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Diego Báez on Angela Narciso Torres

Blood Orange by Angela Narciso Torres

 

Willow Books, 2013, 68 pages.

 

 

Many poets refract the family through bifocal lenses of past and future, but few do so with the graceful precision and careful reverence of Angela Narciso Torres’s excellent first collection of poetry. Torres bears genealogical witness to motherhood and daughterhood, family and gender roles with the cultivated abundance of a pristine archive or well-pruned mango grove, illuminated by fire trees and red moons, burnt cartography and Spanish ruins. Blood Orange weds references to Catholic sacraments and Filipino foodstuffs, to memories of Manila and postcards from Bohol, peppered with local names for flowering fruit trees, like siniguelas, guava, and caimito. The book’s simultaneously retro- and introspective structure allows the speaker to appraise a geographically-displaced childhood while raising children of her own. Often, this dual focus manifests through evocative use of the body. In the last stanzas of “Menarche,” for instance, the speaker’s mother explains how the Virgin Mary slaked the Christ child’s thirst with water from the tart lanzone, a fruit grown in the Philippines:

 

Dividing the flesh like a flower, five crescents

eclipsing the ghosts of pips, she points to

Mary’s imprint on each segment, faint as a line

on her open palm. I choose from the basket,

this one, perfect, round, topped with

a small dark star, aureole of a nursing breast.

 

The speaker intercedes, plucks the fruit, and draws a stark contrast to what she may have expected from the flesh:

 

I press out the sap, take it with my tongue.

What comes back is not the strawberry stain

that bloomed like a rose on my cotton skirt,

not the words Mother spoke in the dim

of her room, but how I winced when I bit

into seed, acid infusing smoke-sweet pulp.

 

Blood Orange abounds in such unexpected swerves and fitting redirection, capturing the small dissonances and unnoticed odd moments of everyday life. From the “punishing sweet” of blood oranges, to the talcous, metallic scent of young boys, to the weird calm after wicked typhoons, Torres luxuriates in the play of structured surprise, and her poems exhibit an unusual tolerance for casual, nonchalant lines of thinking. For some, these techniques may smack of low-grade insouciance or borderline indifference, but one enamored reader’s of a mind that these lyrics warrant the work of multiple reads, a welcome practice in patience. Indeed, the poetic speakers’ keen observations on human behavior need time to accrete into repeated concerns for life and how it’s beheld and, also, literally held, grasped at, contained. “To Do” starts as a list of quotidian tasks to be executed: phone a repairman, schedule dental check-ups, pick up groceries, practice yoga. When the speaker remembers to write a friend about a recent Amtrak trip, a long narrative tangent interrupts to redirect the poem’s focus:

 

Tell about the elderly couple

and their two-year-old grandson, how the grandfather clutched

the boy when the train lurched, then picked him up

as though lifting a brittle Chinese urn from the mantle.

When the boy wriggled into his grandmother’s lap, how she,

so unconcerned and vast, kept her eyes on her paperback,

held open with one hand, her other arm around the boy

who draped his body over her chest, his cheek on her padded

shoulder so he could look out the window.

 

Torres depicts the pair so differently: the grandfather, clutching at brittle life in the lurches; the grandmother, so “unconcerned and vast.” These two creatures harbor wildly divergent versions of biological certitude, of the relative frailty and strength of humanity. The poem closes with the speaker gazing out the window as well, but reading signs the sleepy boy can’t. So what begins as clinical itemization, shifts into apparently unrelated anecdote, only to move back to the speaker as she identifies with the sleepy child. In this way, Torres furnishes a busy portrait of an artist’s mind as it prioritizes. This image of mid-transit rumination re-occurs (“I try to pray, but all that comes is a string of Spanish / memorized on the train and the first lines of Padre Nuestro.”), and it strikes one male reader of Hispanic heritage how Torres touches on topics and themes that seem excruciatingly foreign (motherhood, daughterhood, childhood abroad) in ways that seek to explore “the deep / rivers of a heart pinned down,” and make them feel incredibly close. With this important addition to US letters, Torres joins the likes of Barbara Jane Reyes, Jose Perez Beduya, and Sarah Gambito, among many, extraordinary talented others.

 

 

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