Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry as well as the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Ninth Letter, The Literary Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Non-Fiction, the Beacon Best and Language for a New Century. His work has been honored by the annual Allen Ginsberg Awards, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Arts and Letters Prize, Best of the Net, among others. His chapbook Uncommon Denominators won
the Palanquin Poetry Series Award from the University of South Carolina, Aiken.
He has served as visiting writer at Penn State Altoona, Centre College, and the University of Texas, Austin. He taught creative writing for many years at Bloomfield College and twice served on the faculty of Kundiman’s Summer Retreat for Asian American Poets. He has read his poems and performed around the United States, Argentina, the UK, the Philippines and South Africa. His poems have been featured in film and media projects screened in Germany, Italy, Argentina, New York and Los Angeles.
A boy who played Chopin for my parents one afternoon
led another boy to the woods and hacked him in the neck
forty-two times with a knife
hoping squirrels would run off with the skull.
He and his buddy went back with slip joint pliers
to twist and yank, but they couldn’t pull out the teeth.
When the fat-fisted teachers of my childhood spoke,
they told us the soul’s ushered finally
to some bright space beyond a grand entry
where anonymity is a kind of wealth.
The sentinels, they said, are neither benevolent
nor cruel, though, as a fee, they take your name
in exchange for spending all of eternity looking at God.
So I aspired to be nameless and eternal
until the day I got enough balls to tell
those nuns and brothers in baggy cassocks
to go to hell, and in doing so, I was really committing them
to perpetual memory, the inferno being a place
where such spirits are never forgotten.
Let me begin again.
In the barrios of Ilocos Norte
there are precisely two words for slaughter.
In some languages, there is only one word for the sound of the tides’
trillion dice set loose on shores. In other languages
it is the sound of smashing chandeliers . My parents were born
on an archipelago where they worship salvation and ruin,
where, even if you can’t see the waves,
you can keep the sound of shattering glass on either side of you
and never be completely lost
you can wake up half way around the world
in the middle of the night, in a barrio of Ilocos Norte where you hear
an infant cry but see instead two men in jeans and flip flops,
hoisting onto their shoulders a 200-pound sow
bound to a spit, which howls all the way from pen to block.
The men, then, laughing, will slay, bloodlet, and gut the hog,
which gurgles, which is the same sound, my cousins say,
that is pressed from a man’s chest
during one drunken night of bad karaoke,
when he is stabbed five times through the armpit
until he’s leaking like a bad jar.
It’s true. You can ask a dead man’s son, watch him sweep
the masonry floor to his father’s crypt,
as he buffs their tiles into the kind of deep
blue that fills up small, unlit rooms by the sea
just before a typhoon starts swinging
its massive hammers down.
You might never get a second chance
to interrogate the accomplice, so ask him too,
and you’ll know the accomplice is telling you the truth
if he hands you by the neck that dead man’s only guitar,
all the bone inlay pried off, the body painted blue.
I know who killed his father. I’ll never say.
Have you ever taken a gun
out of the hands of a murderer
as a gift,
just to shoot a few live rounds into some slapdash target
fashioned from calabash and deadwood?
And in return do your ancestors expect you
to simply shutup and bring to the murderer a bottle of rum
and—god help you—a song?
I don’t remember much about the Chopin that one boy played
or much about the other boy he killed, except
he had brown hair and was the only white kid on the field
during our pick-up football games.
I remember the summer he went missing,
I stopped going to mass. And then I fell in love
with a girl as faithless as me, how she could sing
the devil into a Jersey cathedral choir.
Sometimes I dream of a city inside me, specifically
the edge of one, where a few low-wage grunts marshal
through hip-deep waters of a flooded street
a flock of bobbing carnage, bloated to sea-deep proportions of pink.
No one in the dream asks where they’ve come from.
No one mentions where they’re headed, and the workers,
they’re too exhausted by shift’s end
for more than a crude joke or a six-pack
and a half hour of Chopin on public radio.
