Once, a friend sent me a poem by Victor Hernández Cruz. I remember that it was deadpan funny and seriously deadly at the same time. True life is that, of course.
Victor Hernandez Cruz, who makes culture rather than autobiography his central subject has used language as a palette knife to scrape, mix and move the color and lines of his poetry and prose in fresh ways from the time his voice first helped power the Nuyorican movement in the 1960’s. Allen Ginsberg heard that voice and commented:
“…spontaneous urban American language as Williams wished, high school street consciousness transparent, original soul looking out intelligent Bronx windows.”
Born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York City from an early age, Cruz committed to his art form early—in high school as Ginsberg suggests—and since seems to have never missed a beat, as it were.
A year or so ago, if I remember correctly, Antioch faculty member Dr. Teofilo Espada, mentioned Cruz to me when we were speaking of another Puerto Rican poet. I made a note then to include him (Cruz) in a future Lines of Thinking. (It’s taken a while, Teo, but here are two poems by Victor Hernandez Cruz, both of which I identify with even more from my current vantage point in Malaysia.
Time is crying upon the backs of lizards,
Through the white stone of the medieval city
The houses that are walking up the stairs,
Flowers out of ruins,
Further into the fortress,
The sounds of a language registers
In our dreams.
Words which are my hat in the city,
Coming through the bamboo
The shadows of lost meaning—
Tilted light making slivers
Through the forest of the mambo
Behind the eyes.
Time will shine your head into skull
The circle song will come again and again,
If we forget how to lay out a village,
Just open a guayaba in half,
These seeds are perfect,
And can guide you back,
Your hands the electric of the ghosts.
In the Persia of shining alfombras,
A belly button silks upon a horse,
Enters a tent of rhythms,
Makes the trees dance into shape,
Rubén Darío saw them in the river,
Bathing in the echoes of the castles,
His Indio head,
Clean enough to measure
The tempo of a camel,
The first string that vibrated
The Rock of Gibraltar,
To sway Greco-Roman lips,
Arising fire of Gypsy song,
Was making Castile dress and undress,
With the sounds that were hitting the moon
And falling down unto earth as colors.
Of boats that were my shoes.
Splicing through 101st Street brick.
Which covered dancing verdure green
Sounds in the sky blue tropic: mind.
Trees are making maracas
That will soon make you dance.
Water is their god of cadence,
As I sea walk through coconut heights,
Legs of tamarind,
Purple orchids arranged like syllables,
Insects of the morning dew sting verses on café.
In embroidery of Italians,
Garcilaso came to José Martí,
Who ducked Spanish spies
And hugged Walt Whitman’s beard in Philadelphia
As the Cuban Habaneras’ Shango
Made it south to tango.
Boats are ages sailing on water,
Parrots are flying out of castanets,
Flamenco peeling pineapples
That go up the river,
The water that became El Quijote’s language,
As a cane field disappears into a bottle,
To awake in a little town
With molasses orbiting the cathedral,
A wooden saint slicing through the
Mountain full of potassium radiation,
Slanted plátanos pointing into medieval
Bongo and ocean waves carving
Through the fabulous language
That has taken the shape of
An Andalusian rhyming door,
One after the other.
Sailing out of the archways,
As Ricardo Ray turns into a centipede,
Marching across a Brooklyn piano,
For dancers to Sanskrit their
Upon Albaicín ceramic tile.
Caribbean sun melts the caramel,
Making our first national flag:
White skirts waving in the air.
Machetes taking off like helicopters
Chopping off branches for timbale sticks,
The hands of the sun hitting the
Moon like a drum—
Making the atmosphere of moisture
For the chorus of the song
To come back down upon us polinizando
The carnival flower,
A serenade walkilipiando.
Sliding upon seashells,
That disappear into the foam of time,
One age living next to another,
We are both living things at once,
We are the cadaver that is
About to be born.
* * *
The piece my friend shared years ago was “The Problems with Hurricanes,” which you can hear Cruz recite in an interview with Bill Moyers if you follow the link at the end of the poem.
The Problems with Hurricanes
TA campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Death by drowning has honor
If the wind picked you up
and slammed you
Against a mountain boulder
This would not carry shame
to suffer a mango smashing
or a plantain hitting your
Temple at 70 miles per hour
is the ultimate disgrace.
The campesino takes off his hat—
As a sign of respect
toward the fury of the wind
Don’t worry about the noise
Don’t worry about the water
Don’t worry about the wind—
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
* * *
Not all dangerous and sweet objects in the tropics are propelled by mighty storms. Some, equally ignoble if rarely as fatal, might present themselves on placid days and through more mischievous means. Throughout Southeast Asia, durian, the “king of fruit”, is prized for its creamy sweet richness and abhorred, by some, for its strong bouquet. During the twice annual harvest seasons, durian madness overcomes the local populations as folks seek out the most delectable varieties to buy or otherwise acquire. Cruz’s hurricane poem inspired the following work-in-progress on durian.
The Problem with Durian Trees
By Tom Manley (After Victor Hernandez Cruz)
All Sunday morning
the thud and roll of durian fruit
on the metal roof beneath the tree.
Full size, durians grow heavy,
as large as American footballs
sturdy with cactus spines.
Gratefully, from the roof’s
perspective, these are smaller,
rather akin to large handballs
Or perhaps softballs for pool-play
costumed like yellow-green
land mines afloat in an enemy harbor.
Earlier the two dogs fulfilled
their sentry duties alerting us
to the arrival of the troop of macaques
Notorious in the neighborhood
habitual visitors to this house
and it’s long neglected fruit trees.
Is this a proper bombing,
just a warning off by simian brothers,
or a generations old strategy
For separating wheat from chaff
eatable from not yet?
durian trees grow tall, fruit
Dropping from top branches,
even unassisted by other animals,
would do damage to any skull
Happening by below; surely
some lives have been lost; warnings posted;
statistics on seasonal injuries tracked?
We sit and drink the left-over coffee
with ice and almond milk whilst
pondering this from a covered terrace.
Looking out on a bright day,
a patch of city shows through
the eaves of a large mango tree,
Past the fronds of the full coconut
palm at the bottom of the drive
and gate, where in a month’s time
A mature durian will appear
having on its own accord
let go from its berth in the morning darkness.
Eventually the dogs’ fascination
Is overtaken by heat and the ubiquity
of monkey branch-snapping, wire-walking
And tree-shaking. With us now,
they lay on the stone floor listening for
the next thump and spiky trundle
Over the corrugated surface above,
to the roof’s edge and then,
radio silence to an unbroken,
heads and hands clear! no
grabbing for these delectable bombs,
Which, when the macaques
move on, we will collect,
with wary fingertips, hopeful
As we line them stems up
on the wall outside the kitchen,
that they ripen within.
(7-7-21, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.