By Kristin Dykstra
One morning in late November, 1799, Samuel Taylor Coleridge watched the sun rise. Then a mass of bodies rose before him, a striking event that he described in his notebook:
I saw Starlings in vast Flights, borne along like smoke, mist— like a body unindued with voluntary Power / — now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined—now they formed a Square— now a Globe— now from complete orb into an Ellipse— then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thinning or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening!
Edwin Torres emerges as Coleridge’s poetic heir for our moment with his 2021 collection, Quanundrum. This is not because Torres describes murmuration. He performs it, his fragments swooping and turning over the pages. Words thin and thicken, repeat and twist in their patterns.
It’s clear from the visual appearance of Quanundrum that Torres is a graphic designer as well as a poet. He allows dramas of organization and reorganization, clusters and regroupings, to overtake the collection.
Much of his clustering of words happens around identity designations. The subtitle of Torres’s collection, [I will be your many angled thing], points directly toward a premise on which the book relies. He problematizes the “I,” not allowing selfhood to stabilize into one identity. The human being is multitudinous:
all the parts you fit
to all the parts you make
to all the parts you want
to all the parts you take
(“[compromise],” lines 49-52)
Personhood consists of the potential ambulations of your collection of parts, day in, day out. Each of us will “move as a structure / defining mobility” (98-99, “[to beget the listening parade]: what is it to move during these times”).
Torres inventories his own multi-part structure by riffing across roles he has sketched in other collections. He achieves a serial application of the “qua” from his book title, in two registers: qua as a general idea of a role, and qua, particular examples of roles. The self manifests, the self thins to nothing, the self dissolves, the self regroups across varied roles. Because a principle of Quanundrum defines livingness by way of our repetitions, it makes sense that Torres revisits roles he outlined in earlier collections, such as I qua son; I qua urban dweller. And more: there is a self as father, who is also a teller of bedtime tales with stars and moonscapes, building on Torres’s appealing 2010 collection, YesThing NoThing. I qua poet manifests as well, here in lines of three:
if the I, in I, … weren’t a poet
I would worry that I couldn’t separate existences
that there is much more of me
in the unknown … than I will ever
need or see or be
if I weren’t a poet … I would have imploded
(“[overflow],” lines 22-27)
Out of this storyteller/poet self, Torres draws the more specific role of avant-garde poet. He makes appearances as “lingualisualist” (a term of his own earlier invention, which appears prominently in his biographical notes) at intervals throughout Quanundrum:[ii]
say say savi savi sor sor salee saloo sweven sweven swalla swallay see on, say on, to see, to see, to see on blanking the moment, on silent integral, on obfusement, o words are coming to me, you are making me into o words, I think of you and say o words, as you imagine my grounded smote, as I imagine your wind torn slatch, I am in your o words
(“[to summon the kept immortal],” p. 89)
Another repeat role is reminiscent of his Ameriscopia (2014), where Torres took up I qua ethnic subject and used it to multiply forms of “Americanness.” The ethnic subject, as a role, gains more particularity in several poems in Quanundrum. In “[immigrant earthling],” Torres presents an extended, playful examination of ethnicity prompted by the appearance of “a galactic ethnic” who “would call earth immigrant” (lines 4-5). Parody aside, Torres pauses to take in the impossibility of separating ethnic identification from community: “—you can’t be ethnic alone—” (line 138). It is one of many moments showing that the book is interrogating constructs of community, in addition to individuality.
Ethnonyms recur. When the ethnic self gets designated as islander, its terms will intersect with other names: Puerto Rican, Taíno, and Boricua (“Taíno” being an imprecise ethnic umbrella term retroactively applied to indigenous peoples of the larger Caribbean islands, and “Boricua” an identifier derived from the island’s indigenous name). “Nuyorican,” the neologism based on the idea of Puerto Ricans living in New York, reminds the reader of diasporic identities.[iii] Racializing descriptors fold into this flow of ethnonyms, as in the following excerpt involving the “trigueño” (sometimes translated as “olive-skinned,” a position not identical to the whiteness or blackness acknowledged elsewhere in this book):
(he’s from New York) … (from Puerto Rico New York) …
(he’s a new Rican) … (what they call) … (a Riqueño) …
(bein’ New) … (or Trigueño) … (Speakin’ New) … (or Rican) …
(a Nuyo seekin’ No yorker) … (is he New) … (or a Porter) …
(“no yoyo],” lines 1-4)
That last line does a lot of work, introducing the resistant No and landing on the presumptive equation of person to service worker. Variations on the theme of “no” repeatedly balance assertions in Quanundrum, sometimes overtaking them: “I wanna speak American – I wanna speak my island / I wanna go where I can no – I wanna reach no island” (“[song of no island],” lines 9-10). The No-Ricua (again, a role reappearing from earlier projects by Torres) enables the No’merican: “how do you speak No’merican – how do you speak no island / I wanna know where I can go – if I can speak no island” (lines 11-12).
