‘Latin & Soul’ illustrates a night of dancing, one that’s dedicated by the author to a famous and beloved musician of the genre. Using passionate and surreal imagery, as well as figurative language, Cruz develops a euphoric but chaotic scene that unfolds in two parts. The first emphasizes the beauty, spectacle, and transformative nature of music; while the second hones in on an incident that disrupts the scene with confusion and violence.
Explore Latin & Soul
‘Latin & Soul’ by Victor Hernández Cruz captures the vehement and transcendent effects of music as it plays out in a room full of people.
Dedicated to the famous musician Joe Bataan, the poem ‘Latin & Soul’ attempts to capture all the rapturous bliss and chaos of a night out dancing to a genre of music known as Latin soul. Over the course of the poem, the speaker describes the powerful effects of the music on those present. Describing their dancing in terms of an ethereal kind of traveling.
The poem is also divided into two parts, with the first dealing solely with the surreal auditory imagery of the music and the way it induces this hyperbolic sensation of flying. The final part relates to an incident that occurs amongst the crowd during the music, a moment of misunderstanding followed by violence that shakes the reader from the dreamlike escape of the music.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Latin & Soul’ is organized into two sections, the first consisting of eight stanzas and the second of two. The organization of the sections is around two scenes: one of music and life, the other of confusion and chaos. There is no definite rhyme scheme or meter. Cruz does use odd line breaks to visually emphasize the movement of the music in certain lines, especially those using imagery or figurative language. There are also large gaps in the syntax that affect the poem’s cadence, making it more fragmented and even lending it a rhythm that is inherently flexible.
‘Latin & Soul’ relies on a variety of literary devices to create a scene of music in the poem. There are quite a few examples of imagery, such as the one that opens the first stanza (“some waves / a wave now”), which, in turn, is a symbol for the effect of the music. Cruz also employs kinetic imagery to describe the audiences’ revelings (“the shadows of dancers,” “dance inside of their drinks”) and the surreal ways the music gives an effect of traveling (“we are going / away-away-away”). Not to mention the soberingly terrifying moment of violence that interrupts all the celebration(“a body thru a store window / a hand reaching”).
Of course, in a poem about music, auditory imagery is also present in mass. From the music itself (“with this rhythm with / this banging,” “bursting with drums”) to the crowd (“a room full of laughter,” “clapping their hands / stomping their feet”). But there’s probably no sound more potent in the poem than the one that cuts through the final stanza (“a scream”).
Cruz also uses metaphor (“a piano is trying to break a molecule / is trying to lift the stage into orbit”) and personification (“a trombone speaking to you,” “a piano is talking to you”) to convey the music’s agency.
a wave of now
a trombone speaking to you
around the red spotlights
The first section of ‘Latin & Soul’ tries to immerse the reader in the aural and visual (via the imagination) beauty of Joe Bataan’s music. In the first stanza, the speaker conveys the crescendo of tones that come from the band’s instruments by using a metaphor of impending waves, which conveys the music’s power upon the listener. Further uses of figurative language underscore ways in which the sounds coming from the instruments display their own autonomy. When the speaker personifies the trombone as directly “speaking to you,” they bolster a mood of intimacy between the music and its audience.
Then there’s the piano, which is described as trying to “break a molecule,” a bold task that evokes a number of meanings. One is an illustration of music’s ability to affect and pierce (down to the molecular level) the fabric of our lives; another could be an allusion to the ways in which jazz songs (a crucial element of the Latin soul Bataan would play) were a complex and constantly shifting deconstruction/reconstruction of the very notes and chords that made it up. The effect of the music on the speaker is sublime, to say the least, describing the whole ensemble via metaphor and ecstatic hyperbole once more as “trying to lift the stage into orbit.”
the shadows of dancers
In stanza two, the speaker turns their attention to the bodies dancing to the Latin soul music playing around them. Describing the figures as “shadows,” possibly because of the venue’s dim light. A lively crowd is envisioned as bursting with kinetic imagery, the repetition of “dancers” and “dancing” conjuring up a scene filled with paradoxically vaporous yet defined ghosts “falling” about this “space made for dancing.”
they should dance
on the tables they should
ceiling they should dance/dance
Stanza three continues to describe the shadow dancers, with the speaker offering up suggestions on where they should revel, which range from mildly foolish (“on the tables”) to figuratively bizarre (“inside of their drinks” and “on the ceiling”). The impression created by these images underscores the euphoric and surreal sense of celebration offered by the music. An almost intoxicating feeling of elation elicits a desire to do the impossible. The final suggestion (“they should dance/dance”) emphasizes that the only option — or rather, desire — expressed by those dancing is never to stop.
thru universes leaning-moving
Stanza four builds on the poem’s surreal tone, as the speaker describes the movements of the shadow dancers as a means of traversing the cosmos. But the mention of universes also alludes to this motif of the music the speaker hears being so intricate and tangible that one can actually explore it. In the same way, they’re not just moving their bodies side-to-side arbitrarily to the music. “We are traveling,” they assert with no small amount of mysticism or wonder, traveling through the music.
