Historical Context

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In I Ask the Impossible, each of the poems is followed by a date and place indicating when the poem was written and in which city. Consequently, the reader immediately knows that “While I Was Gone a War Began” was written in 1998 in Chicago. The year 1998 was full of many noteworthy events. Castillo has revealed that she wrote this poem specifically in reaction to the August 7 bombings by Al Qaeda terrorists at two U.S. embassies in Africa. It was these bombings that first brought international notoriety to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In response, the FBI put Bin Laden on its most-wanted list, and President Clinton, on August 20, ordered cruise missile strikes on a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, which was suspected of producing materials for chemical weapons. He also ordered an attack on an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

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Although the specific event that inspired Castillo to write “While I Was Gone a War Began” is not mentioned in the poem, she does refer to three other hot spots in the world: the Congo, Ireland, and Mexico. In May 1997 the long-time and highly corrupt Congo ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, was overthrown. His replacement, Laurent Kabila, soon proved to be not much better, so in August 1998 rebel forces began attacking Kabila’s army and managed to take control of large portions of the country. Since this situation occurred in the same month as the embassy bombings, it was natural for Castillo to list the Congo when she declared in the poem that “continents exploded” during the time that she was gone.

Castillo also names Ireland as an explosive place. This may seem a strange choice since it was in April 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was reached whereby the Protestants of Northern Ireland agreed to share power with the Catholics, and they gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Ireland affairs. However, it took a few years for the parties involved to follow through on the agreement and, in the meantime, the IRA, the radical opposition in Northern Ireland held responsible for multiple terrorist activities, refused to disarm. Thus, the violence continued even after the agreement was signed, and that is probably the reason Castillo mentions Ireland.

In Mexico, the third of Castillo’s referenced countries, the conflict between the Mexican army and the Zapatistas escalated in June 1998. The Zapatistas are a group of mostly indigenous Mayan rebels who organized in 1994 in opposition to the Mexican government’s treatment of indigenous people in the state of Chiapas. Although an agreement in 1995 gave the Mayans the right to govern themselves in autonomous communities within Mexico, the agreement was never really honored. Instead, the government built up military installations in Chiapas. In 1997, army raids into Zapatista communities resulted in multiple deaths and imprisonments. Then, in June 1998 two more massacres occurred. It is probably this terrible incident to which Castillo refers in the poem. After 1998, international support and massive demonstrations forced the Mexican government to meet some of the demands of the Zapatistas, but the situation was still not totally resolved and unrest continued.

Literary Style

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Free Verse
Free verse is the most popular poetic form used by twentieth and early twenty-first century poets, and it is the form Castillo uses in writing “While I Was Gone a War Began.” Walt Whitman was perhaps the first poet to use this form, and it was quite a shock to readers in 1855 who were used to poems with strict metrical and rhyme patterns (for example, sonnets). Free verse avoids patterns and fixed line lengths. In fact, free verse varies line length to aid in achieving a desired impact. Rhythm and sound patterns are created by the use of assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and the like. Rhythm is also created within lines by designing phrases of about equal length and by repeating phrases that have the same syntactical structure. The result is a cadence similar to the balance of phrases in a musical composition. Castillo uses this cadence device in “While I Was Gone a War Began” when she makes her lists of places where she may have seen “this story” before (a Hollywood movie, a Taco Bell commercial, etc.) and of catastrophes (flood, drought, disease, etc.). The repetition of the “what” and the “who” questions in the fourth stanza also establish a connection and a cadence that unites the poem. The same effect is achieved in the last stanza with the repetition of “we” at the beginning of sentences. With the successful use of these free verse techniques, Castillo shows herself to be a skilled poet.

Narrative or Lyric Poetry
Lyric or narrative poems have characters, plot, setting, and a point of view similar to prose. They are not quite stories chopped into shorter lines, but they do have a story of sorts, a setting of time and place, a specific point of view, and characters dramatizing the message. Such is the case with Castillo’s “While I Was Gone a War Began.” The main character is the speaker in the poem, just as Castillo’s narrator is the “I” in “While I Was Gone a War Began.” The speaker may be the poet or a fictional character and may be speaking to another character, perhaps in a dialogue. Castillo has a second character in this poem, the Italian dissident. Their exchange about the value of literature expresses the frustration of the writer. Often, however, the speaker in a narrative poem is a lone character speaking about a personal concern.

Imagery refers not only to the descriptive passages of a poem, but also to an appeal to the senses. The dominant sense in “While I Was Gone a War Began” is the visual sense, as seen through the mind’s eye. Multiple “pictures” fill the poem: Hollywood, Taco Bell, sunglasses, summer wear, a sheikh, John Wayne, Sunday school, a flood, rains, a drought, a blue passport, a plane, a poor African selling trinkets, a Mexican official, a Mexican Indian, a white rancher, a Mexican worker, a vineyard, a vat, a rat, a red sunset over fields, and a city being bombed. Most of these are used for the purpose of comparison, but also to set the scene and to bring to mind instances of injustice that the reader knows.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Agosin, Marjorie, Review of Massacre of the Dreamers, in MultiCultural Review, March 1995, p. 69.

Alarcon, Norma, “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo,” in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Baker, Samuel, “Ana Castillo: The Protest Poet Goes Mainstream,” PW Interview, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 33, August 12, 1996, pp. 59–60.

Castillo, Ana, “A Chicana from Chicago,” in Essence, Vol. 24, No. 2, June 1993, p. 42.

—, I Ask the Impossible, Anchor Books, 2001, pp. xvi-xvii.

—, “Introduction,” in I Ask the Impossible, Anchor Books, 2001.

Hampton, Janet Jones, “Ana Castillo Painter of Palabras,” in Americas, Vol. 52, January 2000, p. 48.

Olszewski, Lawrence, Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 1, January 1, 2001, p. 111.

Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 1, January 1, 2001, p. 88.

Saeta, Elsa, “A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo,” in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall 1997, pp. 133–55.

Seaman, Donna, Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 3, March 1, 2001, p. 1219.

Further Reading
Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 2d ed., Aunt Lute, 1999. First published in 1987, Borderlands has become a classic in Chicano border studies, feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and cultural studies.

Edgerton, Robert, The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Edgerton provides a thorough history of the Congo from the sixteenth century up through 2001, with a sensitive description of the land, its rich resources, and the many political struggles of its people.

Hayden, Tom, ed., The Zapatista Reader, Nation Books, 2001. An anthology of essays, interviews, articles, and letters, this book contains some of the best writing about the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico.

McKittrick, David, and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, New Amsterdam Books, 2002. An overview of the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland since the 1960s, this book gives a balanced presentation of the people and the issues involved.

Moya, Paula, Learning from Experience: Minority Identitites, Multicultural Struggles, University of California Press, 2002. This book discusses Chicana literature and literary criticism, examining ethnic, feminist, and contemporary literary studies.

Sandoval, Chela, and Angela Y. Davis, Methodology of the Oppressed, University of Minnesota Press, 2000. This book describes the different forms of feminist practice employed to bring social justice out of cultural and identity struggles.

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Critical Essays