Whereas I qua ethnic subject imagines being a wanderer, I qua self enfolds another repeating role, the maker of mistakes, more anxiously errant:
look at how I listen
to the wrong thing again
—disturbing a sky again
(“[celestial suite]: if I’m talking to you / it’s because you can hear me,” lines 1-3)
“I qua performer” is another constant in Torres’s career. For anyone who has listened to his explorations of resonant sound, his plays of timbre and effect, it will be impossible to overlook the possibilities of Quanundrum as a performance script. This step circles me back toward the structure of the book as murmuration: resonant tones may be emitted by starlings or by poets. Murmuration, definition 1a: “The action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling; an instance of this. Now chiefly literary.”[iv] Torres has no problem using the space of the literary as soundbox.
The formal variety of the poems in Quanundrum, at which I’ve hinted in these short excerpts foregrounding distinct yet repeating identities, rises to another level with design. Torres inserts blocks, thick black lines, vertical division of the page into columns of varying size (allowing for an “I” who occupies the margins, as on 26-31 and 41), graphics evoking a sun or moon, and later the cosmic body’s apparent melt into drips down the page, a disturbed sky. Some poems lead into an explosion of words that I can best liken to the appearance of a flock of birds, as it lifts out of the trees into the air. To make this claim more tangible requires following a series of his shifts; my next examples observe the flow of words across six pages.
“[The story of morning]” opens with a tone of rumination, and a voice evoking Torres’s father/storyteller self, now part bird:
there was a man … hiding inside a boy
and then this boy … started to fly … riding high riding high in his sky
there was a sky … riding inside a man
and then this man … started to fly … follow me follow me you will fly
there was a bird … flying inside a man
At line 11, the poem shifts into a distinct drumming repetition of “talk to me,” of which its remaining twenty-eight lines consist. This call—pulling in the reader—is immediately followed by the book’s apparent title poem, “[quanundrum],” which consists entirely of thirteen repetitions of the lines, “universe got fast faster / my fast faster.”
On the next two pages, the accelerating landscape of the world explodes into a facing-page layout of words in various sizes, their lines overlapping as if in wild ascent. Linear organization remains: that is, like the murmuration of starlings, the graphic energy is simultaneously explosive and ordered, according to some principle that the viewer may or may not intuit in the moment of confrontation. Flocking behavior intensifies on the following page (36), where words expand in size, as though some had turned and were flying directly at the reader.
As in any murmuration of birds, the flock abruptly turns and subsides. Transitioning out of the explosion of words and presence, Torres invokes blankness, then balance, inviting readers to know themselves qua obstruction:
Once you are given the opening – to encounter negative space
In proportion to positive space – a new balance is born, a calm
out of kinetic obstruction. Your gift – to become the obstruction
to resonate in the steady.
(“[the acrobat’s last meal],” lines 1-4)
At this point, if reading carefully, we’re prepared to recognize that steadiness will itself rapidly turn again, in keeping with the principle of ongoing transformation over time. Yet we can anticipate balance through future repetitions, too.
Whatever constitutes “the political” in Quanundrum is similarly both volatile and constant. Torres risks upsetting desires for political speech to be more easily stabilized, its groupings reliable. This issue of politics requires consideration of sound in the context of Quanundrum. Speech qua poet, avant-garde poet, ethnic subject and more—these forms of speech periodically come together, which you may read either as overlay (chaotic) and/or chorus (organized). In other words, they meet in a convergence.
Convergence signals a moment of unification, although we know this coming together of parts is transitory: these parts will shift again. If components swirl as smoke, as mist, can meaningful political movement lie only within a more conservative aesthetics—one that commits to static contours? Is this poetry somehow apolitical or escapist?
Torres suggests that if we answer yes, we have to recognize our own (strategic?) commitments to illusion. He underlines the inescapable condition of plurality by giving one of his poems a three-part title. “INSEMINATION OF THE AVANT-GARDE’O’RICAN (or) RE-INSERT-A-NATION OF ‘EM AVANT GARDE’O’RICAN (or) RE-EXAMINATION OF THE DOWNTOWN ‘RICAN ” (76-77) shows that even suspiciously “avant” performances can be laden with political import. Torres may even propose that this realm offers the most honesty and openness of mind, even if the creation of poetry constitutes a type of immaterial labor in the contemporary capitalist economy, where radicalism may always already be contained, thus disempowered. Torres’s poem teaches us to see politics and poetics as deeply volatile states, bundles of tension, which our many personhoods negotiate.
That insight is simultaneously menacing and life-giving, for it could answer yes to both of these fundamental questions: Is “multitude” a creature unavoidably captive to the economic systems of twenty-first century capitalism, through its dense twisting of all our threads of labor? Or is “multitude” the counterforce to dominant powers, the thing that makes radical change possible?