where are we going
if we only knew
Stanza five answers the implied question left at the end of the previous one: where are they dancing/traveling to? But there is no determined destination — after all, some of the core tenets of jazz revolve around improvisation and creating polyrhythms. The extended metaphor of the dancers traveling via the music also implies why the destination itself isn’t necessarily important. As arriving at one’s destination signifies the end of a journey — or in this case, the end of the song. To know the destination is then to know when the song ends. For a group that just wants to keep dancing, it’s understandable such knowledge isn’t highly desired.
with this rhythm
with this banging with fire
with this all this O
In stanza six, the speaker continues to muse over their destination (“my god i wonder where are / we going”) while also returning focus to the dancers in the crowd. The rhythm of the music is likened to a fire, a blazing symbol of the energy it’s offering to create a “room full of laughter” that the speaker commands the reader to “sink” into. Amidst all the kinetic imagery (“clapping their hands / stomping their feet”), the speaker sees an intimate warmth kindled, describing the room as one “full of life.” As a result, the intense and dynamic imagery strengthens the motif of ecstasy being intertwined with music in the poem.
cooked uptown if you can hold it for after
In stanza seven, the speaker makes another request, asking those present to “hold back them tears” and “sentimental stories.” As stated in a previous stanza, this space is purely for dancing and celebrating. The speaker is emphasizing the purpose of the music and dancing as its own cathartic experience — one only attainable if you give yourself and all your senses over to it. It’s supposed to be a rapturous moment of release, not a mournful or depressed moment of reflection or confession.
we are going
beyond these wooden tables
beyond these red lights
bursting with drums.
Stanza eight goes back to this motif of traveling via the music, referencing some of the physical aspects of the room (“wooden tables,” “red lights”) and going “beyond” them. They go past the walls of the room, upwards “way past them clouds,” past “buildings,” “rivers,” “towns,” and “cities.”
The nature of this travel is left ambiguous and up to the reader’s imagination, but the speaker does use a simile to compare it to traveling “on rails but faster like / a train but smoother.” One imagines the dancers beaming past like shadowy blurs, carried far and “away-away-away” past the “stars / bursting with drums.” For all intents and purposes, this is the climax of the song — the grand finale and oft-wondered destination. Only it’s not a very tidy or definite end, as the imagery of the stanza suggests the feeling remains transitory long after the song finishes and the band stops playing. It lingers, zooming perhaps farther away but still prominent enough to hear the echo of the drums.
a sudden misunderstanding
full of grayness
Stanza nine begins the poem’s second half, which cuts through the callithumpian auditory imagery of the previous stanzas with a bleak scene. The speaker tells us there’s a “sudden misunderstanding” followed by a brief moment of confusion (“a cloud / full of grayness”), the colorlessness of which stands out to the vibrancy of the venue when the music is playing. It’s then that things get violent (“a body thru a store window”), and an unknown hand reaches “into the back / pocket,” presumably to pull out a weapon of some kind in response.
a piano is talking to you
thru all this
why don’t you answer it.
The final stanza of ‘Latin & Soul’ is a discord of juxtaposed emotions and images. A new piece of auditory imagery cuts through the silence of the last stanza (“a scream”), an implication of further violence taking place in this “space made for dancing.” But then the speaker returns to the music — revealing it never ceased — revealing via personification that a “piano is talking to you / thru all this.” A powerful image that underscores the permanence and penetrating quality of the music, capable of becoming intertwined and expressive of all the drastic spectrums of human experience (from the jubilance of a room full of dancers to one of violence). The speaker’s invitation to “answer it” is a request to once again submit yourself to the music, to communicate and engage with it.
One of the main themes that surface in the poem is a stirringly earnest call to lose oneself in the transcendental effects of the music. Both the poem’s surreal use of imagery and figurative language attempt to recreate the rapt sensations it offers. While even within the discord of the poem’s second part, the power of the music still persists.
The shorter second half of the poem represents a shift in both mood and perspective. The first lines of its two stanzas illuminate the moments (a misunderstanding and a scream) that completely transform this night of celebratory dancing. Yet amidst all the vaguely confusing chaos, the speaker crucially informs the reader that the music has not stopped but is rather still trying to entreat them as well (which also seems to imply “we” are present with the speaker). The final line functions as a call to action to engage with the music both in moments of bliss as well as moments of strife.
Throughout the poem, Cruz uses idiosyncratic uses of spaces and indents to create a visual understanding of the music he is trying to describe. Latin soul relies on elements of jazz, a musical form known for its own distinctly improvisational and peculiar style choices. The spaces appear to echo the cadence of the music while also separating even within the stanza’s changes in images/motifs.
- ‘Dream Boogie’ by Langston Hughes – a poem about the arduous work that goes into creating jazz.
- ‘Jazz Fantasia’ by Carl Sandburg – a poem that traces the appeal of jazz.
- ‘I Am In Need of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop – a poem about needing music to alleviate anxiety and dread.