling images that a reader can relate to on a personal, affecting level?
In what is potentially the heart of the collection (“Reality was the One Who Ate Toilet Paper”), Molina describes a day in the life of a “My Strange Addiction” reality show specimen. In this poem, a young woman named Keisha eats toilet paper. She eats it square-by-square, one-ply at a time. The poem follows Keisha through multiple correspondences with her mother and sister, who are admittedely worried: “Her mother said all we can do is just pray that, you know, [she] stop eating the tissue.”
There is a level of voyeurism in this poem that is unlike any other in the collection. Here we are as readers (and likely individuals who have either experienced addiction first-hand, or vicariously through television), watching in awe as a young woman continues to eat toilet paper like it’s nothing: “I think I crave it because I love the way toilet paper feels on my tongue, how it dissolves when it hits my tongue.” In the following poem (titled “Postscript”), the speaker reaches out to Keisha in a moment of pure and beautiful human interest:
to dissolve—the symbolic act of consuming something thin enough to make
you feel as though you disappear every time.
I want to know what you have been wanting to disappear from.
If the act of disappearance sustains you.
If it’s possible to love anyone as much as you love toilet paper.
I notice you live alone.
I want to know where your soul goes every time you eat it.
At the heart of this collection is a writer who is genuinely interested in people: how they navigate the sad avenues of modern life, how the internet is as much a part of us as our skin, our blood.
**Update: After hearing Molina read both “Reality was the One Who Ate Toilet Paper” and "Postscript" live in Seattle, it has become even clearer to me that this poem is the absolute centerpiece of the collection. Though the subject matter in Undercastle is occasionally repetitive, the strength in context is not only inherently relatable, but also admirable on many levels.