Reviewed by Marcus Wicker
In his debut collection, Cultural Studies, Kevin Gonzalez fleshes out and amps up many of the already strong poems from his 2007 chapbook, The Night Tito Trinidad KO’ed Ricardo Mayorga. Employing the second person “you” as a stand in for the “I,” Gonzalez writes as a Puerto Rico-born MFA poet, educated in the U.S. Cultural Studies articulates a recurring speaker’s love and distrust of identity and America as a rosy melting pot.
Cultural Studies is a book about voice, and it sounds like a poet’s heart occupying space between Puerto Rico and the States, pondering the self. Ars poetica “Flat American Waltz” introduces this idea:
Beneath the cracked roof of the bus shelter,
where a school of cigarette butts gathers
to worship the thin lines of the sidewalk,
a man is muttering a cliché as deep
as the best metaphor you could conjure
for America. It’s all been done before.
Gonzalez insidiously calls attention to the self (the speaker, talking in clichés) by juxtaposing clichéd cigarette butts with the man muttering a cliché concerning America. This redundancy mirrors the act of writing a poem—the notion that, from subject matter to craft, no idea is original. What’s original about Gonzalez’s work follows two couplets later:
Let’s talk about accents, tongues
curling up as they hit the base of the pot.
The black smoke of the bus assimilates
into black air. Let’s all believe in the place
These hard plastic seats are taking us.
A kind of “accent,” or voice here, is celebrated in the poet’s fresh imagistic rendering of an old adage—the cigarette butts become a school, gathered to worship the sidewalk crack. Black smoke serves as a metaphor for the writer’s own identity—a convergence of languages and cultural points of reference. Throughout the book, as in the final couplet, Gonzalez seems to be talking himself into believing that a bicultural identity is natural. However, Gonzalez is also a truth teller; his poems are willing to admit the complexity of identity and nationality.
The speaker’s life in Cultural Studies can be traced from childhood to college to graduate school and back to Puerto Rico. In “Poet Laureate Guest Stars on The Simpson’s” the speaker, at ten years old in San Juan, makes frequent early exits from the baseball diamond to watch dubbed American television in an overcrowded apartment building. Daily, he ran past an old man “who walked so close to death / he must have already missed himself” to watch Homer struggle with a clip-on tie and Marge gamble away Lisa’s college fund on The Simpsons. Near the middle of the narrative, Gonzalez begins to critically assess the show’s impact:
. . . Youth was
however long it took to learn
nobody loans without borrowing something
in return. For you, Homer was Homero
& Santa’s Little Helper was Huesos,
& somewhere, kids deterred
by the bent acoustics of your tongue
referred to Samuel Sosa as Sammy,
In making the English-speaking cartoon character his own (Homero), the poet also relinquishes a bit of his own identity. By westernizing Latin American baseball star Samuel Sosa’s name for his friends, the speaker takes part in the process of assimilation. By the poem’s end, Gonzalez wishes to return to the baseball diamond—“it’s foul poles / two bent palm trees.” But he cannot; the “beachfront lot is now a Walgreens.” Through suggestion, Walgreens becomes a metaphor for the seemingly acquiescent speaker.
In “Cultural Strumpet,” the speaker recounts college, explaining “you were still / a Poli-Sci major. You wore T-shirts / with portraits of patriots on the front / & told girls how Che Guevara, baby, / was buried beneath the Fountain of Youth.” Juxtaposed with lines like “The Puerto Rican girl said, You’re so militant / the black girl said, You’re so white / the white girl said, You’re so white / and there was no arguing in Pittsburgh [where Gonzalez attended college],” the reader sees a man outwardly struggling with identity, momentarily conceding to the girls’ collective judgments. Paired with a poem like “Cultural Sellout” where the speaker longingly proclaims “Pablo [Neruda] was not the kind of poet / who googles his own name,” we view the American notion of fame interfering with the poet accessing his identity as a writer of Spanish descent.
Through a narrative, “Cultural Stud” portrays the speaker returning to his native Puerto Rico after college. At Frenchie’s nightclub, a Columbian waitress sparks a realization:
She wants to be an American citizen
& you are tired of being
a graffittied wall
forgiving the humid caresses
of your vandals. You tell her
it's true: you have a token to feed
to the rusted turnstile of heaven
but you have no lube to make it turn.
To the waitress, the speaker’s birthright becomes more important than his poetic flattery. Nothing will cure the author’s sense of cultural dislocation; neither drinking cases of Medalla, Puerto Rico’s national beer, nor his knowledge of American cartoons. However, in Cultural Studies, the poet’s tongue—his diglossic, melancholy, narrative exploration of a conflicted bicultural identity—allows a reader space to try on the author’s blues. Winding yet taut, candid and crafted, intelligent but never obnoxious, Gonzalez celebrates and laments cultural dislocation in a wildly honest voice.