Skip to content →

Category archive for: Patrick Rosal

Ten Years After My Mom Dies I Dance

The second time I learned I could take the pain

my six-year-old niece, with five cavities

humming in her teeth, lead me by the finger

to the foyer and told her dad to turn up

the Pretenders—“Tattooed Love Boys”—

so she could shimmy with me to the same jam

eleven times in a row in her princess pajamas.

When she’s old enough, I’ll tell her how

I bargained once with God because all I knew

of grief was to lean deep into the gas pedal

to speed down a side road not a quarter-mile

after scouring my gut and fogging my retinas

with half a bottle of cheap scotch. To those

dumb enough to take the odds against Time,

the infinite always says You lose. If you’re lucky,

Time grants you a second chance, as I was lucky

when I got to hold the hand of my mother,

how I got to kiss that hand before I sprawled out

on the tiles of the hallway in the North Ward

so that the nurses had to step over me while

I wept. Then again, I have lived long enough

to turn on all the lights in someone else’s kitchen

and move my hips in lovers’ time to the same

shameless Amen sung throughout the church

our bodies build in sway. Oh magic, we move

through the universe at six hundred seventy million

miles per hour even when we are lying absolutely still.

In Brooklyn, a man can prove he’s a sucker for ruin

by dropping an old school toprock on the G platform

at Metropolitan despite the fifty-some strangers

all around him on the platform. Sure, I set it off

in my zipped up three-quarter coat when that big girl

opened the thunder in her lungs and let out her badass

banjo version of the Jackson 5, all of which is to say,

thank you for the kind of wacky anguish that leads me

to a sticky floor like this late-night lounge under

a century-and-a-half-old bridge where I’m about to twirl

a mostly deaf woman by the hand and listen to her whisper

a melody she’s making up to a rhythm she says she feels

only through her chest, how we will hold each other

until the lights come up as if two strangers

couldn’t dance this long to the same sorrows

and one body couldn’t sing two songs.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

Children Walk on Chairs to Cross a Flooded Schoolyard —Taytay, Rizal Province, Philippines (based on the photo by Noel Celis)

Hardly anything holds the children up, each poised

mid-air, barely the ball of one small foot

kissing the chair’s wood, so

they don’t just step across, but pause

above the water. I look at that cotton mangle

of a sky, post-typhoon, and presume

it’s holding something back. In this country,

it’s the season of greedy gods

and the several hundred cathedrals

worth of water they spill onto little tropic villages

like this one, where a girl is likely to know

the name of the man who built

every chair in her school by hand,

six of which are now arranged

into a makeshift bridge so that she and her mates

can cross their flooded schoolyard.

Boys in royal blue shorts and red rain boots,

the girls brown and bare-toed

in starch white shirts and pleated skirts.

They hover like bells that can choose

to withhold their one clear, true

bronze note, until all this nonsense

of wind and drizzle dies down.

One boy even reaches forward

into the dark sudden pool below

toward someone we can’t see, and

at the same time, without looking, seems

to offer the tips of his fingers back to the smaller girl

behind him. I want the children

ferried quickly across so they can get back

to slapping one another on the neck

and cheating each other at checkers.

I’ve said time and time again I don’t believe

in mystery, and then I’m reminded what it’s like

to be in America, to kneel beside

a six-year-old, to slide my left hand

beneath his back and my right under his knees,

and then carry him up a long flight of stairs

to his bed. I can feel the fine bones,

the little ridges of the spine

with my palm, the tiny smooth stone

of the elbow. I remember I’ve lifted

a sleeping body so slight I thought

the whole catastrophic world could fall away.

I forget how disaster works, how it can turn

a child back into glistening butterfish

or finches. And then they’ll just do

what they do, which is teach the rest of us

how to move with such natural gravity.

Look at these two girls, center frame,

who hold out their arms

as if they’re finally remembering

they were made for other altitudes.