I once stood twice that time in front of a Goya painting
in which soldier and civilian alike face off, point-
blank in a skirmish. They shoot and slash one another down,
their eyes wide and juvenile, the tender yowl
of their faces, their soft bodies rallied to battle – they seem boys
of snarling matter. They are men, women too, darkened
under the sky’s forty-day gray. In the far background,
on a hill, a single figure of ash appears to raise
both hands, the human pose of victory and surrender,
and maybe what Goya wants us to see from this distance
aren’t arms flung up — but wings: an angel
waiting to transport the grave bodies off the battlefield,
over the bright hill where he stands,
where no one will see them in good light.
a sudden fog of honeysuckle
will guarantee you
you can deny your children.
Let me tell you a story.
If you know how the A train gores
the dark with a steady hum,
perhaps you’ve come across
an old Caribbean man
patting his ass, his lapels,
first his front pockets
then again the back, looking
apparently, for a wad of bills.
He mumbles inward,
then reports to you,
Three hundred dollars.
I had three hundred dollars.
He looks you in the eye to assure you
he’s known crueler losses,
and even though heaven likes to bore us,
a woman dressed in tattered
black makes her entrance
as the old Caribbean leaves, and
at the same time
a trio of gradeschool boys
(the first chaos of spring in them
about to erupt)
a canvas sack
foaming with fresh-cut honeysuckle.
They place, too,
on the subway car’s floor
a radio. They bounce
on their toes
with a kind of pre-fight
jitter. The woman in black, in fact,
has a boxer’s under-bite
and announces herself
like this: Ladies and Gentleman, please
find it in your hearts to help a starving artist.
So you can’t blame the biggest boy
for slapping the middle boy
on the back of the neck
when the younger one reaches
for the radio’s play button,
can’t blame the older one
who sucks his teeth
at the younger one
as if to say: Let her sing.
you’ve almost completely forgotten
the Caribbean man,
when this woman eases out
her first, perfect, raspy sob;
there are only a few of us who don’t
recognize the tune,
and since we think we can own
by disdaining it,
we try to pretend we can’t hear
the city’s legacies of misery
trembling the tunnel walls.
How explain you’re watching
a stranger hobble by
and that you have to lift
your eyes twice
to make sure it isn’t
someone you love?
I’m old enough now to understand
every silence is remarkable
not the least of which
is the silence of boys
swaying side by side
as a woman in black
walks the length of a train
with each crystalline note
poised in the air that trails her
and there isn’t a scowl among us
when, behind her, the end-doors
signaling the boys
to blast the train with a backbeat,
then throw their bodies
as if to translate everything
we’ve lost today
into a joy
we can finally comprehend.
The boys shut off their radio,
gather their capful of dollars
and rabble of white blossoms
and pounce out at the next stop
in single file, but not —
I swear to you–
the first four notes
to Coltrane’s gorgeous groan.
The subway doors close.
This is the end of the story.
We ascend one by one from the dark
and beneath us
Harlem’s steady moan resumes.
That was the year I cursed my father
for wanting to be alone
his entire life
and for falling into my arms so suddenly
one afternoon I felt the full brunt of a grown man’s weight
once he no longer breathed for himself,
but for the crowds of ghosts whose misfortunes
he’s pressed into the service of his name and mine,
phantoms who’ve abandoned love
the way one gives up salt or laughter
or the mad thrash of the heart
which is a fish
in a bucket of stones.
I too have given up on love
in the last week —
once when I saw myself in the breach between
the cupped hands of a beggar
and I dropped what I could into that empty space
to rid myself of that nothing,
as if a gesture could make me simply
disappear, as if I were nothing.
There are species of quiet I choose not to love,
the hesitation, for example, with which
a man will harvest berries he’ll feed his brother
in order to kill him
or bring him back from a long sleep,
or the way such berries sit
on countless tables of countless people
who can be blamed for the kinds of things
that merit punishment
far kinder than poisoning.
That my father’s brothers dug
their own graves is not a myth.
When people ask if
the imagination can return us to the scene
of its own crimes, I’ll say
I once walked with a woman toward water
without knowing where the water was.
I’ll say, the two of us turned around
without finding it,
and we sat together on a stoop
until it rained
and the fragrance of the bay
fell through a city whose sky
turns the color of berries
at dusk. I’ll tell them
I’ve walked since then with no one
but the ghosts of my forefathers.
I found the water.
And I wept for everything.
And I learned to tell the world
how gorgeous it is to be alone.