Listening to the Music of Arsenio Rodriguez Is Moving Closer to Knowledge

by Victor Hernandez Cruz
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Victor Hernández Cruz, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City and remains in the forefront of the “Nuyorican” poetry scene that began developing in the late 1960’s. “Listening to the Music of Arsenio Rodriguez Is Moving Closer to Knowledge” salutes Afro-Cuban music and the great musician in its title, as well as those who love this music. Rodriguez was a blind percussionist, player of the tres (a small nine-stringed guitar), composer, and bandleader. His impact on the mambo style in Cuba in the 1930’s was immeasurable, and he was responsible for the mambo craze that took the Northeastern United States by storm in the early 1950’s. In New York City, the Caribbean Hispanic community enjoys Afro-Cuban music under the general rubric of salsa. Nuyorican poets such as Hernández Cruz, Sandra María Esteves, and Pedro Pietri are close to their musical culture; the study The Latin Tinge (1979) by John Storm Roberts offers valuable insights into the character and popularity of salsa.

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Hernández Cruz has written a free-verse poem of five stanzas that dispenses with nearly all punctuation. His speaker raves about the influence of Arsenio Rodriguez’s music and ridicules those “researchers” who would attempt to study the results of its impact. The stuff of knowledge is in the music; to study its aftereffects—the “puddles of water” that the listeners have become—is inane.

The speaker shares a humorous moment with a friend who also deeply loves listening and dancing to Arsenio Rodriguez; they seem to laugh at those who can only focus on “the puddles of water/ that we have turned into/ all over your room.” Rodriguez’s music causes the people to melt; even Doña Flores comes to the room from a neighboring apartment to enjoy the experience. All are so strongly affected by the rhythms and sounds that liquefying is the only possible response. The water they become is warm and “good.” The music from the hi-fi could be said to wipe them out.

The imagery of stanza 4 has a surreal quality. The air opens, curtainlike, and “whistles/ in the thousands of afternoons/ that everybody is/ nervously plucking.” The people undergo a metamorphosis as music propels them toward a safe haven for expressing the freedom that dancing provides. Ultimately, everything in them rises to meet the son, a dance rhythm that predated the rumba of the mid-1920’s.

In stanza 5, “explorers” and researchers are one: They are incapable of understanding the magical power of the musical spirit and drive of Arsenio Rodriguez. They ask feebly at the close of the poem if it has rained and whether the windows are open, because they can find no one to explain the water on the floor.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

Hernández Cruz writes poems that mingle allusions and direct references to salsa and Latino culture, using speech patterns and idioms that are popular among Puerto Ricans in New York. He uses metaphor conventionally to illustrate that music allows one to attain knowledge and self-esteem. Arsenio Rodriguez’s music is as magical, mystical, and vital as life-sustaining water. Its damage is constructive, not negative; here Hernández Cruz reverses the usual meaning of the word “damage” in keeping with common practice in African American and Northeastern Latino jargon, in which “bad” means very good.

When Rodriguez plays the tres, the listeners absorb the music by allowing his playing of their sensibilities to be the creative force of the music itself. That they are all “nervously plucking” means that they are approaching wisdom. The adverbial adjective “transformationally” is mock-intellectual slang.

The predominant figurative device used by Hernández Cruz in this poem is little known to non-Hispanic people. It is “Spanglish,” a deliberate form of slang that blends Spanish and English words or phrases, resulting in a colorful idiom. The poem contains three phrases that could be considered Spanglish: “to liquidarse,” or liquefy; “flowers in the wind/ who know no bossordomos”; and “to dance el son,” to dance the son rhythm. Hernández Cruz himself may have coined bossordomos as a slanglike expression centered on the word sordo, meaning deaf.

Note that the first and third phrases use the English infinitive “to” in order to make the phrase. For the third phrase, one would say danzon el son or bailar el son in formal Spanish. The effect achieved by Spanglish is a tongue-in-cheek reconciliation of the two languages. It is a product of improvisation, and the improvisation that distinguishes music and language throughout the Americas is a creative force that ensures and sustains a culture’s survival.

Hernández Cruz uses a figure of speech known as metonymy when he says “Listen to the box.” The box is the hi-fi set or radio transmitting the music, which is what Hernández Cruz actually wants the reader to hear; it is the immediate source of the “damage” that Rodriguez’s music creates for the benefit of the mind, body, and soul. Magical and surrealistic images characterize stanza 4, beginning with the air that whistles as it opens. The poet uses hyberbole when he speaks of “the thousands of afternoons” of listening, dancing, and living with the music. The wordplay of “transformationally swimming” reaffirms that the listeners are moved “to where it is safe to dance/ like flowers in the wind.”

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Themes