Filipina-American poet Angela Narciso Torres launched her first book Blood Orange (Willow Books 2013) late last September in Illinois, serving notice that Philippine poetry in English is not only alive and well in another tropic or hemisphere, but also beating with the heart of deep kinship. There is not a line here that doesn’t celebrate family, however indirectly at times, the primary unit of society that for the most part is front and center of her poetry.
Divided into three sections of more or less equal number of poems, Blood Orange evokes memories of the homeland and traces an ancestry to suburban Metro Manila, from one who has since settled down on the opposite side of the world and several latitudes higher, starting her own family in the great American Midwest while letting the bloodlines become song lines that eventually bleed into verse.
In Blood Oranges, which could be the title poem and perhaps the shortest in the collection, she sets forth a subtle ars poetica rooted in a snapshot of childhood, where two young friends look at the peelings of oranges they ate by the riverside as if they were petals of strange fruit, a sweetness in the air lingering. The whiff of verse stays like an afterthought, and the reader is left with a light stain of past longings and departures.
This delicate balance is reinforced in “Entre chien et loup,” a reference to the French about “all we know of heaven” — and here a paraphrase of the poet, at the risk of losing poetry — being “in the eyelash between day and night, between dog and wolf.” She is familiar with leave-takings as well as celebratory welcomes, yet never dwelling on cheap sentiment, the poetic narrative whole, the picture slowly taking shape as in the poem “Dark room.”
The book’s structure itself is full of comings and goings, the balikbayan daughter returning to San Juan with her sons who learn the Tagalog word for “rain,” the sprawl of the city in 1999 and the outlying villages upon plane’s touchdown, the grandparents and nannies, the laundrywoman with her transistor radio tuned in to melodramas, the eaves and overhangs of a middle class house that could be any house in the suburban metro, briefly capturing the changing light.
There’s the poem that recalls how her father proposed to her mother with a large bag of lanzones nearby, one of the fruit rolling on to the ground as if a foreshadowing; surely this is born of a mother’s story to her daughter who cannot but translate the moment into poetry, how everyday conversation can be made into verse, slowly gaining a sheen and polish through an internal if not altogether invisible rhythm and meter.
“Freedom,” where the poet recalls riding at the back of a bicycle with older brother up front, brings back the exhilaration of riding a bike at a tender age, even if only as a passenger. For a nanosecond there we, too, are breezing past houses in old neighborhood streets, our childhood a blur without nostalgia or assorted sentimientos, no time for that in the quick of remembrance where freedom is the wind quickly blowing through one’s hair.
In another zone, the poems set in Illinois and similar environs are seldom without the presence of family, as alternately the poet drives her mother to the dentist and her sons to school, during which she learns many wondrous things. That, for one, her mom is scared of motorcycles and umbrellas. Her sons, meanwhile, offer a trove of weird data only children can think of, funny facts that reveal a fledgling sense of humor, but already you can almost hear the kids arguing among themselves about the exactness of their research.
“First Day” has put into verse every mother’s experience of taking her kid to school at start of classes, the last glance as she drives off correlated with her long goodbyes to her father at the airport, and she perceives that one day the son will too be like her taking leave of a parent. There’s an element of cinema as the kid raises his arm to wave because the poet’s viewfinder is already at the treetops with their “auburn light.”
Back in the tropics, “Aratiles” is an outstanding poem for its quiet lyricism that resurfaces in the reader similar memories surrounding the humble berry and its distinct smell, an elusive accidental perfume of youth. No other fruit of childhood can best evoke the rambles of past days, its tree branches like uneven bars on which to swing from, while underneath the first games were played and first cigarettes lighted, the first beers drank. The poet catches a scent of it in some boardwalk, mingled with salt air and cotton candy.
Then there’s a poem where the phrase “everyone’s gone to Brazil” is used like a refrain, and another where three lines from a separate poet is employed like a loop sample in a modern verse mash up.
In a world grown increasingly disjointed, there must be a place for poetry that celebrates family. But if poetry itself has become perishable, as the sportswriting poet Recah Trinidad says, what does that make family? One big happy worm family? Not yet, not yet, because in Blood Orange there’s still room for innocence and beauty to be born.