Book Review: Yes Thing No Thing by Edwin Torres (Roof Books, 2010)
Cosmic Duality, Earthly Insight
by Susan Scutti
A great deal is expected of Edwin Torres. His poems are always playful and often astonishing; sometimes they are awe-inspiring. Torres’ latest collection, Yes Thing No Thing, contains striking outbursts, trippy graphic-and-verbal feats, as well as lyrical episodes. The title, I suppose, refers in part to the binary concept, the system upon which computers process information. A question seems to lurk within each of these poems: How is interaction with this system changing our mental processes? (Or, Does our relationship with computers have any fallout?)
A Dog Named Tarantula sprawls from page 77 to 103 and at first glance appears to be constructed to express aspects of all that is binary. For example, the poem makes use of both the language of words and the language of graphics; the poem also plays on divergent ideas such as natural/artificial, feminine/masculine, spirit/matter; images divide the pages into sections of black and white; eventually, square shapes give way to circle shapes. There is a question of how to read the piece; in places it can be read down each separate page or read across facing pages. Yet Torres moves beyond simple exploration of binary logic in this poem. Strife exists within the dualities presented here; graphics deface some of the words on pages 96 and 97; the bottoms of whole lines of text peek out beneath slender black columns, which commandeer the page. The poem also makes reference, both verbally and graphically, to string theory.
Yet. Yet the ambitions of the poem overwhelmed me. I understood some of what was going on but not enough to feel grounded, not enough to take knowledge from the poem and be moved by it. My hope is that Torres gives expression to these ideas again in some future poem, a poem that acknowledges a reader’s co-existing ignorance and desire --- ignorance regarding these theoretical matters and desire to become familiar with them.
Without a doubt reading Torres can be a most demanding cerebral experience. That said, my favorites in this collection include those poems that are most familiarly lyrical. The Name of Things is composed of six, simple and sometimes-rhymed quatrains which find perfect counterparts in sound and child-like vocabulary:
Tell me a story about a frog named Painting and a bird
named Painting and how color changes color to see sky
Tell me about the fire that flies across a cloud called Rain
talk louder said my ear to my eye
Read softly aloud, this poem will transport you. Similarly, a pleasing melody begins Lunar Shift:
The breath implied from where it
bends, calls you and me to song again.
Maybe the animals know more than
we do about change and what happens
Although the poem ultimately illustrates mild discord within a couple’s relationship, the language remains within the gentle register of the experience it describes. There is no catastrophe here, this is no tragedy. Disagreement, Torres implies, simply signals another necessary and slight shift in each person’s perception of the other, it is an essential part of ongoing personal evolution. If these two poems are, admittedly, less demanding than A Dog Named Tarantula as well as some of the other more abstract poems in this collection, I believe they also offer greater insight.
Intact is a series of sixteen, single-page poems, each bearing a title formulated as an infinitive. For instance, one poem in the series (imperfectly transferred to your computer screen, below) proposes a single, precise metaphor:
: ~ : To Stop : ~ :
Has there ever been
as déjà vu --- where hand
begins and knows
Each of the brief poems within this series proposes a singular experience: a lone question; a solo scene described in full; a single drama played out completely. The words comprising these poems appear as if splattered from a paint brush onto the page. This impressionistic style as well as the form of a series works well for Torres, allowing him to convey small truths with great beauty.
Finally, Moonboy/The Boy Made of Glass is an appealing piece that begins with a single free verse poem followed by a series of prose poems. Each of these prose poems tells another piece of an ongoing story told by a father to his son and ends on a note of imaginative suspense. Torres invents this whimsical tale from simple language as well as the most natural elements, and by doing so he achieves a touching and beautiful poem.
Having seen Torres perform many times, I understand him to be a true poet. This is not something I say lightly --- there are few people I call “poet.” (How many writers offer us anything we really need or want for our journey into the future?) Yet, standing at the back of some restless audience, listening to Torres read his poems I have found myself responding to his words in a unique and physical way; my vision (my actual eyesight) somehow sharpens. I see better listening to him speak. No other writer has inspired a similar reaction for me and because of this, I believe he is special… a poet! His latest book, Yes Thing No Thing is a demanding collection of poems from an accomplished writer. In it, Torres not only plays fast and furious with both verbal and graphic language, but he also alludes to advanced scientific theory. Ultimately, I believe most of these thematically complex poems would be stronger if they were rendered more simply. I crave a second go at these themes --- but next time I hope Torres writes with a greater understanding of a reader’s intellectual imperfections.