Willie Perdomo's The Crazy Bunch, snakes up on you like a twisting code of portmanteaus and allusions that exemplifies some early lines as told by Papo/Skinicky: "Bro, poems were falling from rooftops, flailing out the/windows; sometimes you'd pick up the corner pay phone and a/poem would be calling collect" (xiii). The nod to Pedro Pietri's telephone booth poems is not just a nod. It is documentary, for within the vivid language in this poetic bildungsroman, we are given back doorway into the very real poetic imaginary of crews that carry secrets to the death. This is not poetry about a world; this is a world that lives and speaks in poetry because there is no other way to decipher it or survive it.
There are three ideas that I explore in this review. The first has to do with its lyricism. Early reviews of the collection have made much of its homage to hip hop (Abdurraqib; Publisher's Weekly) and Perdomo himself acknowledges his love of the art form. However, I would like to pose that this collection is not influenced by hip hop. Instead, it records moments when hip hop is created, meaning that the collection reflects and records the phenomenon, the people, the actions that manifested hip hop. hat is to say, the work remembers that hip hop came from somewhere and it places the who, what, where, and why. The second idea I explore here is what I call dark nostalgia. We often think of nostalgia as sweet or bittersweet, often smoothing over edges and casting a sunset filter on memory. However, over the course of the weekend depicted in The Crazy Bunch, the look back is an excited frenzy couched in pool dips, fire escape adrenaline, junk food, high school crushes, and blood. T When the mix is gloomy, I argue the pull back is stronger. The final concept I explore is the vulnerability of our black and brown men, shown as a tableaux in what amounts to a poetic memoir. Right now, when so many African American and Latinx men are being shot, and then accused as an afterthought in order to justify these shootings, we desperately need a text that reveals that running boys with hard muscles en el barrio have soft hearts, too.
Some of us will read The Crazy Bunch and interpret one thing, but I swear that Perdomo's crew from back in the day will read something on top of, or perhaps underneath, the something the rest of us read. The pretext and subtext will be different for its varied readers, depending on whether you are from a barrio, or el Barrio, or whether you were part of the inner sanctum of the crew. Perdomo said in an interview that this book was a response to his homeboy Baby Los asking when he would write about their crew (Charney), and the poems themselves confess to us, "But there's some shit I promised to take to the grave. Y'all know/how that go" (xv). Regardless of your velvet rope status, the poetics communicate how this gathering of Black and Brown folk weaved "wild style" (3) and "masticated benches" (7) into the gold that became the world's rhythm.
The titular name of the crew was born on a day when two dozen friends were planning to "crash Josephine's sweet 16" and select members set up "a Florsheim guiso" or cooked up plan to get some shoes for free (7). The juxtaposition between the saccharine celebration and the economically-driven desire for kicks—both for selling and stylin'—sets the tone for the moniker. Skinicky, who is the central character, responds to Nestor's suggestion of calling the crew The Crazy Bunch, with a non-chalant, "Naturally" (7). Not, yes, that's great, or sounds good. Naturally. Yes, naturally because that is the beat, the rhythm, the vibe. The feeling isn't the crazy bunch electricity alone. It must include the casual, everyday acceptance of the crazy bunch static and its melodious crackle. Of course, naturally, that's just what we have here. Poetry droppin' everywhere.
Some of the poetry drops in the form of interrogations, which, unfortunately, are part of the locale's tapestry, but Perdomo's Poetry Cops are "Consolidated Poetry Systems," so in this imaginary those doing the questioning are the embodiment of word artistry. The neighborhood has come together to form an interconnected mechanism that brings together creative aspects of genius and wordplay, all to figure out what happened that weekend when three friends met their untimely end and left others with the puzzle. The answers are in the soundwaves of syntax. Dying too soon is an echo of Gwendolyn Brooks, reformed in the words:
Death Kiss (10).
House-heads will also hear Chip E's "Like This" remix spinning in the background as the friends wonder if they will be next. At this point, I remember, these are boys, the age my son would be, if I had one. Sons of nature and concrete, specifically sons of pineapples, grapes, and daisies (13), just the same as "cracks in planks" and a "rumble down a fire escape" (22-23). One begins to hope that the frutas are sweet enough to counteract the bricks that break the night (89). Nothing is certain except the pulse of language. When the barrio sages speak, even they say language is "a lemon running/up the stairs, a piano plink, an uppercut & a right cross" (90). Perhaps there is the salvation, the fact that here no one merely moves or speaks, they "electric boogie past that old hot dog stand" and "rock your Lees right" (25). Life itself must be a conglomeration of poetic action, in everything from naming your crew to the search for "Juice & Butter," juice being "a wink underwater,/a finger snap in a dark hallway,/…a club of coded fists" and butter being "leather bombers,/Virgin Mary medallions, Starfire/rubies" (18). Juice=power; Butter=the profits. All of it a campy painting of what it takes to create music when under pressure.
