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With Where a Nickel Costs a Dime (W.W. Norton & Co., 78 pp., $13, paper), Willie Perdomo does more than compile 33 wide-ranging samples of his poetry. He becomes a photographer, a journalist, and a tour guide walking readers through the early adult years of his life and the city he calls home. The poems have no common form or style—some are prose in form or broken into short-line stanzas; some are koanlike in their brevity; others are long, fleshed-out excursions. Collectively, however, the works create a vibrant and complex view of Harlem, where Perdomo grew up and still lives. The Library of Congress lists Dime’s subject as “city and town life,” an implausible-sounding label that proves quite accurate.
Perdomo’s accounts of Harlem include expected images of the “ghetto”: guns, drugs, noise, and violence. But the poet also writes about the mother who raised him and his closest friends, “The Crazy Bunch.” He speaks about being Puerto Rican and black simultaneously, and about being poor but not impoverished. In his poems, the definitions of “love and culture” start to blur—grandmother’s rice and beans, salsa beats, stories told by the old men on the corner. But there is also a certain self-consciousness in Perdomo’s work, as though he is too aware of his unique situation as an artist in Harlem and the doors that have opened because of this. With a mix of guilt and gratitude, he recalls friends who have died and the spirits who spared him, the poet.
Romare Bearden’s collage The Street appears on Dime’s cover, and like Bearden, Perdomo uses sharp, descriptive fragments to convey a sense of place. In “Postcards of El Barrio,” a people’s unfulfilled dream is conveyed in color, light, and sound (“slow orange and yellow bulbs race around the/rims of stained bodega canopies”), and in “Let Me Ask You Somethin’,” a walk to pay the phone bill becomes a tribute to 125th Street (“A breeze of fresh collard-greens bum-rushes me from the open doors of Soul Food Haven…./Public Enemy bringing the noise./Little queen in her stroller points to the discount toys…./Senegalese masks hanging off parking lot gates”). Hiphop-influenced phrases laced with Spanish constitute markers of Perdomo’s style. Heavy use of alliteration and internal rhyme suggest the city’s unrelenting pace and the sped-up rhythm of the streets.
Perdomo comes out of the epicenter of New York’s performance poetry scene, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. But he is also a New York–Rican in the original sense—like countless immigrants, he knows the island of Manhattan better than his terra patria. In “Nuyorican School of Poetry,” he writes not about the cafe where he first earned recognition, but about leaving one’s homeland: “Looking for happy endings/we came/over-extended familias/with secrets named/sofrito y salsa/that made broken homes smell/good from the outside.”
With the exception of a few self-indulgences, as when he writes patly about the imminence of his murder, Perdomo discusses death with compassion and realism. He skillfully conveys the way that pain transmutes itself into disability or vice (“Clyde”), and shows the sweetness in the way young men show love for each other despite the tragedy around them (“Letter to Pedro Aviles”). Although some of these simple poems resemble writing exercises, as if Perdomo had excerpted his journal without regard for his readers, the works’ spareness usually adds to their power. In “The Making of a Harlem Love Poem,” the poet says, “I use to write infinite I-love-you-and-never-want-to-lose-you poems. But now I write about scabs that chip off stone faces and fall on bleeding streets and I think all the poems I write are love poems.”
Where a Nickel Costs a Dime includes a performance CD, giving reader-listeners a chance to hear Perdomo’s own vocal inflections. His reading style is laid-back, his voice a mellow baritone. Unlike many performance poets, Perdomo’s work translates well to the page—but the CD gives a clear idea of the music of his words. At last a publishing house has acknowledged that the current interest in poetry stems from a revival of the oral tradition and not from the persistence of academic conventions.CP