Skip to content →

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.

Published in Patrick Rosal Poems

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.