The Crazy Bunch by Willie Perdomo ’85. If you’d like to take an anthropological trip to a different culture right within the confines of Manhattan island, this book is for you. These poems take you into a classically compressed weekend during which a group of young men in Spanish Harlem come of age (or are tragically thwarted from coming of age) while hanging out (“lamping”) on the street corners and littered playgrounds of their neighborhood to the sound track of 80’s-90’s hip hop. An aura of myth envelopes the events as they occur through the filter of memory in a space now altered by time. Apparently, you can’t go home again.
I count among these poems about 11 dialogs between an entity called The Poetry Cops and Papo aka Skinecky (the dominant voice of the work) and his friends. Since several begin with Papo showing the poetry cops a photograph where we meet the Crazy Bunch and other members of the community, my read is that these cops act as liaison between the hood and the surrounding culture. Sometimes they raise questions which guide the non-Puerto Rican reader and sometimes the cops themselves struggle to understand.
The events of the weekend are numerous, probably too numerous to be possible. There’s the hanging out, which seems unrushed, almost outside of time, the preparación, an occasion where la Bruja,the Cassandra of the piece, makes predictions, the crashing of Josephine’s Sweet Sixteen Party, the trip downtown to break into a shoe store, various battles, and the deaths by gunshot and suicide.
As always in poetry, the words count for more than the events. So here are a few lines to ponder. From “Drug War Confidential:”
False claims, fake news, old blues, blood & feathers, gold & water, bad weather, black bodies, brown detentions, low retentions, you know, same ole same ole.
And from “They Won’t Find Us in Books,” lyrical heartbreaking nostalgia. You have to read the whole poem, but here are a couple of lines which mark loss through the passage of time:
Gone are the old spots near the takeout, old flames where we
used to make out, the spots where the light used to fade
out, and the letters we wrote from burning buildings.
There is so much in this work that is astonishing and, even with the poetry cops help, hard to access. I am astonished by the burlesque note that jumps in smack in the middle of tragedy. The fabled story of Don Julio, who in stormy weather “cartwheeled to the light post, but he never let go of his porkpie hat” is echoed in the tragic moment of Dre’s suicide when “his white yarmulke gyrated like a dizzy UFO” as he fell to his death. Or Petey’s jet-propelled trip to triage.
The cast of characters pulls you in. The girls, though kept in their place, respond with spunky swagger. The people of the block, always watching, provide a Greek chorus. The rap vibe pulses with muscular spondees. The Crazy Bunch was the band of brothers who shared a time and space, offering each other comfort when crime, drugs and danger surrounded them. Here is their farewell to adolescence, the last time “The corner was between us & the world.”