The Poetry Project

On quanundrum [I will be your many angled thing] by Edwin Torres

danilo machado

“[N]o margins in my fingers, no borders in my pen,” proclaims Edwin Torres in quanundrum [i will be your many angled thing]. In this latest collection Torres grapples with seeing and hearing language between islands and cosmos. The book’s red-squiggle title evokes a conundrum at the quantum level, or perhaps locates the poems in the conundrums of quarantine. The poems within these spaces sing scales cosmic and cellular, overflow into each other. The book’s design is as graphic as its stanzas: Torres rejects any version of a poem or collection that does not press up against the colonial, disembodied edges of the page.

The book’s first and second sections have their titles encircled in ink, the letters spelling “dawn” cascading in repetition, as if pushed down past the end of the page. The circle, like condensation from a glass on a napkin, is one of the collection’s recurring visual motifs. It’s presented whole and broken, in bullet points, in colons, and in ellipsis. “[D]ot here, dot there, to again the again, / and there, the dot and here,” Torres writes, as if he were a pointillist. These become portals to and through these poems, directing the reader like the other motifs of arrows, slashes, and dashes.

Torres upends expectations of the page and of the act of reading, refusing a single presentation of his verses in font, size, layout, and orientation. Each spread spills and slants, some taking shape as concrete poems; some stanzas bolded, some skinny, some boxed. Some pages recall the uppercase pith of artist Jenny Holzer, some the work of Kameelah Janan Rasheed, who also makes words leak, warp, and blur to interrogate many kinds of legibility.

These visual textures often emphasize language’s sonic qualities, and are another way the collection is injected by rhythm and movement. (Torres has made significant contributions to the ongoing legacy of New York City slam and spoken word.) Torres deftly traverses between ideas and deploys corresponding tactics that guide your eyes. These travels are not just left to right or down the page—they are back and backwards, around and around. Indeed, the book is, in part, about the experience of reading, and Torres sometimes steps in as the patient, winking guide of his own word.

Torres is committed to and repelled by legibility: a conundrum. In “[of what is],” for example, Torres contends with an “accumulation of hearing”: of who said and hearsay. The work tangles and tangoes with the relationship between seeing and saying—and the consequences of whose sight, voice, or pen. There are passages where Torres winkingly spells out words, as if to say: say it, gringo, say it—let me hear you try. Like other kinds of translations present in the collection, Torres always tells it slant, rooted in a knowledge of many worlds and corresponding languages. While often playful, underpinning these slights are the many violences of colonial language and the othering gaze.

Another key tension in the collection is between the part and whole. In “[compromise],” Torres complicates the expectations and disappointments of being presented with parts, its angled stanzas zig-zagging across two pages. The poem concludes with the quatrain “all the parts you fit / to all the parts you make / to all the parts you want / to all the parts you take,” punctuated by a black circle at the bottom of the page. The circle, present in full just a few pages before, is also cut in four parts. The echoing theme of how parts puzzle together and how we make choices about which to take (or desire) relates to language and to complex gestures of identity. “All color is full color — not lack of / but all — there is no density / in the fullness of being,” , Torres writes later, perhaps alluding to the ways marginalized identities are flattened. Torres also demonstrates how naming those compositional parts—constellations made of stars, countries made of islands, communities made of individuals, words made of syllables—is one of the things that poetry can do best. Indeed, the poet reflects: “fracture feeds my write.”

In quanundrum, Torres builds archipelagos: collections of land surrounded by water, of words surrounded by blank space. In “[song of no island],” he writes: “from the edges that inspire me / to the edges that surround me / to the edges that define me / I’m a land of no horizon.” The lack of horizon echoes as Torres moves from galaxies to water, naming a desire to both “speak my island” and “reach no island.” What is conjured by this repeated image is not just the geological, or the emotional metaphor of isolation, but Torres’s relationship to Puerto Rico. The collection wrestles with Puerto Ricanness as a signifier, not just of biography but of political community. A key figure in the Nuyorican movement, in “[immigrant earthling],” Torres names the “Quantum Ricans” and the “Alter-Ricua NoRicua Project;” perhaps alter- like angled thing, perhaps No- as part negation. The project is a communal one, since indeed “you can’t be ethnic alone” . Later, Torres declares: “We are all islands. / We have all traveled. / We are all from somewhere else,” a refrain that eventually morphs into “planet,” again drawing lines (or circles) between the terrestrial and cosmic.

In quanundrum [i will be your many angled thing], each poem is both the rushing river and the dirt at its floor—fluid and grounded. The brackets that cushion many of the titles evoke both limitation and openings, and as a whole the collection reminds us that “— poetry can anything / if you let it —” and that within the chaos may exist “a calm / out of kinetic obstruction.” It reflects an optimism and a need for creation, perhaps to the point of awe. “[W]e develop new organs to function,” Torres writes, “we are impossible question marks, curved / by human vocabulary—what face is yours / cured by vocabulary—by new limbs in movement.” Oh what nimble lines, what nimble limbs! What comes after the poem? After the poet? “The last resistance I have / is my body,” the poet concludes, and maybe that is what is left.

#271 – Winter 2023