I love them for the peculiar joy

of returning to earth. Not an ounce

of impatience. This simple thrill

of touching ground.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

Instance of an Island

One way to erase an island is to invent

a second island absolved of all the sounds

the first one ever made. We don’t know

who concocted this one, where the triggerfish

and clowns fade to inky neon dashes under

a fisherman’s skiff. A few plastic pontoons

knock around makeshift slips. Dusk coaxes

from the shore the small, dull chime

of a spoon against a pot and TV voices

flash slow across a cliff. Two pink lovers

in matching swimwear kiss their glasses

at the edge of a blue pool built just low enough

into the hill so the couple can gaze into the sea

and think of infinity. Many, many years ago,

a great emperor wiggled his finger

and commanded his army to corral all the lepers

in his domain then pack them into a sailing ship

to be delivered to the missions on this cluster

of verdant volcanic rock. The emperor’s orders

to his captain were clear: if the monks refused

the ship’s freight, the skipper was to simply

dump the whole sick cargo far from any shore.

Other incurables followed in lots over time,

or trickled in, hiding from nearby tribes,

or banished from other lands to live among these

lush slopes of mahogany, papaya, and weeds.

Two women, Filomena and Josefa, arrived

within days of one another. By then, each had lost

most their toes, though they had ten

full fingers between them, each woman

with one hand still intact. No one is sure

how it began, but once a week the pair

would knock on the door of the scowling

Madre Clementina to borrow the hospital’s

only guitar, carved from jackfruit and cracked

pretty bad along the back. To these women—

no big deal, for Filomena once transcribed

the early moonlight serenades of the horny friars

in the Royal South for the brats of an Andalusian

duke. Josefa was the daughter of a carpenter,

a maker of tables to be exact. She learned

to play a harana’s tremulous melodies

on her mother’s banduria at the age of three.

The pair of outcasts would stifle laughs, thrilled

to earn the crusty nun’s grudging Yes, then

amble out to lowtide and find a flat rock to share,

so they could prop the old guitar on both

their laps, the one bad wrist of each woman

unwrapped to their stumps, pulled for now

behind their backs as they looked past the bay

toward the violent waters that first carried them

here—and they jammed. Filomena with the five

deft hammers of her left and Josefa with her right,

thick-muscled—both blue-veined and furious,

scrubbing from the instrument all those wicked

rhythms from Castile to Nowhere, on a fragile

scrap of furniture that could barely hold its tune.

They sat shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh,

their good hands brushing from time to time.

What they couldn’t remember, they made up,

and everything they made up disappeared

past the lagoon and over the ocean, every note

in every run, every lie and desire, every nick

and crack in the jackfruit, the fat harmonics

plucked from the old nun’s grunts, six taut strands

of gut whose chords skimmed the water

like night locusts in bursts of low clouds

and which bore everything in front of them and behind,

the brine of the women’s necks mixed with the salt

of the lagoon, the cliffs, the spoons, the bright

nimbus of the West dipping like a noose,

the future of pontoons and fake tits, the history

of nifty crowns pried loose of their jewels,

the jiggle of a little finger gone still.

One way to erase an island is to invent the waters

that surround it. You can name the waters

which will turn all the sounds the island makes into salt.

It will teach you to listen to everything you love

disappear . . . or you can invent a song so big

it will hold the entire ocean.

Josefa and Filomena

rocked in the dark, hip to hip, joined by that third

body of wood, which made sure there was

nothing left in the unbroken world

to possibly make them whole.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

Evidence: 1A, Item 1

To those who plead Not guilty I say: a poem

is a field. Exhibit #1: I haven’t said a thing

about my hand in murder. I repeat: a poem

is a field. And inside this particular field a man

yells “Hee!” to urge a bull toward the border

between the unpaved earth and the road.

When the bull reaches the end of the field,

the animal turns. The man, my uncle, gets up

early to start the work and finish by noon

then polish off a bottle of rum at a card game

with his boys. But first, at some point, the bull

will get tired and my uncle will hitch a second

bull to the plow. The poem is a field. What enters

the field enters the poem—the man, my uncle,

his several beasts, the plow. But then a boy,

my cousin, comes running to tell my uncle

a man is dead. The bull stops working. A man,

a bull, a boy are standing in the middle of a field

and what’s entered is the news of a murder.

The boy won’t bring the name of the shooter

though he knows who he is and who paid him.

The man, my uncle, looks out at the hills then

at the boy who brought the news and who is

weeping now. If I think I’m not guilty then

how come you still don’t know where I stand.

