A review of The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Nancy Mercado
Penguin Books, 2014
Willie Perdomo’s latest collection of poems, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, published by Penguin includes four sections that interplay voices and characters, the language of music, street jargon, Spanish and English and Spanglish.
As a Nuyorican poet who emerged on the scene in the 1990’s, Perdomo is comfortable in meshing a variety of elements that may have no business being together but come out clean and intelligible in the end. His book is a fusion of street culture, life in the halls of learning, dual languages, dual homes or no home that resulted in a multifaceted life.
In the first section of his book: How I Came to My Name, the book’s main character, Shorty Bon Bon describes himself to the reader in the first person. In adjacent poems another character (perhaps a spirit) describes Shorty to Perdomo in past tense. The language used includes musical terms in both English and Spanish much of which is slang. In juxtaposing the communication between the characters, between the reader and the poet, in Perdomo’s particular use of language and in his creation of instantaneous mixtures of images, the complex and fast world of Shorty Bon Bon is made vivid.
A musician by trade, Shorty is also a slick street hustler. His hustle has found a home in his musicianship. Shorty learned his craft by listening to the masters not by attending school. He is so sure of his greatness, he is arrogant:
That I chased God like he was on the run.
That when Puente heard my speed, I made him bite his
Tongue. I’m saying—I made the Mambo King bleed. (12)
Rather than being distasteful however, Shorty’s arrogance is amusing. Besides, his greatness is validated by the spirit who addresses Perdomo.
In the second section; To Be with You, gone is the “spirit” character who communicates with Perdomo and introduced is Rose; a singer who is Shorty’s girl. Here, Rose’s tumultuous relationship to Shorty takes precedence. Their separate accounts of their struggling liaison and of one another, sustains the play of communication established in the first section. Rose addresses Shorty through a series of letters while Shorty addresses Perdomo directly. The language Perdomo uses is again a sofrito of English, Spanish, Spanglish, street talk and proper terminology e.g., the use of the word pubis.
The greatness of Rose as a singer is a metaphor for her amazing intellect, beauty and female power. Rose is a formidable challenge to Shorty. So much so that regardless of Shorty’s coolness she leaves him in the end.
The third section of the book; Fracture, Flow, sees Perdomo melding into Shorty. The communication here is between the poet and reader; the voice in the poem is the poet’s and that voice is Shorty Bon Bon’s. Set in Puerto Rico, in this group of poems, Shorty recounts life on the island vs life on the mainland, the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States and the island’s political state. Through the use of metaphor, Perdomo refers to such historical events as Columbus’ treatment by the natives when he lands on the island, the dignity of Puerto Rican nationalists, the Ponce massacre, how the island and mainland are treated with the same brutality by those in power, the selling of the illusion of freedom.
The final segment of the book; The Birth of Shorty Bon Bon 45, realizes the death and rebirth of Shorty Bon Bon. Just like the poet himself, Shorty has died and is reborn anew. His transformation played out on a metaphoric 45 vinyl sides A and B.
Telling the story of one character throughout a book of poems is a risky proposition; a tool usually reserved for novelists and short story writers. But the persistence of a character among the sewn shards of language and colliding metaphors throughout Perdomo’s book, unifies the work and gives pause to the reader to ponder; is Shorty Bon Bon really Willie Perdomo?
The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon is a must read for anyone seeking a poetically visceral experience of what it is to be an amalgamation of things which, in the end is truly American.
Nancy Mercado is a writer, editor and activist whose work appears in dozens of anthologies and literary journals. Most recently, she presented her work at Casa de las Americas in Cuba. Mercado is an Assistant Editor for eco-poetry.org and an Associate Professor at Boricua College in New York City. She authored the collection of poetry titled: It Concerns the Madness. For more information go to: http://www.pw.org/content/