“What Happens is Neither/ the end nor the beginning. /Yet we’re wired to look for signs,” offers the speaker of Angela Narciso Torres’ latest collection, which approaches motherhood, aging, and mourning through a series of careful meditations. In music, mantra, and prayer, Torres explores the spaces in and around grief—in varying proximity to it and from different vantage points. She writes both structurally formal poems that enfold the emotionality of loss and free verse that loosens the latch on memory and lets us into the sensory worlds of the speaker’s childhood and present. In poems set in two countries and homes, Torres considers what it means to leave a mark, vanish, and stay in one place. In a profound act of recollection and preservation, Torres shows us how to release part of ourselves but remain whole.
Mother chose the dress—mint-green with puffed sleeves. White starched collar, electric-pleat skirt, lace socks that chafed my ankles. At the party, she made me kiss everyone: aunts reeking of Joy by Jean Patou, sway-backed uncles cradling beers, my grandmother smoking clove cigarettes between puffs of her inhaler. Someone was laughing loudly. Someone played a ukulele. From a far table, the rumble of mah-jongg tiles being shuffled by a quorum of matrons, their lacquered nails clicking, wreathed in cigarette smoke. Cousins wrestled on the scorched lawn. A small place behind my ribs felt tender, making it hard to breathe. I wanted most of all to lie in the pink shell of my room, a book within reach. Someone passed around colorful sandwiches in the shape of card suits: diamonds, spades, clubs. Someone carried a tray of fizzy drinks, handing them to the grownups. I imagined sneaking a sip and getting smaller and smaller like Alice, then crawling into Mother’s conch evening bag, the clasp closing overhead with a satisfied click. Mother whispered a greeting to a woman in a floral print kaftan. I vanished into their murmurs and shadows, a cloud of camphor and carnations.
In What Happens Is Neither, Angela Narciso Torres has jimmied the lock to a house of intricate family memory and sumptuous wisdom. These are poems of intense reflection and loss, but also of rediscovery and delight. As the years pass and one becomes overwhelmed by what is remembered and all that has been forgotten, such poems might restore the balance that allows us to live with and beyond that loud clanging in the heart.
Nights, listening to Bach, ‘it turned her sadness into something she recognized.’ The grace of these eloquent poems is in precisely such recognition. In images drawn from nature (‘what the body remembers’) and a pitch perfect ear, her lines reach the profound sadness and beauty of human existence, finding speech for what both demands and resists utterance. She writes like the craftsman of her poem whose ‘tools, like locusts, peel the tattered layers / that drift like early snow, the wood’s deep grain exposed.’
…This stunning volume illuminates scenes of domesticity from within like summer lanterns made from mason jars full of fireflies.