The Mountain in the Sea
Victor Hernandez Cruz’s work is marked throughout by brilliant perception and phrasings, often bordering on the visionary. There are more and more poets capable of pleasing combinations like “perpendicular reptiles” but how many who notice a musician carrying a “load of viands / Toward civilization”? In most of his poems, these shining bits come suspended in a medium of ordinary if more-or-less rhythmic speech. This slackness — along with his genial refusal to sign up for any poetryland intramural sports — may go some ways toward explaining why readers of his many books always seem to have to build the man behind the poems from scratch.
From the beginning of his career he has come up with likeable solutions to poetry problems, such as ending the unendable, the slice-of-life poem. End the poem with another vignette and sensory observation and even if it’s the best most intense scene in the poem (as it has to be), your reader’s non-plussed nine times out of. You’ve built up all this energy but you haven’t done anything with it. And end with a general observation about life and your book gets thrown across the room.
In his Random House debut of 1969 (aged 19), he found a way:
the kidney foundation
wants more money
& if you eat cheerios
you’ll have power
so says the t.v.
that woke me up.
they come out
the red exit
the blue lights
play on your
fingers & head
& want kisses
before you leave.
they had women
in their pockets
a story of the
clowns come to town
they kick they ass
shit like that.
Shit like the Gordian knot, that is; Alexander the Great wasn’t much older. Quick, likeable, cuttingly vague — you get the picture.
In his most recent collection, The Mountain in the Sea, Hernandez Cruz confronts a somewhat larger (some would say the) problem for poetry — how to speak at once about the past and the present, home and away, perception and the inner life, without making too big a deal about the differences. “What are the girls I went to / high school with in Spanish Harlem / doing walking around Morocco? / I swear I saw Sonia Ramirez, Frances, / Carmen, Sandra in the medina” (“Al-Maghrib”).
The introduction defines this trade route poetics in terms of where Hernandez Cruz feels at home. “I am a Caribbean mestizo-mulatto and I am aware that my cultural extension is the whole of the Hispanic Caribbean, Santo Domingo, and Cuba, as well as Panama and Venezuela, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, even the Yucatan, and, alas, New Orleans.”
Correspondingly, he opens the book with a slippery mix-and-match of a macaronic poem about island geography, present tense slipping into past, punctuation deranging the parallel clauses at the linebreaks, abruptly short lines changing up the rhythm, the terminology of geology interlocked with names of kinds of music, and world events flattened on the timeline, volcanic eruptions equivalent to the disappearance of Roberto Clemente. (More and more poets are opening their books with this Hwaet! gambit, disorienting the reader by frontloading the weirdness; see also Kaya Oakes’s excellent grungy Telegraph.)
On the level of the poem, Hernandez Cruz has to work to keep the confusions of place, time, and spirit from overwhelming the continuous development of energy and insight. It doesn’t always happen. Similes crowd metaphors. Love is sometimes “impossible,” birds “adventurous.” Oh well. If I have to sift to get strange fresh sentences of this quality — “Creation is demanding / shapes to walk out of perfume”, “The night light makes / the homes sing with a / white”, “A chorus repeats the humidity”, “Her songs are broadcasting in Jupiter / with its sixteen full moons” – it’s worth it:
Where was the loco going?
eyesight was a language,
The next day more sun to hide from.
But forward like an elephant
whose ass has been set on fire.
(“Cabeza de Vaca”)
His fantasias and arabesques – candid, sensuous, given to rapture – are better than most of the metronomic travel writing that has won the Nobel. He’s better off, though, when he leaves the rhapsodies to St. John Perse and pursues recognizable subjects. Luckily, a series of portraits fills the middle 60 pages, about half the book.
How did the bold skull of Eisenhower enter my life,
his head like the moon inside the black-and-white
television sets of the tenements.
There are problems with absolutely and instantly recognizable subjects, but fewer than most poets think:
- The subject may be corny*;
- The subject may be so well-known that most readers of poetry already have expert knowledge to which the poet can add not much at all;
- Better stories about the subject may already be widely available;
- The reader may hate the subject or otherwise come to the poem with a din of feelings shouting down all sounds the poet makes.
Covering Hispanophone icons from Averroes to Mongo Santamaria, Hernandez Cruz’s portraits sidestep most of the problems with subjects, at least for this reader. In these poems he turns his gift for phrase and animation to greatest effect. He sets his Jorge Luis Borges poem “In the audio mandala of his house / where he took narrative as a wife.” Puerto Rican musicians Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz prompt entertaining enjambment (“When I was young goblins / tried to steal my spring”) and some cartoon power to rival Max Fleischer: “Up on the roof the Empire State / Building held maracas,” “The Brooklyn Bridge was his / keyboard.”
The problem of how, consistently, to integrate times, places, and states of consciousness into continuous utterance — the challenge of writing a beautiful poem — is not one that Hernandez Cruz or any other poet is going to solve every time out. Any poet who gets it right a few times is worth listening to, in fact, needs to be listened to in order to get it right again. If you pick up this book, and neither “Eisenhower,” nor “Tricofero,” nor “The Town in the Mountain” satisfy your particular conditions for a poem to be beautiful, then Victor Hernandez Cruz is probably not the poet for you. I’ll be sorry to hear it.
* Corniness of artistic personage is not a subjective category, incidentally. Of the individuals lyricized here, Joan Miro is a corny subject; Borges is not. As a general rule (not applicable here, but worth noting all the same), Joseph Cornell, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charlie Parker have always been profoundly corny subjects for poetry, even for poets who knew them socially. Certain other iconic artists, if approached with caution, may not automatically wreck a poem: Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sylvia Plath. And still others, for now, anyway, are really and truly poetry gold: Johnny Cash, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pierre Trudeau…