Sex, the clich goes, is like Chinese food: Everyone does it but only a few do it right. So it is with poetry, it seems. Literature is filled with pretenders who believe that spilling their emotions whatever they might be in a random fashion across the face of a page creates meaningful verse.
Thankfully, Victor Hernandez Cruz, the author of “Maraca: New and Selected poems 1965 2000,” is not one of that lot. Cruz, a Puerto Rican by birth and a New Yorker by habitat, is a Guggenheim award winner whose influences shine authentically throughout his work. These influences arise from a Latino family background fused with a childhood in New York City. Add to this the era of the “50s and “60s when Cruz grew up, and the result is a bottomless pit of unique life experiences to draw upon and share.
The themes Cruz attacks are both universal such as sex, love, loss and music and unique, such as Caribbean Jazz, the crack epidemic, Latin dance and racially mixed family life.
His poetry examines both the mundane and the extraordinary. The man weaves tales of the city that are both surreal and strangely appealing. He describes everyday happenings in a new light: The tranquility of a train ride, the vibrancy of color, the joy of sex.
One of the best things about Cruz”s collection is the fact that it allows the reader to watch his progression as a poet and writer. We see his work in the early days when it displayed much promise the raw talent was present but the work was sophomoric and lacked structure. This can be contrasted with the polish and refinement of his latest collection the work is finely crafted and the poetry speaks for itself. This is not to imply anything negative about Cruz”s earlier works. It is a simple validation of the fact that his work has gotten a lot better with time.
Cruz is something of a rarity in today”s world of MTV literature. He is a pioneer. As one of the earliest poets to use “Spanglish” as a medium of cultural expression, he bridges the distances between East Harlem and Puerto Rico as deftly as any other “Nuyorican.” However, his descriptions of those distances, of the differences, locales and people that inhabit them, set him apart from anyone else.
It is said that the poet”s occupation is to force the reader to look at life differently, to use words to impress upon the reader the need for the critical examination of one”s existence. Victor Hernandez Cruz does this and much more. He asks the reader to look at their life and the people in it, but he also asks them if those people are looking back.