Review by Laurie Saurborn
To the Bone
Angela Narciso Torres
(Sundress Publications, 2019)
Messages Telegraphic: Angela Narciso Torres’ To the Bone
Embracing the power of threes, the haiku poet Sugita Hisajo wrote: haiku poet, / caring mother— / this summer I’m a wreck. Language, circling and linking, the counted syllables hovering above and below what exists in the interstices. In a season in which language is remaking and remade, there is inherent liberation in pulling words together so that they may collectively and energetically gather and lead to a new definition and description of human experience. There is also a freedom created when language is not wholly up to the task of accuracy, when the words we write and speak cannot perfectly relay a situation’s every facet. Everything is not meant to be named, shared, habitable. Sometimes being adjacent, physically or definitionally, is as close as we are allowed.
And so it is when a beloved parent becomes ill and can no longer reassure us by the power of reflection—self to self, self of self—that our looks, our motions, our histories are received and verified. This exchange unravels as those we love age and grow unable to sing to us, or of us, in the ways we were taught to expect. A mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and can no longer join the shared musical score built over decades with her husband and children, between people who live and age in shared time. It is this reality that Angela Narciso Torres’ chapbook, To the Bone, welcomes the reader as her speaker wades into a world where Alzheimer’s disease is a wave that builds, crests, falls and retracts along a timeline that resists interference. Investigating themes expected in such a narrative—memory, recollection, loss, how illness changes someone in ways impossible to change back—the poems also embrace themes of place, music, and the slipperiness of roles between parent and child. Amid the flux, the speaker is unblinking, refusing to present images grounded in sentimentality or cliché. Acutely observant, the details upon which her eye alights encapsulate the undeniable physical evidence of a mind no longer operating as accustomed. This translates into a person no longer behaving or being as expected, as in “Recuerdo A Mi Madre”:
Finding my mother
crouched on the tiled floor
her flickering eyes swollen,
the housedress she loved
in shreds, my father led us
outside. Called an ambulance.
Her silence an explosive
he’d learned to detonate.
Bewildered, I grew up,
learned to embroider
an alphabet. I dipped my pen
in father’s tears. To know
my mother requires
the patience of a miner
carving amethyst from rock.
There is persistent motion—crouched, flickering, dipped, carving—amid proof of emergency held in the swollen eyes and the mother’s housedress. In the presence of aging parents, the speaker says: “Bewildered, I grew up,” naming herself both child and adult, her line a hinge on a door that opens and shuts simultaneously. Sonic echoes reverberate through housedress, ambulance, embroider, patience, and amethyst, between swollen and explosive, and collapse the imagined space between domesticity and emergency. Nostalgia meets the undeniable present: the speaker is a witness to the agreements her father and her ailing mother have constructed in order to cope and persist. What to do, when the world begins to spin faster, unpredictably, and cruelly? Despite the opportunities for despair, the poems insist upon curiosity, as in “What I Learned This Week”:
This week I learned
my mother is losing dexterity in both hands.
But when I play Bach’s Ave Maria on the piano, she lifts
her head, motions me to move her wheelchair closer . . .
. . . Her fingers can barely strike
the keys, but I hear them.
Hands, head, fingers: parts of the body that create and register sound. More so than in its performance, music as received connects these two women. Ave Maria amid the faint echoes of the keys subvert Alzheimer’s destruction and proves there are other, less obvious ways of knowing we are known by those we are with. Whitman wrote, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” and in these poems the bodies persist as circumstance thins finely constructed familial connections, roles and routines established at birth and developed through lifetimes.
In a voice brave, intimate and even, these poems ask: What is it to be sustaining and sustained? Is it sacrifice, hubris, or love, or a combination of the three? One of the most rich and disturbing poems in the book, “Sundowning,” moves from imagery to body as the day ends:
Unable to sleep, she made me lie next to her.
My brothers clambered the moonlit trees.
My legs twitched, a broken clock.
