Beneath the Spanish

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

Victor Hernández Cruz began his celebrated career in the 1970s in Puerto Rican New York City; he now resides in Morocco, and his latest assembly of poems and prose—exuberant, spontaneous, fast-paced—looks back over several seas and centuries at the broad gauge of Caribbean history, finding “wonder, mystery, possibilities, imagination” as well as injustice, untold tales, and “the pull of the sea.” Cruz sees himself as a “child mountain....counting the tamarindo / Coconut lollipops,” recalls his “Lower East Side world now lost forever,” and traces the Afro-Atlantic lineage of his favorite music, “the Mama drums tumba / the gawana gimba base guitar…sunken in poly-rhythms.” Later pages show his respect for the life and work of Lorca, Nabokov, Cervantes, and for the international game of chess, played by intrepid children and their families, where “[t]he king is never killed.” “[B]rainy American English” steps aside on occasion in favor of Spanish. Yet Cruz—for all his expansive, celebratory inclination—also protests: his “Caribbean is everywhere / lost within us,” so that he must invoke as many sounds and scents and sources, as many indigenous precedents and parallels as he can gather into his onrushing lines and his page-long speeches. Of Puerto Rico in particular, Cruz says what he might also say of himself: it is not enough to be conventional, or commercial, or American. “This is the way the world is. We want to be world.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.