By Emily Pérez | Contributing Writer
“Something in this garden / is dying,” observes Angela Narciso Torres in the poem “August.” In simple, declarative sentences, she meditates on death. “Another ash tree / taken down. This is // nothing new.” There is melancholy here, but no surprise. Then, in the same deliberate syntax, the weight of the poem shifts. “My father’s cancer / has spread—tiny maps // colonizing his spine.” This is the news casting its shadow on the poppies going to seed and honeysuckle drying on the branch. “How or where to keep / this slow-growing grief?” she asks.
The poem ends with an image that could be a thumbnail sketch of the whole collection:
All these small
and large, islands
on the horizon,
green dark mysteries
I cannot know.
In her second full length collection, What Happens is Neither, Torres speaks from a place out-at-sea. From there, she watches the “small / departures–/ and large.” Because the stanza break occurs after “islands,” both the departures and the mysterious “islands / on the horizon” are “large”—a looming mystery of what will happen. Looking toward an unknown future and watching places and people drift away, Torres questions (and demonstrates) how we endure in the face of inevitable loss.
The collection is dedicated to Torres’s parents, who died within two weeks of one another in mid 2019. Rather than focusing on the mourning that follows death, Torres explores the mourning that precedes it. In the case of her mother, grief begins in childhood. The mother’s affliction is not named, but the child must navigate a world suffused in her mother’s moods. “Stone Fruit,” the second piece in the book, begins: “Her sadness is coarse and thick as a horsehair coat. / As a child I tried it on. Its heavy folds engulfed me.” Later in the poem, that sadness grows into a fruit tree inside the speaker who implores: “Lay your hand on my chest. Feel the heft / of sour-sweet drupes my mother’s tears have fed.” Torres’s language is direct, clear, and woven through with music. The assonance of “chest,” “heft,” and “fed,” each a single, stressed syllable, and the inevitable association of “drupes” with “droops” brings this poem to a slow and heavy end, evocative of the uncomfortable coat’s weight upon the child.
Torres juxtaposes her young mother’s mental illness with her elderly mother’s Alzheimer’s. In the multi-sectioned poem “Pearl Divers,” the elderly mother’s memories are likened to “black pigeons flying off at dusk.” Some return to the cote, but “Some will disappear for days. A few will never return.” Torres’s lines move with surety and her imagery is concrete which gives the poems a feeling of solemn inevitability. In “Recuerdo a Mi Madre” (“I Remember My Mother”), which considers her mother’s younger years, she concludes:
my mother requires
the patience of a miner
carving amethyst from rock.
To know my mother
is to memorize
a labyrinth of longing.
The miner will extract something beautiful, but at a personal cost. Further, by intertwining past and present stories, Torres shows she has been mourning her mother all of her life.
Perhaps the musicality of these poems springs from the performed music that permeated the poet’s life. “Some say music memory / is the last to go” is one of many observations from “What I Learned this Week,” a poem in which the speaker plays “Bach-Gunod’s Ave Maria on the piano”—which causes her mother, despite the failing strength in her hands, to lean “over the keyboard to try the melody, finding / the notes each time. Her fingers can barely strike // the keys.” Music links the daughter to her ailing mother. “Pearl Divers” ends with the father saying, after explaining that his wife no longer knows their children’s names, “I’ve been playing kundimans for her…She knows the words.” Music—a family pastime and pleasure—helps bring her mother back to herself.
Many poems in this collection also show music as refuge. The length of a symphony allows the child in “Ode to a Realistic AM/FM Radio at a Church Rummage Sale” to capture time with her busy parent:
…that spell of sound held us
pouring from a silver box rooted to the wall
and my father, leaning back in his chair,
eyes fixed in the middle distance between desk
and darkening window, wasn’t going anywhere.