Her kisses are guava and rust . . .
Afternoons, she woke with an urge
to bite the brown loaf of my arm.
The marks on my flesh faded by sundown.
The sun, setting, marks a shift: a day is over. For many people with Alzheimer’s, it is the beginning of an evening phenomenon called sundowning, characterized by an increase in agitation and confusion. The images Torres conjure speak to movement and to disrepair, to corrosion and sweetness, and to the ability of one body to mark another. Throughout the poems, sound serves as a source of solace and self-soothing, a rhythm contained yet expanding and intertwined, a trellis of support in a life stage where what was dependable begins to fray:
used gum in seams of blue denim,
I’ve known pain clinics and airports, taxicabs
and stale schoolrooms where time is
a honeycomb in winter . . .
. . . Counted, accountable, counting,
counted on. Crystallized, dangled on a string
or hung on from a mirror in a river of traffic,
praying for green, for an end, for a mutiny
(“Self-Portrait as Rosary Beads”)
Gum, denim, comb. Used, winter, mutiny. Pain, praying, rain. Specificity requires the courage to locate and to choose: this, not that. Here, not there. In these lines, pain is not just a fact of physicality nor an objective or subjective experience, but is joined to clinics, which opens a very specific kind of door, one into medical management, frustration, success, hope, and chronicity. It also acknowledges and includes, without naming, the presence of others who provide care, both family and stranger. While the world of these poems is intensely personal, it is not hermetically sealed. Illness necessitates the presence of others, and it also splits the world into “before” and “after.” One senses that at the crux of the poems is a not knowing of how to proceed when that division becomes scrambled. Geographic location supplies some detail, and it also illustrates how by degrees the past serves as a linkage to a time in which the narrator did not, and does not, exist:
and hemispheres away, dawn burns
through Manila smog, licks the blinds
of the kitchen where my mother fills
her mouth with the salt and sting
of her first New York winter
the year before I was born.
(“The Immigrant Visits Her Mother”)
Pauses—points of consideration but not hesitation—are created by internal punctuation and line breaks, reminding one of a feather, slowly swaying down through the air, dropping a bit more each moment, until it (and the poem) comes to rest in the past. The speaker brings her mother into being as a stranger, perhaps as the speaker fears she is becoming unknown to her mother. Again, sonic linkages abound: decades, dawn, licks. Burns, blinds, born. Manila, winter. Salt and sting. No matter how vast the distance grows, the speaker employs sound to draw all of the versions of her mother together. It brings to mind an essay by Theodor Kallifatides , who wrote in his collection, Another Life: “When I was twenty-five years old, I asked myself how I should live my life, and the answer was: Leave.” But Kallifatides, like Torres, finds with age the answer becomes, “Go back.” Writing of the self and others often necessitates a clear distinction or intentional blur between persons, and punctuation and lineation can strengthen either approach. All the more striking, then, when the lines jettison those signals. With the omission of nearly all punctuation in “Narrow Bed,” the listed objects the speaker’s mother requests become physical beacon—become everything, really—as the lines point to what might be done, now:
no visitors no cellphone no
end to night but the nurse
who relayed messages
bathrobe Saint Jude
Jell-O chenille slippers
boar bristle brush
As the lines become shorter the scope tightens, the nurse disappears, there are only objects, each deeply important and desired, marking an unwished for arrival in a land of uncontrollable determinations, where concrete objects, no matter how fragile, become tethers to the present and a person. When you are of another’s body, where does one begin, one end? When that body is declining, part of you, certainly, is pulled along with it. What do you do when the body of your birth is disappearing? One strategy is to hold onto the things they held and held dear. Yet the implicit power of To the Bone is in its belief in the power of letting go. In “Some Uses of Friction,” the sun appears again, this time in the form of roasted hazelnuts removed of their skins by the motions of the speaker’s hands:
A hazelnut’s husk is the thinnest paper.