- MIGHT MIGHT RULE
- BUT RIGHT WRITES RULE
- WHY MAN FOOL
- NO ONE KNOWS BUT YOU
These convergent pages comprising “INSEMINATION […]” have heavy black vertical outlines, which like the use of caps and bold, indicate that this poem is no meditative murmur. Political volatility draws attention to another feature of the murmuration. Consider OED definition 2b: “The noise made by a flock of birds, esp. starlings.” Torres:
movement without moment – is not
revolution – it’s just – noise
(“[í’m just making some noise],” lines 1-3)
This is an important moment, as Torres pushes at us to remain critical about what, exactly, constitutes a meaningful political movement. As persons are subject to error, so too our clusters, taking off noisily in errant directions.
Torres is not reducing all politics to noise, though, and he follows later observations on human movement with a boldface question: “—is there a responsibility here—” (in “[to beget the listening parade]: what is it to move during these times,” line 14). An affirmative answer must account for plurality, a dynamic “we” beyond the self. In other words, responsibility, in Quanundrum, must include the conscious recognition of difference within both self and community:
it is not who we are
is their own we are – pulled apart
at the core
by the we are
(“[blank dot],” lines 1-5)
With this insistence on complex social bodies, Torres gives us a politics shaped by both centrifugal and centripetal forces.
A correspondence of networked poetic motion with networked political movement comes into view as the center of the poem “[occupo].” Occupy Wall Street, the famous movement that originated in New York City in 2011, protested the concentration of wealth and power within the hands of an extremely small minority, designated as “the 1 percent.” The movement has been praised as radically democratic and dismissed as disorganized—in other words, Occupy itself comprises a drama of organization, embodying tensions between centripetal and centrifugal forces.
Torres conjugates the verb “occupy” with the Spanish-language ending corresponding to “I,” suggesting that his poem title is a transcreated equivalent to “I occupy,” and he begins:
occupy / the movement
occupy / the man
occupy / the statement
occupy / the stand
Soon he touches down on language from the protest movement, commanding the reader to look at its legacies:
see / the ninety nine percenter
occupy the home
see / the number one percenter
occupy the bone
Throughout the rest of the poem, Torres takes this language on a ride through human networks, even into the body’s interior, suggesting that “occupy” could circle “back” to organs such as the brain or lung, and “back to erratic ecstatic” (line 57), before cycling around to his next command, to occupy again. How do you perform responsibility within networked states of difference? See / we occupy, we move to occupy again in another way, we return to occupy ourselves, our bodies and emotions …
As these clips illustrate, Quanundrum can be described a welcoming poetic space, with many perfectly comprehensible lines. But this is not to say that the book is easy to process. Quanundrum puts us through exacting paces alongside its companionable and charismatic poet. Ultimately, his writing seems less about grasping any particular thought than perceiving Torres’s sheer vital proliferation of thoughts: the energy of their clustering. “I,” the “many angled thing,” continuously unfurls shifting angles.
In the end, I’m not certain that one “reads” Quanundrum. One enters this landscape and tracks the motions of its inhabitants, interrogating elation and sorrow, frenzy and pause, feelings of entrapment and a need for revolution. Or, if not the full break we fantasize around revolution, then a need for reforms and reformulations. Futurity lies in another surge, in the repeating need to shift our states of possibility, with all due responsibility and rigor.
Quanundrum is a site of ongoing struggle, despite its pauses for rest, breath, and balance. Neither containment nor rupture triumphs, because laying claim to victory was never the point. Torres executes this trek through human possibility and need with his long-established grace, moving “like smoke, mist.”
[i]From Collected Notebooks, 39, cited by Gavin Sourgeon in his precise and suggestive chapter, “A Volatile Unity: Coleridge, Starling Murmurations, and Romantic Form.” In Mocking Bird Technologies: The Poetics of Parroting, Mimicry, and Other Starling Tropes, edited by Christopher GoGwilt, and Melanie D. Holm, Fordham University Press, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/smcvt/detail.action?docID=5193937.
[ii] Torres’s biographical note at this site begins, “Edwin Torres is a bilingual, New York-based poet who’s a self-proclaimed ‘lingualisualist’ whose work is ‘rooted in the languages of sight and sound.’” https://poets.org/poet/edwin-torres (accessed 11/17/2021).
[iii] Latin America is historically multiracial, and U. S. Latinx contexts are similarly complex, so I’m following definitions of ethnicity that prioritize cultural and/or national heritage, recognizing these as categories that can’t be sutured to race in stable ways. For context on the instability of the ethnonym “Taíno,” see Antonio Curet’s “The Taíno: Phenomena, Concepts, and Terms.” Ethnohistory 61 :3 (Summer 2014): 467-495.
[iv] “murmuration, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/123936. Accessed 13 November 2021.