Vincent Toro

Ahsahta, 2016

In his debut, Vincent Toro offers readers a sweeping meditation on the legacy of colonial powers in Puerto Rico and the greater Caribbean. The book begins with “Operation Bootstrap,” a poem formatted as a dictionary entry. The first definition provides the colloquial context for the word bootstrap (“To not rely on another for a handout”), which is quickly troubled through an indictment of colonialism: “To remodel a Caribbean island into an industry… To repackage a population.” This is excoriating in its truth, yet Toro does not stop there. In the final entry, bootstrap is further complicated with a nod to Audre Lorde as it becomes a tool for empowerment: “To use the master’s table scraps to expand these quarters. To undo the done by applying twenty-six letters or less.” This poem—in its formal experimentation and concerns of colonialism, capitalism, identity, and language—acts as a springboard for the rest of the book.

Stereo. Island. Mosaic. raises the bar of Frost’s edict that collections of poetry should constitute a poem in themselves. The seven sections progress and reflect one another around the central tour de force, “Epicenter: Caribbean Sea Crab Canon,” mimicking the shape of one of the book’s prevalent images, the hurricane, often connecting the violence of hurricanes and the violence that occurs at the intersections of cultures. Toro’s poetry seeks to explore and embody the realities of hybrid identities resulting from these intersections. In “Ricanstruction: Xenochrony,” Toro grapples with his subjectivity as an American with Puerto Rican heritage: “And my student said to me / I know you ain’t Boriqua ‘cause you speak good… My wife’s / professor called us immigrants.” Stuck in a limbo between cultures, Toro pulls from both to create his own; Spanish and English brush against one another with no final assimilation.

Stereo. Island. Mosaic. is a dense, challenging work. Each poem brings its own rules of engagement, and sometimes the connections tying individual poems to their respective sections are opaque. Still, Toro never strays from his task, and he uses compact images to express the realities of post-colonial life: “Mangoes plummet like illusions / from the kinky hair of a schoolboy whose / sandlot has just been replaced by a strip mall.” Toro puts forth an inventive, hybrid poetry, in which “the end of island life has been / scribbled on song.”