Notes on What Happens is Neither

What Happens is Neither by Angela Narciso Torres

Four Way Books, 2021

Cover art: “The Art of an Artist,” Alexandra Regina Morales

My notes tell me my plan was to review this book in May, and I was on track with my first reading, but life intruded with its worries, tasks, and preoccupations, ones that the poet would understand, given her many poems about her parents, and now my re-readings in summer allow a special connection to “Suburban Backyard in Late July,” with its black-eyed Susan and coneflower blooming in the first line, and “August,” with its question: “How or where to keep / this slow-growing grief?” As Angela Narciso Torres’s title poem, “What Happens is Neither,” tells me, “we’re wired to look for signs.” So here I am, in the heart of summer, seeing the signs all over again, learning that “What Happens is Neither / the end nor the beginning,” and that “[a] bud that will not bloom is called a bullet.” That bullet, from “What I Learned This Week,” pierces me again, as before. In that same poem, “Some say music memory / is the last to go,” and I find it such a comfort, as I hear so many songs in my head, some unnamed by memory, no lyrics arising, so that I stretch my mind to seek and find, in order to resolve a line…a chord. I am saddened again to learn in this poem that there are “[n]o more fireflies in Northern Indiana,” as I greet the hour of fireflies every evening this summer in my own backyard. And deeply saddened by the losses in this book, dedicated to the poet’s parents, who died just weeks apart in 2019.

I am moved again by the beauty, sorrow, complexity, and bewilderment in “Recuerdo a mi Madre” in lines like, “I close my eyes / and see a trembling star,” and “To know my mother // is to memorize / a labyrinth of longing.” The poem “Alzheimer’s” announces her diagnosis. The poem “Pearl Divers” is diving for memories. In “The Immigrant Visits Her Mother,” memory arrives by taste:

          …For a moment she was
          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. Here, decades
          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.

This miracle moment comes from the gift of “slivers of smoked salmon” the daughter has brought from Chicago for this visit. In other poems, the mother does not recognize her husband or confuses him with her father, does not recognize her daughter, wonders where she is, and why—all the woes. Asks

               where is my husband?

          on a prescription slip, scribbled
          in her physician scrawl

And then, amidst all the heartbreak, are the poems of resilience, beauty, work, family life that continues, rare moments of witness, or near-witness, as in the poem “Shed,” where the gecko privately sheds her skin. This time around, I was struck by the gift of a thimble in this stanza from “Sundowning”:

          Before you go, I want to give you something.
          She hands me a thimble painted with a map
          of Cuba. We’ve never been to Cuba.

I’ve never been to Cuba, either, though my husband was born there. We were thinking of going, as a family, before travel was suspended, and now is still not the right time. This time around, in What Happens is Neither, I connect with “Self-Portrait as Water,” asking “why does the body feel / more beautiful underwater—” maybe because I am swimming laps again, though the poem is about water in a tub. I am connecting and intersecting with the poems in all kinds of ways, open to them, and how they brush me as gently as a feather. Oh, yes, there it is! “Feather,” the poem in which the poet concludes

                                   .… The point
          is how, armed with a feather,
          I believed I could make a mark.

Oh, yes, this poet can!

–Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

Angela Narciso Torres at EIL
[4 poems from book: “Warm Spell, February,” “Shed,” “Return,” “Watch”]

Angela Narciso Torres in Heart to Heart: Love Poems at EIL
[contains “Pont des Arts” from this book]

Angela Narciso Torres in International Women’s Day at EIL
[contains “Self Portrait as Rosary Beads”]

Angela Narciso Torres in Work Poems, Labor Day at EIL
[contains “Chore”] 

Angela Narciso Torres in Father’s Day 2019 at EIL
[contains “After Dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf”]

Angela Narciso Torres in Poets on Poetry at EIL



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