SUNY Plattsburgh professor pens poetry collection

Some of the richest literature of the world is the literature of exile – artists driven from their homelands by war or hatred and who cannot return seem to wring passion from the loss and pour it into their art. But departure inevitably changes one, and time inevitably changes place, so return is never possible.

But for J.L. Torres the situation is even a bit more grievous – he is of American roots that are not considered “American:” the “foreign” terra of Puerto Rico. Of the “United States” but not.

In his useful and interesting introduction to his poetry collection “Boricua Passport,” Torres, a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, quickly sketches the history of Puerto Rico and the United States, and he outlines his own neither-here-nor-thereness. He finds himself more Bronxian than either Puerto Rican or American. But even returning to his Bronx childhood seems alienating, as we learn in “Walking the Ghetto with Miguel and Piri:” “From a distance I sense/pain zig-zagging down the street,/none of us any closer to home.”

In his introduction he writes, “The striving to find the broken pieces and to reconstruct them in some form that offers collective agency and hope is at the heart of any colonized people’s struggle for freedom.” This can also be an apt description of many of the poems in this collection.

In the poem “Boricua Passport,” he observes, “There’s no passport for boundaries/set in topographic mindscapes ….”

His poems explore his Bronx boyhood with its mix of gritty urban reality and the richness of the Puerto Rican culture of his neighborhood. We catch a glimpse of pleasures recalled, as this from “Rooftop:” “During summer, when it’s tar beach/we spread towels…/…car honking dissolves like waves into sand.” And this melodic litany of food from the poem “The Sanctity of Cuchifritos”: “Alcapurrias, morcillas, cuajito/Relleno de papa, empanadas,/Chicharoones de cerdo, amen.”

He also explores the Puerto Rico of today, both its complexities and his attachment to and alienation from the very place that he is supposed to consider “home.” In “Piropos for the Island from a Nuyorican: A found poem,” he states: “I lived to know you,/and when I did, I understood/I could not live with you” and “I’ve thought of you only twice: when I left and the rest of my life.”

The poem that seems to best embody the meditations of this fascinating collection is “Salsa Dancing.” Here are some excerpts:

“I never learned the intricacies

of salsa dancing, or the syncopated

mincing cha-cha steps.

But my body drew power

from notes quivering

from the tumbao …

The loud music drowned out

slashing words that bleed families thin.

Unopened bills on rickety tables,

mice hunting under a moon-hungry night…

I spotted a couple dancing,

sensual like fog floating

across the cordillera – and I, too,

am up, stumbling and faltering,

but dancing, dancing.”