Angela Narciso Torres dedicates her collection of poems, What Happens Is Neither, to her parents, both of whom died, one month apart, in 2019. The collection’s opener, “If You Go to Bed Hungry,” is spare of verbiage, yet rich with portent: “Every grain of rice that remains on your plate you’ll meet again on the footpath/to heaven. You’ll have to stoop to pick up each one”(3). The subsequent poems resonate with these closing lines, each conveying an event once forgotten in the hubbub of life, now a memory the speaker stops to (re)collect with care. Such remembering is the work of grief. It feels appropriate that some poems are collections, therefore, like “Self-Portrait as Rosary Beads”:
I am olive wood,
carnelian, plastic, black onyx. Am rosebuds
pressed into fragrant spheres. Your heat,
is my musk; your worry, my fire. Pick
your mystery. If Tuesday: sorrowful, if Saturday:
glorious. I’ve held you in grocery lines,
picket lines, the hours between sleepless and
woken. Hold me. (8)
Poems in this collection are also full of remembered advice, fragments of letters, bits of conversations. Her mother, father, grandfather, aunt, and other family members from the Philippines all contribute lines to these poems, but Narciso Torres also collects lines from another kind of ancestor when she forms centos and “semi centos” from Katherine Mansfield, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Psalms. “Lines from a Journal II, a cento using lines from Virginia Woolf’s diaries” expresses the frustration of trying to write while enduring mental suffering: “How can I express the darkness?/At this moment, all we wish is to escape seeing./ Shall I remember any of this?/ I am repeating things” (84).
In these poems, all sorts of loss strike deeply. The death of the poet’s son’s beloved dog, the loss of an unborn child. The immigrant’s gain and loss of homeland is captured in “Confessions of a Transplant,” when “The memory/of sour mangoes made rivers/in my mouth.” An entirely different kind of food—bagels—prompts memory in “The Immigrant Visits Her Mother”: “One bite/and her eyes glazed over, forehead uncreased. For a moment she was/twenty-six, a medical student again,/lipsticked and bone-tired from her shift/sitting at a Brooklyn diner…” In “What I Learned This week,” environmental woes overlap with personal ones:
No more fireflies in Northern Indiana.
The fish in Lake Erie are dying out because
they’re ingesting plastic microbeads
used in exfoliants. Yellow x’s mark
trees on our street that workers will axe
next week. Ash borers are eating them alive
so they cannot absorb water or light. This week I learned
my mother is losing dexterity in both hands. (90)
As in several other poems, music brings back some of what has been lost:
But when I pay Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria on the piano, she lifts
Her head, motions me to move her wheelchair closer.
She leans over the keyboard to try the melody, finding
The notes each time. (90)
Yet there are no easy resolutions:
Still, I have no windfalls
For the empty baskets of my mother’s eyes.
When I returned from Manila, the peonies I’d left
In half-blossom were stunted by spring storms.
A bud that will not bloom is called a bullet. (90-1)
Narciso Torres captures the dread and the occasional stunning beauty of watching the ones who once ordered your universe falling into disorder.
She poignantly presents a perspective from the so-called “sandwich generation”—those caring for, then grieving for, aging family members, and simultaneously parenting children almost ready to fly the nest, all while maintaining a marriage and career. The emotional logic of these poems attests to the difficulty of holding steady for someone else through turmoil, being at once the anchor, the sinking wreck, and the flotsam. Such fracturing of self gives rise in this collection to several “Self Portrait” poems that offer glimpses into the changes the speaker undergoes. As befits the collection’s title, and, dare I say, the global mood as we head into 2022, the final lines of this collection offer an ambivalent assessment, neither hopeful nor hopeless: “The wind rises/rewriting the hymnals of dunes./I am hurricaned. Worn smooth again” (94).
Narciso Torres, Angela. What Happens Is Neither. University Press of New England. 2021.