By Vincent Toro
Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh
When we are children, the world is small and manageable. Our understanding of history or context is cursory, at best, and we accept this simplicity with few questions. As we grow, though, the world becomes infinite and seemingly impossible to comprehend, let alone manage. Too often, our reaction is to retreat to a place between childhood and adulthood, where things we enjoy are simple and moving, but the uncomfortable and inconvenient are ignored or recreated as platitudes. Fear of what we will find or what may be difficult to understand holds us back from engaging in something truly rewarding. Fortunately, Vincent Toro's first collection of poems, Stereo. Island. Mosaic., invites us to converse with complexity and find that when we confront the difficult, we are rewarded with sounds and sights that allow us to perceive the world anew.
From the table of contents, it is clear that Toro's book has a unique organizational structure. The book contains seven sections: "Mosaic: Zemís," "Island: Palenques," "Stereo: Areytos," "Epicenter: Caribbean Sea Crab Canon," "Stereo: Areytos," "Island: Palenques," and "Mosaic: Zemís." The back and forth cycle of the section titles, as well as many of the themes in the book, are reflected in the epigraph from Sandy Florian's The Hybrid that Toro uses to start the first section:
The voice emerging from the stereo, like the voice emerging from the hybridized subject, becomes an uncertain presence by having no singular point of reference . . . It also becomes that which generates paranoia on the part of the listener who hears something from an unstable source . . . and this paranoia in turn reinforces the marginalization of the minority, the deterritorialization of the hybrid, the deterritorialization that then reinforces the hybrid as hybrid in a closed cycle.
The first poem, "Operation Bootstrap (Right Panel)," defines the word "bootstrap" as, "To help oneself. To not rely on another," then as, "To remodel a Caribbean island," and "To commit sorcery." The turning and reflecting of a definition that happens here is present throughout Toro's book as he takes the usual and recodifies it into what we didn't know was real. He is also a master of using language to redefine the ways we see things. In "The Roads of Borinquen" he describes them as:
They juke jive like wild
bougainvilleas splintering into rain
forests of cell towers.
They reach into salt flats and twirl
up into Sunday
worship . . .
The first section also introduces the "Mosaic" idea by incorporating the personal and the global. In "Threnody for Jim Just Jim," we get an elegy to a close friend who was a "general in the war on insincerity" and "an Andean mountain made of secondhand books."
"Island: Palenques" pushes the emphasis onto the island of Puerto Rico, while continuing to paint Toro's mosaic of the world for the reader. "Décimarina" provides an excellent example of the overtly political nature of much of the book when Toro states:
Fortuño strokes his tie, cocksure,
simpers at the camera crew,
bloviates, then kneels at his pew
before ordering the seizure
of the college . . .
In "Crab Canon for the Marooned," we see the intersection of the island and the stereo's hybridization of sound as the poem reflects itself completely. The poem starts, "Pink water above, / black sky recedes into / titled highways and crimeless alibis," and ends with a stunning reversal of these lines, "Fingers prod at stain glass eyes, / titled highways, and crimeless alibis. / Black sky recedes into / pink water above."
The third section, "Stereo: Areytos," reminds us that Toro's poems are full of song. In "To Governor Pezuela, On Banning The Merengue," the lines dance to their own music:
. . . For you may lay claim
to our days, our blood may
appear to cascade solely to fill your
reservoir, but no law you scribe
can keep reefs from bending to tidal
shifts or arms from linking
like a balustrade, our physiques
billowing electric . . .
In "Mythopoeia," we are treated to lines like "Foliage grew / from rainbows, meticulous mellow librettos of copper / citizens caught in a contradanza," which demand to be read out loud, repeatedly. The attention to sound while keeping a significant, clear meaning throughout the poems is the most envious skill Toro employs throughout. The magic held in his lines is truly jaw-dropping.
The middle section is another crab canon that reverses the language that preceded it four times. The first part, titled "Ebb Tide," starts with the "Sea swallowed by beckoning ship. / Cargo of people hoisted from decks / like cracked masts," a clear representation of Puerto Rico's history. Eventually, the poem moves into "Flow Tide" which ends with an awakening, "Emerge silence of storms," which gives the reader the feeling that they have been pulled out to sea, washed by the words here, and have returned to retrace their steps.
Like a record being played backwards to reveal a hidden message, the end of the middle section signals a rewinding back towards the beginning of the book. The next section, "Stereo: Areytos," continues making a mosaic out of music and history with "Grito: An Alternate History of the Parranda." This poem opens with "This is how riot becomes love song" and develops a lovers' rebellion with more sound and substance:
. . . The bane of cédula cleft her
saffron from his sepia, but they would not be
stanched by law scripted in the bottomless
maw of a stranger's patois.
In the second "Island: Palenques," Toro comes back to more of the themes surrounding Puerto Rico. In "Vox Populi for the Marooned," the returns become more about reclamation as the speaker says, "We will share blankets and soup / with our enemies, and we will remind the unwitting that all are deserving / of honey and soap." The tone decidedly shifts towards creating change, spinning away from the injustices the poems call attention to at the start.
In the final section, "Mosaic: Zemís," we've returned to the beginning. In the collection's last poem, "Guanín," Toro even calls directly back to the quote that began the whole book: "This island is a blender, / polychrome vortex stirring / the soot of the empire / with abrazos and batas."
When you sit down to read Stereo. Island. Mosaic., give yourself the time to read it in one sitting. Experience the repetition of ideas, words, and sounds, and flip back to the poems that bear the same title or are reminiscent of what you're reading. The brilliance of this book lies in the ways it turns itself over and says, "Now look at it like this. Crazy, huh?" Toro's desire to connect with the reader grows as the book does and leaves the reader feeling like they've had the best conversation of their life. Unlike verbal conversations, though, Toro's book stays and begs to be started again, turned over, and seen in another exquisite light.