Blood Orange by Angela Narciso Torres
Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2013; 67 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
Allegiant to its transitory nature, the idea of home is often long altered before we think to call its name. Over time, it becomes a scene wavering in the rear-view mirror, a place that disappears the moment we turn around. Yet it is in this reflection we persistently look for answers that often reveal themselves, if at all, as complicated and incomplete. Even the masters come up dry: As Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory: “Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me . . .”
The poems in Angela Narciso Torres’ first book, Blood Orange, acknowledge the ever-changing nature of home and how, over time, it grows to contain many elements beyond the boundaries of house and body—geographies and objects, oceans and relationships. Brooklyn-born, raised in Manila, and currently living in Chicago, the Filipina-American Torres, like her speaker, is a traveler. Like her speaker, she inhabits a broad range of social and familial roles, her voice possessing what might be interpreted as hard-won self-awareness:
Forgive me, but I am still
the daughter of my angry and beautiful mother,
impatient to turn the corner, to catch the first train. (“Paris Aubade”)
Often, these narrative-driven poems relay images of locations (Bohol, Xcaret, Paris, Isla Mujeres) the speaker is herself recollecting from a later vantage point. Memory has an impressive ability to compress time (or ignore it altogether), and Torres uses this capacity with great effectiveness. Over the space of a few lines in the poem, “Diagnosis,” the speaker grows from a child tying her shoes into an adult mother with a child in her arms, worriedly awaiting her own test results. Similarly, “Reflection, 3 a.m.,” maps the speaker’s attention as it flows seamlessly from her ill son, to his infanthood, to the lush, green landscape of her childhood, before ending as the speaker recalls her own youthful attempt to keep her beloved father nearby. At their core, these poems offer a way to survive life’s worries: by entering those structures of memory forever providing safe shelter.
Though the speaker is not afraid to make frank inquiries (“Do certain trees feel less, or more, entitled to/their patch of dirt and air? Do we ever outgrow childhood?”), the poems provide few direct answers and resist reassuring platitudes. Indeed, one of the speaker’s most striking characteristics is her ability to exist with, and within, uncertainty, that famous Keatsian state of negative capability. As the speaker laments in “Thursday, after Dinner at L’Amie Donia”:
Stay, stay—I want to cry out,
but the images dim and blur at the edge of morning,
so that by noon I’ve lost entire stories, and starting
at the beginning doesn’t help me to remember.
There is no solution, no “irritable reaching after fact and reason,” only the continual willingness to submerge, again and again, in the sea of what cannot be kept still. Here, as in other poems, Torres adroitly traverses the distance between observer and participant, capturing the psychological process of remembering—or trying to remember—one place or time while always being in another.
As Stuart Cooke writes in the introduction to The Centre Cannot Hold: Six Contemporary Filipino Poets, “their willingness to unsettle the object, the speaker, and the situation of the poem, reveals a commitment to experiences of dislocation and homelessness . . . of people moving ceaselessly away from, towards, across territories.” Consideration of postcolonial poetries and politics further enrich and inform the experience of Torres’ work, fostering a mindful awareness of occupation’s practices and the forced—and resisted—religious and linguistic conversions imposed upon the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. As native and stranger, daughter and mother, wife and sister, the speaker reveals with vulnerability and transparency her modern-day, cohesive persona.
“You shall bring forth your work as a mother brings/forth her child: out of the blood of your heart,” Gabriela Mistral wrote in “Decalogue of the Artist.” This is no stationary collection of poems pinned to a board, but a flourishing archive. A land of memory and longing, it is rife with evocative images, where body and environment blend in metaphor and simile, where “The grass is a woman’s unpinned hair” and “all that returns is the sea’s roar/like drowned names of towns we crossed in the night.” Forever roaming, always gathering, the speaker leaves no disconnected scraps behind. Like the quilt she pieces together when pregnant and returns to sewing, years later, with a tender, economical music the poems pull their stitches tight as they move through states of nostalgia and displacement, searching as many do for the intersection where past and present will clearly cross and announce itself as home.