Victor Hernández Cruz was the first of the Puerto Rican poets writing in the English language to reach a broad American audience. However, rather than label him an English-language poet, it is more accurate to view him as a bilingual or a multilingual writer. Cruz enjoys his native language, with its Arabian and African words and its unique rhythms and patterns. His poetry incorporates many strains: his family’s vital oral tradition, traditional Spanish, New York-Puerto Rican slang, and black English. He discovered various “Englishes” and was intrigued by fellow writers, such as Polish author Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English as a second language.
After the early success of Papo Got His Gun! and Other Poems, a chapbook that had gained notice in Evergreen Review, Random House published Snaps. This collection’s hip, barrio voice, its jazzy rhythms, and its snapshot technique of realistically portraying street life brought Cruz immediate recognition. Random House honored his irreverence for grammar and formalities of style and thus helped launch the young poet’s ongoing fascination with the relationship of sound and sense, of language and life.
The poems capture the true essence of urban ghetto life. Clacking subways, dance clubs, smoking, girl-watching, and knife fights form the gritty realities of street life. The rapid staccato of half-learned English enriches the poems. Cruz’s language here is the sublanguage used to present Spanish Harlem’s subculture. His speaker in these primarily narrative poems uses street slang as well as surrealistic humor to create avivid picture of the danger and energy of the culturally diverse lower East Side. There is constant movement: on subways, uptown, downtown, inside, outside, walking, and driving. In “Megalopolis,” the speaker presents snapshots from the window of a car moving through the urban sprawl of the East Coast:
let those lights & trees & rocks talk/ going by / go by just sit back/ we / we go into towns/ sailing the east coast / westside drive far-off buildings look like castles / the kind dracula flies out of / new england of houses
The poem goes on to end with quick vignettes of a poet inciting riot, urban bombs, “laurence welk-reader’s digest ladies” with bouffant hairdos secured with hair spray, billboards “singing lies,” and “the night of the buildings/ . . . singing magic words/ of our ancestors.” This ending points to another aspect of Cruz’s poetry: traveling through time as well as space.
Mainland records Cruz’s poetic migration across the United States. The motion/mobility theme of Snaps here moves from intracity travel to interstate and, finally, to international migrations. The collection begins in New York, traverses the Midwest to California and the Southwest, and ends with a visit to Puerto Rico, followed by the return to New York.
These poems show the power of the memory of the Caribbean—its music and dance, its food, language, people, and culture—all working to recenter the poet once he returns to the realities of New York urban life. “The Man Who...
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