The ditch is in the field. So is the road. My uncle

yokes a third bull and moves on. In lecture halls,

I was taught I can make a field appear. I was told

to erase myself from the field. And then, just

outside my family’s smoky village, I entered

a real field with hip-high cogon grass. I followed

my uncle and cousin who slashed a path. I carried

a real bucket and a real blade and three children

hurried behind me. They called this field holy

because it belongs both to the newly murdered

and the decades-long dead. If you’ve chosen

to erase yourself from slate, I already know

where you stand. I was taught to sweep the crypts

of our beloveds then kneel at their stones to rinse

their death dates with fresh water and scrape

with a knife the contours of each letter etched

in granite until our family’s name came clean.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

The King Won’t Kill Me

today. He’s cleared the court, torn up

the last treaty, trounced the villages

bordering the empire’s southernmost

state, rounded up their dark denizens

and given the hundred skinniest to split

among his governors. I wore shackles

once on a boat across the largest ocean

in the universe, but I was the last among

my captive people to forget how to laugh

and the first to remember our tribal names.

In that time, I learned the whipman’s slang,

for when the noble children came to gawk,

I’d listen to them, mimic, until I could

speak back, ask questions, chat them up

for fairy tales, prayers, ridicule, and lies.

Dumb luck, one runt traded me a book

for my right thumb through the bars

of my cage. In no time, I learned to read

all the secrets of their God. Then,

Minor Governor caught me making

a small group of children dance

to my crafted blasphemies, damning us all.

He had me dragged before the King.

His Majesty asked me why I believed

I’d been brought before him, so I called to mind

a passage I memorized from their holy book

about a pale man’s rib and sang it in the melody

with which my mother used to bid farewell

to summer every year. The King sneered first,

then held his big belly and laughed. Take him

away. Take him—away. I thought, for sure,

it was my death, but it’s been 11 years

and the King no longer goes to church

on Sundays, he beckons me to court instead

to make him laugh and sometimes weep.

He calls me Nearer, my pumpkin, nearer

then caresses my cheek. Some afternoons

I’m cuddled so close to him I’m sure I could

slip from his fat knuckle one of his big bright

ruby rings. He kisses me from my right elbow

down to each of my four fingers’ tips. I tell him

how his darling left hand is so chubby sweet

and I vow, one day, to take the whole

goddamned thing in his sleep.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

You Cannot Go to the God You Love With Your Two Legs

And because you’re not an antelope or a dog

you think you can’t drop your other two limbs down

and charge toward the Eternal Heart.

But you must fall in love so deeply, those other legs

are yours too, the ones that have hauled their strange body

through a city of millions in less than a day

at its own pace, in its own pain,

and because you cannot make the pace of the one whom you love

your own and because you cannot make the pain of the one you love

your own pain, your separate aches must meet somewhere

poised in the heaven between your bodies

the skylines turned on their sides

reminders of what once was, what every man and woman

must build upon, build from, the body, the miserable,

weeping body, the deep bony awkwardness of love

in the bed. If you’ve kissed bricks in secret

or fallen asleep where there was no bed or spent time

lighting a fire, then you know the beginning of love

and maybe you know the end of it and maybe you know

the far ends, the doors, where loved ones enter

to check on you. It’s not someone else speaking

when you hear I love you. It’s only the nighttime

pouring into the breast’s day. Sunset, love. The thousand

exits. The thousand ways to know your elbow

from your ass. A simple dozen troubled hunters

laying all their guns down, that one day

they may be among the first to step

into your devastated rooms

and say Enough now, enough.

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

Ode to Eating a Pomegranate in Brooklyn

When I fall in love again I will have another heart

and a second set of eyes which is one way

to watch the woman you love  grow old

The story of my heartbreak started like this:

someone gave me a key that opens many doors

I traded it for a key that opens only one

I traded that one for another and that for another

until there were no more doors

and I had a fist full of keys

At any given moment only part of the world is gruesome

There are three pomegranates in the fridge

waiting to be broken open

When I fall in love again

my beloved and I will spit seeds into the street

until the birds come to pluck them

When I fall in love I’ll count the tick

of little pits in city puddles

I’ll forget the dead

and count the doors instead

from Brooklyn AntediluvianFind it in the library

Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.