On Coming of Age: An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs
| Reviews


An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press, 2020).


Michael Torres’s powerful debut, An Incomplete List of Names, opens with an act of loyalty—the kind that rides shotgun in an ’87 Mustang and doesn’t ask questions or flinch when a homie named Chris, brokenhearted after a break up, burns donuts into a soccer field writing the story “without easing off the gas.” This kind of loyalty to the names and their stories doesn’t pull punches. It goes all in with bare-knuckled artistry, torque, and precision, bearing witness to how “REMEK • DIER • KAON • SIRIS • D-SPERS • FALSE •” take up public space in sharpie or spray paint, yet remain vulnerable to erasures of all sorts.
While reading Torres, I couldn’t help but linger on his homage to Larry Levis whose epigraph sets the tone for his collection: “All we are is representation, what we are & are not, / Clear & then going dark again . . .” An Incomplete List of Names emphasizes incompleteness as a guardrail against a reading that would turn the names into a racial allegory clicking shut, locking in a social commentary. And because Torres is a knockout of a poet, both the naming and the un-naming matter. He puts his homies right here on the page in all their tenderness and coming-of-age bravado so that (to paraphrase Levis) you don’t mistake them or him for something else, like an idea for this or that theory.
No. This is a collection of winged departures, lived experiences, and artistic questions. And despite the distance from Pomona, California, the homies’ love is a touchstone:

When I left, the homies told me they loved
me. And I loved them, even though when we
said it, we chased our I love yous with
laughter the way you cage the air
to catch a butterfly. You can’t be too sure
who’s listening. This is the kind of cocoon
each of us floated from. We like to be more
bee sting than butterfly, anyway.

The spatiality of the poem “All-American Mexican” appears as window panes looking out onto memoryscapes. The poet brings home with him wherever he goes, imagined as a pair of knuckles hard-earned from big brothers and boxing gyms; he takes them particularly into spaces partitioned by race and class. He refuses disavowal. Swerving back and forth across the page against the linearity of a neoliberal multicultural “progress narrative,” Torres attends to the body politics of space by gazing within and around him.
The testing begins in a professor’s house. The window pane breaks into couplets to enact a double consciousness of “two of me”—one who performs with “a glass of wine / in his hand” and the other asking “Did / I say it right?” This rarified space, too, stages a masculinity “who says Suffice to say  . . .” but where is this design leading to? The poet’s “laughter surrounds” him, and he grades himself: “I’m good / at being American: I.” The subject again splits into subject and object. The first-person pronoun becomes the first letter in ID, which is also shorthand for identity politics produced by the US carceral state:

where I forget my ID and must worry about

police who need to make sure everyone is
who they say they are. And if I can’t confirm
myself, what do I become? My University of
hoodie. Just the hoodie? My jaw, my body’s

The double entendre on “body’s” is telling. From the profiled brown body wearing a hoodie to the split identity in a neoliberal multicultural tableaux, these racist representations identify what and for whom? They don’t lead to a poet’s self-knowledge, but to forget them is to risk endangering oneself. To center them is to risk putting oneself out of reach from kinship and love. Looking at the moving imagery of a YouTube talk show clip—“everyone reaching for each other” in heartfelt family reunion, Torres recalls the unifying love of another kinship—his homies. While leaving the professor’s house, he dreams of an alternative scene in which his selves work in unison:

The professor says, instead:

Good night. And I want to say Stay up or    Peace out. And I want the other me to unlatch

the gate so I can be angelic in Nike Cortezes.
A fluttered departure. No one there to ID me.

The names are not IDs. The names are works of art, their canvas is public space, their audience everyone, their influences and tensions a combination of what’s said and unsaid, their power both what’s released and held back. In the poem, “On Being REMEK,” Torres writes an ars poetica cast as an ode. While the poem titled “Ars Poetica” appears later in the collection and speaks to the inevitable erasures of time and the preventable erasures of government, “On Being REMEK” describes the imagination poured into the names:

REMEK of remembrance of the many other Mexicans who became names their fathers did not give them. Names created. Or taken from textbooks. The end of a song. Names from the wandering imagination, plucked like an orange—something glowing—among the branches of the mind. Names like DIER, MASE, and RAGE. Names like TEAL, KAON, and SIRIS. Names that resonate in the callused palms of handshakes. This means the only loyalty you know. REMEK of words learned but concealed; tucked into the grooves of your knuckles where all men keep secrets. It means knowing fear and pretending you don’t know what that means. Contents under pressure. REMEK is memory and how the past will call back. It’s not being able to forget conflict inside names like DUSK. And when you’re told to fight, REMEK means staring at him as if you will shout in the swinging speech of young men.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is poetry editor at AGNI and Professor of English at St. Olaf College. Her most recent poetry collection is Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018), mentioned in The New York Times and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Creative Writing: Poetry. She lives in Saint Paul, MN.

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