by Gustavo Hernandez
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
Angela Narciso Torres’s poems in her chapbook To the Bone begin after her mother, Carmen, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To the Bone’s poems create a timeline that drifts in and out of physical, emotional, and temporal spaces to memorialize Carmen’s life, as well as to record Torres’s own journey of acceptance, reevaluation, and reconstruction in light of her mother’s diagnosis.
Through vibrant imagery and her observations of the everyday, Torres links past and present and uncovers the cross-time connections between mother and daughter—the advice passed down, the adages, the conflicts, and the histories of sadness. “If You Go To Bed Hungry” opens the collection. The poem’s couplets run through several advisory superstitions of the type elders might pass down to a younger generation. This prepares us for the intergenerational dialogue that is the essence of this book.
Poems like “Sundowning” illustrate Carmen’s vibrant spirit and alight upon different phases of her life, all the while forming her image—the musical talent that makes “the lovebirds fall silent,” her kisses of “guava and rust.” In the poems that blend in the present more heavily, such as “Via Negativa” and “What Isn’t There,” we can feel Torres grieving the absence of things that have gone or could have been, but these poems also illustrate the importance of the way she chooses to link the present to the past. In “The Immigrant Visits Her Mother,” Torres prepares a smoked salmon bagel for her mother and her facial expressions as she’s eating the meal convey that this particular taste has opened a sensory portal to the past. Through that portal, Torres can see a distant part of her mother’s life. “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.”
Torres also includes moments of self-analysis, exploring how her mother’s illness is transforming Torres herself and how her mother’s beliefs and legacy have shaped her. In “Self-Portrait As Water,” she marvels at the shape-shifting adaptability of the element, while in “Self-Portrait As Rosary Beads” she likens herself to firm, tactile decades of hope and meaning traversing the roads and inhabiting the rooms of life. The variety of these visions of the self, one can surmise, are essential in forming questions that will help Torres rebuild the world after her loss.
“A trail of L’air du Temps wafts / in her wake. I follow it to her room, / dab the scent on my wrists and throat.” In To the Bone, Torres shows us that the florid notes and the “amber rivers” of her mother’s life have had a deep impact on her as a writer and on her poetic voice. The delicate beauty of these poems makes it clear that her mother’s legacy will continue to guide her along that path.
Gustavo Hernandez is a poet from Santa Ana and the author of Flower, Grand, First (Skull+Wind Press 2021).
Click here to buy a copy of To the Bone. All proceeds benefit RAICES, a nonprofit organization providing free or low cost legal services to refugees, immigrants and their families.