But Torres refuses to oversimplify. As anyone who lives with a musician knows, as much as it connects, music also provides a chamber for retreat. “Pearl Divers” opens: “She lapses into music, rising from dinner to play piano as we eat and talk. As if togetherness were a storm cloud in June, filled to bursting. A brooding monsoon.” The mother escapes family time by drifting to her piano, fearful of the “storm” that family togetherness portends. Nothing is simply pleasure or pain, sour or sweet. Torres hold us in both, in the in-between.
While reflecting on loss of place, Torres also refuses a simple immigration narrative that marks one space “home” and the other “away.” The book depicts homes in the Philippines, Chicago, and on multiple coasts in the USA, each with specific flora, fauna, and memories. To leave any place is to mourn something. “Confessions of a Transplant” shows the poet, in her “first year living in America” missing the colors and foods of the Philippines. “My eyes // swept the somber avenues, / starving for color. I devoured / the aquamarine of broken glass, // … The memory // of sour mangoes made rivers / in my mouth.” A few pages later “The Immigrant Visits Her Mother,” and it is not the mangoes and salted nectarines that are glorified, but a bagel, transported from Chicago to Manila. The “fragrant, golden” bread, is ritually prepared, topped with “slivers of smoked salmon / … a twist of lemon to finish.” With a taste, the mother is:
twenty-six, a medical student again,
lipsticked and bone-tired from her shift
sitting at a Brooklyn diner to coffee
a bagel, and the Times…
…my mother fills
her mouth with the salt and sting
of her first New York winter
the year before I was born.
Like music, food transports us. Torres demonstrates that no matter where we are, we might long for something left behind.
Torres looks also at losses that come with motherhood, both miscarriage and her grown children moving into their adult lives. She tends toward poems with regular stanzas—her couplets, tercets, and quatrains give a backdrop of orderly shapes to contain large feeling. Thus, “To the One We Lost,” a poem with single-stanza lines, each line broken by caesurae, presents a rhythmic and visual contrast, a piercing highlight in the book. Addressed directly to the lost child, “the blue-black sac of you dropped // … into the toilet’s // bone-white walls,” the poem is full of space, evoking the empty womb, silences in which expression is no longer possible, the spaces the poet imagined the child might occupy.
while you sailed off my second my spawn
little prawn I never met peaceful
you floated from your watery cave
to the salty grottos of the sea
where perhaps a spiny anemone caught you
The lilting rhymes–“spawn / prawn” “sea / anemone”—combine with the image of the child spirited off to the animal world–“a coral bed your cradle”–to make a fairy tale afterlife. This is a song sung by a mother seemingly to comfort a child, while truly she is comforting herself. Later, in, “Nocturne,” Torres imagines her adult son who lives on another coast, caring for his “cat, perform[ing] his daily ministrations // like a mother.” She assures, “The air is your mother’s breath on your skin,” reminding him they are still connected—again, reassuring herself.
“What is parenting but a prayer for one’s young,” Torres asks in “Nocturne.” As she offers up prayers for her own children, implicit is the question of whether, once her parents are gone, anyone is praying for her. In the poem “The Morning I Hear” which details learning of her father’s diagnosis, she sits eating a sliced peach and “Blinking back / tears, I scrape my teeth against the pit / and eat: grit, flesh—and all.” There is no motherly comfort for her; she must ingest it all, grit and flesh. Returning to the idea of cycles, the collection ends ready to begin again. “Self Portrait as Revision” closes:
The wind rises, rewriting the hymnals of dunes.
I am hurricaned. Worn smooth again.
What Happens is Neither finds the poet moving in and out of the storm’s eye, sometimes bracing for loss, sometimes weathering its aftermath. The poet has not found a means to contain slow moving grief nor has she let it unmoor her. Instead, letting it roll over her in waves, she shows that despite it all we persist, finding hymns in the shifting world around us.
Emily Pérez is the author of What Flies Want, winner of the Iowa Prize for poetry, and the co-editor of The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, both forthcoming in spring 2022. A Canto Mundo Fellow and Ledbury Emerging Critic, her recent work can be found in Okay Donkey, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and RHINO Reviews. A high school teacher, she lives in Denver with her family. Find more at www.emilyperez.org.