This dark nostalgia is perversely entertaining, a very guilty pleasure that borders on obsession. What happens when all of a sudden you are face-to-face with how dangerous your surroundings are, when you thought you were just having an illegal midnight swim with your homies? Perdomo writes, "We could've been six feet under for all we knew, so we hopped/the public pool gates, & swam 400-hundred-meter relays/in our soaked boxers" (91). This moment, three days, is all-consuming and it feels like a year. Isn't that what it feels like when you are shaken from the day-to-day to see what is actually before you? What has been taken from you? The first encounter with death is through Nestor, who was left so mangled on the crime scene, his "bile/the shade of old butter" echoes the power he would no longer be able to cop (47). The bravado changes here, Perdomo explaining, "Who was there to see what became of us at the touch/of blood?" (47). How can someone feel nostalgic for such moments? My response to that question is, "How can one not?" Anyone who goes through such heartbreak will become tormented by it. It will hound the thoughts, begging for a rewrite, as shown in the lines: "None of us wanted to exit this world without a sense of/procession" (47).
The series of deaths occur at the same time these young men are learning to shape their love. "That's My Heart Right There" explains to the reader that the phrase reveals a metonym for someone who is dear to you. Perdomo uses a prayer beat to explain:
We used to say
That's my heart right there.
As if to say,
Don't mess with her right there.
As if, don't even play,
That's a part of me right there. (37)
For young people who need to carve a space for tender sentiment to counteract the grind of the daily hustle, the reverence is not overstated. This nascent love in combination with the harshest losses is an acute trauma that results in "PTHD. Post-Traumatic Hood Disorder" (94), a trauma that simply isn't forgotten. However, the love isn't forgotten, either, hence this dark nostalgia that won't loosen its vice. The beauty within the tragedy brings you back even though the signs of logic flash, "forget." The view is distorted, "As in,/the best way to watch was the/other way./To see before they could say, I saw./You lean to the side & recline, only to see/Who else is hurting (69). And the danger is in staying in the distorted view of the past so that you might not have a future, as Perdomo explains, "The thing is, though, not to/stay behind &/take the Life/that was taken/from you" (73). This stanza begs the questions, who took these lives, and didn't a part of all the crew's lives go along with them when they were taken? One might fear that forgetting might be tantamount to taking the lives away again, therefore keeping the dark nostalgia by one's side is the only way to bear the past.
Which brings me to the last part of my exploration: creating space for beautiful, flawed, human Black and Brown men. How we need this space, and it is done here on their own terms. We do not want a space for the White Idea of a Black Man. We want to know that our crazy bunch sons, brothers, fathers, cousins can have a hand in being beauty's father (104), and Perdomo confirms it (although some of us already knew it, just to be clear; this collection just paints the knowledge in technicolor letters). Glory be to "A brother named Jose…[who] will tap out a happy hour blues with his rolled-up/Daily News (81). Thank you Brother Lo, who "was a story master, a library without a card, a cuento" (79). Let us remember that these men "practiced [their] lives in lobbies & layaway, ganders & goofs" and they "were god bodies…had God in [their] bodies" (101). We want to remember the wicked humor, the honorable struggle, the ritual and spiritual. Perdomo sublimes the memory into a vapor that we can breathe and feel, one which I hope will cause more of us to understand what is lost when someone is lost. However, it would be a mistake to think that the work romanticizes Perdomo's experience. No, there is great warning against forcing young men to scrap for cash, or juice, in this way. There is no way one can read this text without coming to that understanding. The reader is left wishing that every crew member had taken flight like Papo/Skinicky, if only to see each one of them dance to make a point (5).
All the words dance on the pages of The Crazy Bunch. It is a text I will be able to read over and over for years because of the unique language but also to help understand my own upbringing in a similar hood, Chicago's Logan Square of the 1970s and 80s. I know these crazies. I still think of the ones who disappeared and wonder if they made it. Part of me feels as if I found them on these pages, and it hurts to admit that this map shows me that everyone's story had a different ending.
Bio: Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is an associate professor in the English Department of the City University of New York-BCC, where she teaches creative writing and Latinx literature. Her articles, short fiction, and poetry are published widely. She is the editor of the anthology Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge, 2019), which features over 30 Latina contributors from throughout the U.S.