I rarely look into broken mirrors—
they remind me of my ancestors
and I wish to remain dismembered.
A phantom limb, untethered.
“The ultimate poem is abstract,” wrote Wallace Stevens. Whether I agree with him is irrelevant. What I know is that abstract poetry was my gateway into writing. It was also a survival mechanism for many years. I began my writing career as an abstract poet, partially, I believe, because of the lingering residue that comes with becoming an immigrant at a young age.
When I was ten, not long after my family moved to New Hampshire, my mind began to wither.
my thoughts walked
with a limp,
as seconds fell like leaves
My mind grew hungry
like an autumn trail.
Through the tall grass of memories,
what was left
ran in a jealous rage,
as arthritic fingers
flipped through photo albums.
I yearned for another hour—
a chance to relive my youth.
I emigrated from Medellín, Colombia, when I was eight and a half—on my birth nation’s Independence Day (Día de la Patria). I still recall the early morning taxi drive up Aburrá Valley to the Rionegro airport. The lush, curved roads were sprinkled with wildflowers I at times mistook for birds. The radio played the same instrumental version of the national anthem I so often heard while watching televised fúbol matches with my Madonna-obsessed uncle. Afraid of the car driving off the 1,000-foot precipice, I sat in the middle of the back seat and focused my eyes inward, toward the rising mountain, looking for tigrillos and pumas, my favorite animal, that may have been hiding amidst the flora of Antioquia. I’d heard tales of cyclists seeing them on the roads, and I thought this may be my last chance to spot one in the wild before boarding the Avianca plane north, where I believed the roads were made of gold because of rumors that spread throughout the cafeteria of my all-boys school, Instituto San Carlos de Medellín—just like the Spanish conquistadores must have supposed of my natal valley five centuries earlier when they themselves first set foot on the land of El Dorado.
But it was not until I reached ten that my mind became filled with indecipherable clutter. The experience of learning a new language (English) and slowly losing my first (Spanish), because I hardly used it, created a situation where I no longer felt I had control over my thoughts and native tongue nor the one neatly budding between my teeth like a weed.
I never thought I could experience not being fluent in any language. This caused confusion. Sprouted panic. It didn’t help that I grew up self-conscious of my speech, as I was unable to properly pronounce the double Rs of my Spanish surname during a time when I also had a stutter through at least middle school with an accent that I’ve now shed. Neighborhood playmates kicked soccer balls and family members during reunions drank shots as often as they would mimic my stumbles with language, creating an environment for a highly sensitive introvert to further withdraw from the world of conversation with a feeling of shame for not living up to expectations. I often lowered my gaze so I would not glance at the seed of disappointment residing in the soil of jokes about my speech impediment. Unfortunately, choosing to not speak worsened the situation, as my lips became weak. Sluggish. The muscles I needed to properly enunciate atrophied.
To this day, I anger easily when I think someone is making fun of me. Here I am, a grown-ass adult and even friendly banter from someone I know loves me triggers a trauma that brings me back into the body of that lost Colombian boy with seeds and weeds in his mouth.
I left Colombia when Catholic Church representatives in black robes were teaching me the mechanics of español at San Carlos. Not fully grasping the distinct logistics of my tongue, I was introduced to Amherst Street Elementary in Nashua, New Hampshire—a school full of native English speakers also learning the inner workings of their own birth tongues. While I was barely crawling with English, they were already racing on both feet. While I was learning how to count from one to ten, everyone else was competing in Spelling Bees.
I felt orphaned and rebelled the only ways I knew how: through the one language I could still use to communicate, Math, and by joining the spelling competitions even though I didn’t know the meaning of the words that used my bottom lip as a springboard. I had a good enough memory and a finely-tuned ear that I used to sound out the words well enough to place me near the top of my class in such linguistic events. I even joined reading contests where those students who read the most books would win a prize. I would read dozens even though I didn’t understand more than half the words I read. And so, from that point forward, I had an abstract relationship with language.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
As a child, my biggest fear was going out the way I came in—speech-less, memory-less, and history-less. I feared taking that walk toward the red blinking exit of mortality without being able to comprehend my world; in turn, rendering me incapable of relating with myself and others. I yearned for unclouded thought and for the lips and tongue to effectively communicate with kids on my yellow bus and to successfully flirt with a tall girl with superior endgame skills who could beat me in chess.
Without words, how can one think clearly? How can one remember? How can one experience at all? And, in the end, how can one live? Gabriel García Márquez once stated that “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” I was afraid of living a life I did not know I even lived because I would not be able to remember or experience it with words.
In turn, while kids my age played Sonic the Hedgehog on their Sega Genesis consoles or memorized statistics from the backs of Fleer and Topps baseball cards, I spent those hours in novels I’d borrowed from the school library, with my parents’ orange-covered Spanish/English dictionary, and writing in lined notebooks trying both to not lose language and to leave a trail for my future self. My parents found this strange, given they didn’t raise us with books in our house. My father recently told me he has yet to read one cover to cover.
Barely a graduate from my English as a Second Language class, I started to write poetry, short stories, and songs at Broad Street Elementary—a school I was now allowed to attend given I was finally ESL certified. It was there I first gained recognition for writing when I took home the Best Single and Best Songwriting awards in my 6th grade’s rendition of the 1993 Grammys. The experience taught me the power of the spoken word, as I serenaded the M.C., Jessica D., with my award-winning hit, “Loneliness,” set to a Boyz II Men melody.
