Reading Victor Hernandez Cruz
Francisco Aragon on “Dolores Street”
Ah, California, mi segundo país
—Victor Hernández Cruz
“Dolores Street”hones in on San Francisco’s Mission District, where the poem’s speaker looks out his window and notices a group of teenagers walking to—and later back from—a park. He also compares nearby windows to eyes—eyes that likely saw, in a very distant past, a landscape of treeless plains. But by the end of the stanza, he imagines
The city settling
Up from planks and kerosense lamps
The historical economy of these three lines is striking, the words hinting at the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast.
When the poem’s Latino youths head back to their neighborhood, the poet’s idiosyncratic idiom suggests they’ve been smoking something (“Eyes fresh like just arrived mushrooms”); they’ve also probably been making out on the grass (“Clothes wrinkled”), maybe listening to the songs of Rick James. (I like that the poet refrains from using a term like “boom box” and instead refers to “the big radio of the teenagers.”) The language can be plain, but the way the language is deployed is not—from Cruz’s speeding things up by eschewing commas (“Dolores park green waving / mounds”), to his slant rhyme of “mounds” with “downtown,” to his fresh view of the city’s financial district (“looks like you / could stretch and scratch it”). Perhaps Cruz is recalling his own teenage days in East Harlem, and is thus careful not to pass any sort of judgment on these young people—his is a sympathetic, almost tender gaze.
Ray Gonzalez on “Here is an Ear Here”
The last lines of this poem, in which a mythic bard hears “the sound made by flowers as they stretched into light,” are some of the most crucial in the poetry of Victor Hernández Cruz. They are about the magical connection made when a poet listens to everything around him and forges a connection between home and the imagination.
Cruz’s poetry has always centered on his beloved Puerto Rico. The speaker in this poem recognizes how his experiences rise from the sea to create the vision of the poet and set him on his journeys. This connection between the rocky earth and sea of Puerto Rico and the myth of language and time is what makes Cruz a master of human desire and longing. The competing desires for home and the need to explore the world beyond the rocky shores drive him to write poetry. These poetic discoveries form the poet’s true home, though as the speaker acknowledges in this poem, it takes time to fill “all the holes of that giant missing link.”
In this myth about Saru-Saru, a legendary poet journeys across the water, soaking up everything like a sponge—“this bard’s curiosity” is at its peak. When Saru-Saru blows “so hard into a rock,” the lyrics of personal origins emerge. This poem grants the reader time to dream and re-create the culture of a home that is open to the world, inviting numerous readings.
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Maria Melendez on “Glow Flesh”
Written when Victor Hernández Cruz was just 17, “Glow Flesh” brings us skin to skin with Spirit incarnate. The poem’s exuberant speaker invokes “queen of the earth,” a personification of both night and inspiration. Such exuberance fuels eroticism (“on the stoop your skirt rises / fingers go up your legs”), creativity (“bloom bloom / you got all / sing”), and revolution (“crack your eggs / on stupid american heads”). By connecting sex drive, artistic creation, and social change to the same divine source, “Glow Flesh” suggests there is a single fuse that ignites these three impulses. (Meanwhile, each reader can imagine her own suite of Americans, fellow or otherwise, who deserve an egg to the head.)
The poem uses both feminine (egg, breast, sea) and masculine (bomb, volcano) imagery to describe its deity, suggesting that the primal power invoked here is accessible to all of us. Cleverly, the poet defuses the fourth stanza’s ticking bomb by beginning the ninth stanza with “bloom, bloom” where we might have expected “boom, boom.” The wordplay and incantatory poetics in “Glow Flesh” are central to much of Cruz’s work, making the study of his poems a magical, rejuvenating experience.
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Urayoán Noel on “Airoplain”
“Airoplain” epitomizes Victor Hernández Cruz’s idiosyncratic poetics of cultural and linguistic dislocation. Its opening line traces the epistemology of diaspora: “To me myself them and others always then and now that day.” That day is, of course, the day of the immigrant’s flight from Puerto Rico to New York—the first of the countless culture-crossings that animate Cruz’s poetry.
As elsewhere in Cruz, the distance between language and sensation is bridged through music: memorably, the rhythmic wordplay between “plain,” “plane,” “plan,” and the percussion-heavy Puerto Rican plena. Life on the “Airoplain” is all about erring and playing, about spiritedly dismantling the doctrines of cultural and aesthetic assimilation. In mid-eros, civilization gives way to sensation, as Cruz jettisons the return to the native island and imagines in its place a utopia of the stateless: “They can keep Puerto Rico just give us / the guava of independence depending on no bodies tortures dreams / of the past or future within the present State no State ever of / things.”
The poem’s structure—period-less phrases and sentences enclosed in an unjustified block of text—locates “Airoplain” and its readers in the ceaseless interplay between freedom and constriction. This is not “political poetry” in any conventional sense; rather, it is intensely, quirkily, uncompromisingly personal. But “Airoplain” also imagines a nomad polis, inviting us to work through the terms of our inarticulate statelessness, to find ourselves in language. To read Cruz is to heed the poem’s unrelenting call: “Assemblage yourself” and “listen to the beat abnormalize yourself.”
Lidia Torres on “Two Guitars”
Victor Hernández Cruz arranges for two guitars to meet in this poem—a tight-stringed guitar full of tears and an internationally known guitar. “Two Guitars” is one of many Cruz poems that describe the poet’s close relationship to music.
The first guitar is played by a man with “no heart,” but when it is squeezed tightly, the guitar can “bring down the angels who live off the chorus.” The middle section of the poem describes the powerful impact of music: “sentiment comes off the hinges.” The landscape also opens up as music swells: “something so big in the harmony.” The poet playfully cautions that “we are always in danger of blowing up with passion,” possibly referring to the romantic lyrics that the trios sing.
The second guitar represents the culture, history, and landscape of New York. This guitar is also held tightly and is transformed into an “airport for dreams” to the listener. The poet places the guitar on 102nd Street in East Harlem, surrounded by the crush of people at a celebration.
At the end of the poem, a door opens. What remains is the pregnant pause at the end of an emotional bolero. “Two Guitars” is as intense as a romantic song—the lyrics and sounds of the poem resonate with nostalgia and longing.
Poet, essayist, and editor Ray Gonzalez was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. Gonzalez’s work is inextricably linked to his Mexican ancestry and American upbringing in the deserts of the Southwest, as well as to rock n’ roll music and mid-century American poets such as Robert Bly and James...
Puerto Rican poet and translator Lidia Torres was born in New York City and earned a BA at Hunter College and an MFA at New York University. In her free verse poetry, Torres often explores the body as a site of change, bearing markers of both diminishment and desire. The...
Poet, translator, essayist, editor, and San Francisco native Francisco Aragón studied Spanish at the University of California at Berkeley and New York University. He earned an MA from the University of California at Davis and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Exploring how language and genre both connect and...
Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...