Willie Perdomo’s third collection of poems is sonically charged: he celebrates his Puerto Rican heritage and the music that came out of the Puerto Rican community in New York by narrating the imagined life of Shorty Bon Bon, the percussionist of a descarga (jamming) salsa band in the 1960s and ‘70s. The character is partly inspired by Perdomo’s real-life uncle, who played percussion on two of Charlie Palmieri’s ‘70s recordings. Borrowing heavily from the slang and attitudes of professional musicians, and with dashes of Puerto Rican Spanish mixed in throughout, Perdomo paints what is mostly a vivid portrait of a late-20th century Nuyorican musical community.
Shorty, a kind of ghost from Perdomo’s past, has an endearing tick, directly addressing the author who brings him to life. He will say things like “What could I say but point to my ears, Poet?” and “Trust me, Poet,” which make the past, and these poems, feel startlingly present, like being flicked in the ear by an interesting uncle who caught you not paying attention. Shorty is a man in the moment, someone who plays like, “his birth certificate / was lost forever.”
These poems relish and perhaps gently romanticize — the way musicians talk about music. It’s fun to feel like music can really matter this much, like it’s a little bit war, a lot seduction, achingly fun, and always life or death. Shorty describes one gig thusly:
Sat on a few bars before the pocket
Players drew their best shot. Then I
Shook all the safety from their style.
Came in mega-dirty, dressed to seek.
The best section of the book is a suite of poems spoken to and by Rose, Shorty’s sometime girlfriend and the singer in his band. The poems follow the couple from their meeting through the tumbles of their relationship to their breakup. Shorty’s love-language has the electric quality of the book’s musical descriptions, but the ante is upped: “I loved Rose the way fours/ Exchange blows, the way fractures/ Need islands, the way we tremble/ In the glow of dead-ass truth.” Rose is tough, sexy, powerful — the kind of woman the past can’t forget. When their relationship falls apart, she channels the fiery passion and resigned disappointment at the crux of so many romances, saying, “I hear you can find / mistakes in heaven.” This is percussive, sexy writing, bewildering and disorienting as live music thumping through a club.
Perdomo has one foot on each side of the dividing line between: poetry written for the page and poetry written for the stage. These two major fronts of the poetry world often seem to have incompatible practices, different audiences and very different values and standards. There are, of course, many very successful crossover artists: Patricia Smith began in the slam scene and has become a highly lauded literary poet; Thomas Sayers Ellis, predominantly a “paper” poet, is among the finest performers of poetry on or off any stage; Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery poetry club and one of the emcees of the slam community, belongs anywhere he wants to be.
Perdomo himself is another successful crossover, but this book occasionally suffers from a problem common among poets who are used to working in front of a live audience: sometimes, there simply aren’t enough words on the page. Perdomo leaves details out, counting on his own spoken inflection to fill in the gaps. A love poem addressed to Shorty contains this passage:
I saw you post up in halls
and lobbies, parks and
churches, start hobbies
you couldn’t pay balances on.
I choose not to count all the places
where we found ourselves broken
for the calling we couldn’t hear,
the heard that went undone.
The poetry workshop leader in me wants to circle a bunch of words in here and write next to them, “say more.” What “hobbies”? Where are these “places”? “Broken” how and by what? I mean no condescension: “hobbies / you couldn’t pay balances on” is a smokin’ line, especially around tax time. But I have to point out that this poem probably flies better heard than read.
It’s hard not to feel what Perdomo is getting at in the book’s last pages, longer poems in which Shorty is elevated to a kind of dirty sainthood. In a self-elegy spoken from beyond the grave, Shorty says “The Great Street offered to buy me./ No exchanges, He said.” There is some amazing writing here, moments like this when Perdomo manages to mix the language of city life with a sense of the transcendent. Slam fans will see much to effortlessly love, and literary readers may find themselves converts.