A Zero Named One
Yes Thing No Thing
(Roof Books, 2010)
Edwin Torres has many voices. He speaks English, Spanish, binary, be-bop. He speaks like a frightened child, like a staccato robot, like a fairy godmother. He speaks like a legend, a 20-year veteran of performance, begun back at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Yes Thing No Thing, his new collection, rallies these voices, at points plodding through dystopian jungles (“The Long Story”), whispering a bedtime story (“Moonboy/the Boy Made of Glass”), or rollicking through syllabic free association (“Futopo”).
The work’s unifying thread is automation’s steady encroachment. In an analog world, a puzzle missing one piece remains distinguishable. We compensate and fill in the blanks. However, if we digitally misplace a one or zero, the entire puzzle changes. Torres claims this all-or-nothing binary glitch has permeated our decision-making, and he manifests this idea through disjointed narratives, ellipses, and graphics simulating pixelation which, at points, threaten to devour his words. He inundates “A Dog Named Tarantula,” a 25-page collage of words and images, with empty angular text boxes and bar codes.
The poem “H onest” continues this rumination on detachment from nature, referencing the bird strike that disabled the engines of Flight 1549, which hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed safely on the Hudson River in January 2009. Rather than acquiescing to the media’s depiction of the event as a miracle of human perseverance, Torres sees it as a microcosm of technology’s pervasiveness and human entitlement.
I am ahuman
I take amaccine to air so thski cn see m
a brd dos not blong there
whn I am thr
He evokes modern groupthink by omitting letters and adding spaces, creating the effect of speaking through a speech synthesizer. The message here: We were the trespassers, and could avert disaster by not poking at the sky, by accepting limitations rather than snooping for technological backdoors.
Torres also diverts into quieter moments, and it’s a welcome detour. The delicate tone of the prose poem “Moonboy/ The Boy Made of Glass” proves his imaginative mastery as a storyteller, weaving the tale of a boy in a fanciful universe made only of glass, sand, water, and equivocal harmonious sound, Torres’s understated prose echoing the story’s subtle beauty. “The Intermission Clown” centers around four elements observed by a passerby, “the man, the woman, the dog, the ball,” and employs a similar, straightforward style, yet undermines natural narrative technique by calling attention to the biases of the observer and, consequently, the reader. This observer continually hearkens back to details he failed to mention, details that, given his lack of credibility, the reader cannot help but question. “Never do we learn / how intimate the man has been // with the woman or the dog / how long they have been in each other’s lives, arms. What is the ball’s / relationship to the dog.” He eventually confesses to the spin he has used to color their story. “My history attached to theirs / in alignment with my telling.” Torres can be a subversive guide, but we are no doubt in capable hands, no matter which voice he chooses.