Introverted by nature and still sore from being rejected by my crush, I withdrew into my journals. I continued to write through Junior and Senior High School, filling notebooks and napkins with sophomoric poems about heartache and personal essays that meditated on my memories growing up in Medellín. I still day-dreamed about pumas.
It wasn’t, however, until I attended university that I felt comfortable enough to again take the stage. I met other writers and performed spoken word at open mics around the city and neighboring towns in places such as the local Barnes and Noble, random dive cafés, and an abandoned warehouse where you had to follow a piece of yarn through vacated rooms, up decrepit stairs, and through ghostly hallways until you found a group of amateur poets sitting on couches clutching to notebooks that held the secrets of the universe.
But even while I grew more comfortable with my English tongue—my Spanish lengua left to shrivel in the sun—there came a time when written words were not enough, so I asked my parents for a tape recorder for Christmas so I could record my voice. Though I shared a room with my sister until I was twenty, I’d find ways to lock myself inside alone for hours accompanied only with a pen, paper, a recorder, and virgin cassette tapes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
As I listen back to some of these recordings, I realize that the abstract world was where I resided at that time. Since I grew up with a lack of words to express myself, the tentacles of my early immigrant life latched on to emotion, metaphors, to analogies, and to the abstract to better understand my human experience; to better connect dots and to entertain the holes in my curiosities.
When I listen to these pieces, I don’t hear a writer who paints with words, nor do I hear a shy child, and I wouldn’t even consider him cerebral. I hear a frustrated human being with a phantom limb—his tongue—trying desperately to understand where it went, even though he could see it in the mirror when he poked at it with a toothpick to check if it was still alive… trying desperately to understand where it went, even though he felt it with every bite he took of his mother’s fried plantains, with every misplaced adolescent kiss at dances and slow skates at Roller Kingdom with a girl one day older than he and who liked to wear Chicago Bulls gear, with every syllable that cried out in pain because of an undiagnosed mental illness.
The tongue bled, mostly because it felt misplaced, disowned. Like me, it too was an illegal alien. Undocumented. An immigrant. And as an “illegal,” there were also certain topics we weren’t allowed to discuss—even if my tongue and lips could form the words—because the truth could get us deported, and I feared being uprooted, again, and sent to a place where I may be potentially drafted to go fight in a civil war in the jungles of Colombia against guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug cartels; where I may be potentially eaten alive by my favorite wild cat.
As I listen back to these recordings, I also hear an emotional young man trying to use not just words but his voice as an overly-dramatic instrument (an untuned violin, perhaps?) to communicate—a thought, a feeling, a concept not yet full grown. Amidst the absence of words to describe what he saw before him, abstract poetry and sound poetry became intertwined. Over the years he shed this marriage, however. The more he read, the more journals he filled, the more love letters he wrote to sweethearts, the larger his vocabulary became, thereby creating a shift (maybe a bridge?) between the abstract and the concrete particularity of his surroundings.
As I listen to these recordings, I am in awe of the transformation humans can take. I write about myself in the third person here because I no longer fully identify with, nor completely comprehend, that individual in the recordings from some two decades ago. To be honest, I’m embarrassed to share those pieces, as I don’t even recognize myself in them, and, frankly, I don’t think they’re very good. But, alas, we all come from somewhere. I myself have become a strange land, a foreign country upon myself. Even if I tried, I could never write abstract pieces like the ones I captured on those cassette tapes again. Nor would I want to, but I have tried. Just like my native Spanish tongue has now become a second language, the language of my poetic youth has become dismembered.
Yet, I still feel a strange connection to the abstract. (Maybe this is why I also married an abstract painter?)
As an adult, my biggest fear is still going out the way I came in—speech-less, memory-less, and history-less. The difference now is that I can express those fears differently. I don’t even have to use my own voice to do so. In a way, I’ve found how to do what I said I wanted to do in my abstract spoken word poem “Voices”:
[…] And then I speak and hear one unified voice,
incorporating coconstructional relational realities within
conversing within me.
And then I speak,
and I imagine,
and I have a dream where one day
I will allow my mind to speak
not just with my breath
but with the breath of those around me
as they stumbled about in a daze
in my home,
in the elaborate labyrinth I have constructed:
my mind. […]
As an ode to my—and maybe even our collective—past, I created what I call an abstract historical poem soundscape I’ve named “Sleepwalking Through the 20th.”
For this piece, I researched several audio archives and sampled different sounds, broadcasts, interviews, and speeches from the 1900s to create a pastiche—a post-modern tapestry—of a century drenched in hope, fear, war, and transformation. Just like my earlier self and the voice in those early recordings, I regard the 20th century as a phantom limb, another land. I am simultaneously of that century, yet no longer from it: a metamorphosis you too may be able to fathom. With this piece, I speak with a voice I never owned—that of others—but is fully ours. Yours and mine, as it is our shared history.
The past is a foreign country. It is the ultimate abstract poem, and we are all its artifacts, all its ancestors. We are all foreigners.
Julián Esteban Torres López is the founder of The Nasiona Magazine and an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, writers, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, arts, journals, business sector, and history museums.
Featured image: Udo J. Keppler, “The fettered war god,” 20 August 1902, N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Check out Julián’s first micro-poetry collection Ninety-Two Surgically Enhanced Mannequins, where you will find many abstract poems, and take a listen to his abstract spoken word piece “The Wind.”