Rubbing the roasted globes between
my palms, I make brown rain.
In my hand: five dusty suns.
When mother’s memory became a slide
I planted questions like sandpaper. Isn’t
that so-and-so? – in the frame at her bedside.
Some things caught. Others didn’t.
This speaker, no longer bewildered, has the power to make rain, to calmly knock at the door of her mother and inquire within. Trying to pull her mother out of her mother, however, is not as simple in a changed world where this mother, a doctor, has memories like “black pigeons flying off at dusk.” When asked by the speaker to recall the painter of her portrait, or a recipe for oxtail stew, or the experience of learning the kundimans, this mother’s eyes become “two searchlights, sweeping.” Life is not a line of static moments to be flipped like cards. The present is a moving force. In these poems there are no stopping places, no points of recalcitrance or reluctance. The speaker does not fight the lines or what she discovers within. They are places of reflection and realization, whereby revelation allows a simultaneous inhabitance of vulnerability and unknowing adjacent to, and connected with, her mother’s illness. Moving forward despite the outcome, the poems often circle an image even as the lines firmly move the reader on. As broken, the lines of “What Happens is Neither” create a sense of gentle whiplash, akin to the experience of caring for a loved one who is ill as well as witnessing their illness and the changes it brings. It is a space one can momentarily turn from, as occurs at a line’s end, before the reader is returned to the situation as it continues in the next line:
the end nor the beginning.
Yet we’re wired to look for signs.
Consider the peonies. One makes
a perfect bud after months of nothing.
Another’s leaves are ringed with
black rot. How can I not think end.
How can I not say beginning.
Not questions in the last two lines, but statements that as written might read as prayer. Later in the poem, under the sway of a violin’s music the mother becomes a season, a leaf: He played / his violin till she slept—a leaf / in late fall curling into itself. As the poem continues, a fork falls to a tiled floor. Sound and object become tools used to press on through unchartered territory, underscoring a particular understanding of shared human experience while also delicately and forcefully grounding the speaker’s unique experiences and observations within a present that can be only hers. In the next stanza we are brought to trees, to time as recorded by humans, to the physical body in a domestic scene, to the mind moving on past the last line: I try not to think of endings.
In America, the elderly and those struggling with Alzheimer’s often do so within the environments of nursing homes and care facilities, if families are able to afford such care after exhausting homecare options. As the world vaults, moment by moment, into continual being, into an overdue and deeply necessary examination and reckoning with the systematic un-selfing of many Americans amid a public health crisis, writing about the body, in health and in illness and all the gray areas between, may serve as a reminder that within the human mind flickers the capacity for re-imagination. Walking my dog the other morning, across our path floated a small piece of something, drifting on the humid summer breeze. As we passed it and it passed us, my brain refused to name it as one thing, instead presenting three possibilities: seeds from a cottonwood tree, Poly-fil from a stuffed toy, or a bit of duck feather from one of the many nesting and living around the small, anonymous suburban ponds we visit daily. Was it all of these? None of them? Every day has its losses and its gains, though some are so slight—a bit of feather on the breeze–they move by unnoticed and unconsidered. Torres’ poems collect what is missed, shut away, turned from, and in so doing she creates a vibrant testimony to the power of presence and reply.
Listen to Angela Narciso Torres read “Kinds of Stillness”
Laurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. An NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her writing and photography have appeared in publications such as Rkvry Quarterly, storySouth, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, The Rumpus, and Tupelo Quarterly. Currently, she is pursuing a graduate degree in psychiatric mental health nursing at Ohio State University.
Angela Narciso Torres is the author of Blood Orange (Willow Books, 2013), To the Bone (Sundress Publications, 2020) and What Happens Is Neither (Four Way Books, 2021). Her recent work appears in POETRY, Waxwing, and TriQuarterly. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program and Harvard Graduate School of Education, she is a senior and reviews Editor for the literary journal, RHINO. angelanarcisotorres.com