Learning To Drown Above Water – The Poetry of Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

One great feature at the annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival held in Delray beach, Florida every January is the craft talks given by each participating poet.  The one delivered this year by American poet Tim Siebles was a stand out.  Two reasons. First, because he introduced me to the Filipino American poet Patrick Rosal. And second, because of the way he knows how to recite a poem from memory and pull it through his mouth with such heat it sets an ear on fire. Hard to do especially with a well-known poem like Theodore Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time. But he did.

Sometimes a famous poem is so familiar it loses its kick. Well Seibles made the music inside Roethke’s poem kick ass – especially the lines – Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire./My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/ Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I? To read Roethke’s poem click here.

It was the metaphors in Rosal’s poem Kundiman on a Dance Floor called Guernica. that Seibles wanted to highlight for his craft talk  but I have no doubt the beat of the music inside that poem was what made it an irresistible choice for him. It will come as no surprise after reading this poem that Rosal has spent a lot of time in dance halls and music venues as a break dancer, a DJ and a hip-hop poet. This man is mad for music. (Kundiman is a traditional Filipino love song.)

Kundiman on a Dance Floor Called Guernica

Don’t push me ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head uh huh huh huh huh
— Ed Fletcher (a.k.a. Duke Bootre)

This woman and I are watching the b-
boys contort cocksure

swagger into dance Down
to the very ligament their bodies

are wattage their names writ in whiskey
and smoke their legs scribbling

into the room’s boned twilight
a gospel according to Duke

These dancers are thunder’s bastards
And at the borders of their human maelstrom

a woman’s hips are winding their own
slow vortex between my hands

We twist time with our waists
Each sweat-slick bass note hangs

in the room like a heavy bruise
healing its way to another storm

I am losing my hands to her
I am learning to drown

above water
But make no mistake

We think we are not in love
And no one can hear us

We are moaning for each other’s air.

Patrick Rosal from My American Kundiman, Persea Books, Inc, 2006

In his introduction to his craft talk Seibles says: Though a poem can make might use of the literal, it is the metaphorical that asks us to imagine, that intensifies our emotional engagement with the poem’s body. Yikes. In Rosal’s poem his metaphor’s engages me with bodies inside the poems turned molten.

Seibles goes on to say in his introduction: It is the imaginative aspect of language that clears away the humdrum of mental habbit and inspires that poignant attentiveness that keeps us alive. Well, I am no dancer but Rosal’s poem makes me want to go dancing with my wife and have us moan a lot for each other’s air. That’s engagement!

Rosal’s poem  takes me to metaphor heaven. Lines like: These dancers are thunder’s bastards; Each sweat-slick bass note hangs//in the room like a heavy bruise; I am learning to drown/ above water.

Thomas Lux, the much-loved American poet and teacher, who focusses on the importance of beat and meter inside a poem, was at Seibles talk and and was gob smacked by Rosal’s line: Each sweat-slick bass note hangs. He pointed out that the line had six stressed syllables in a row – a gutsy move at the best of times. But he stressed (pun intended) how effective they were in this poem.

Rosal, who teaches at  Rutgers University-Camden’s MFA program, has published three books of poetry – his most recent, Bonesheperds, which came out in 2011, was named a small press highlight by the National Book Critics Circle and a notable book by the Academy of American Poets.  And a big thanks to the Academy who reminded me to write my long-overdue post on Rosal today! They just published a new poem of his  — Brokeheart – Just like that – through their Poem-A-Day feature. To read it click here. I love this line from  his  Poem-A-Day poem: Sometimes sadness  is just/ what comes between the dancing. I also so appreciate this comment included with his poem: My whole life I’ve had to work it out through the body—by which I mean poetry too.

Here is another sultry love poem from My American Kundiman:

When You Haven’t Made Love in a Long Time

Whatever first summons back her mouth
to yours — gin or lies or the massive electric
wreck of an old man’s heart Whatever rouses
your clumsy pulse to its bless heretic

measures Whatever lusty villain’s
vague halo or blissless wrist you mimic
Whatever thoracic harbor your passions thrill in
Whatever ash and lye Whatever fragrant muck

lets your tongue be neither simple nor mad-dash
without knowing first the ramshackle
angles of angels rising Do not rush
from if to yes Travel a gentle sickle

Climb her thigh’s solfeggio Hush along her hips like
some cool crooning devil eager to lose his wits

Patrick Rosal from My American Kundiman, Persea Books, Inc.

I have often talked in my blogs about the critical role of word music in poetry. Here from an interview in The Lantern Review in June 2012 is what Rosal says:

If, as a poet, I let the music of a line lead me during composition and revision, …… I am being led by the unknown. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, though the opportunity for an experience of the numinous is possible when writing poems. What I mean is, to consult the delights of the music of a poetic line is a radical response to a world which often wants us to consult strictly logic, reason, money, fear, etc., each of which has its own allegiance to certainty. Music is not loyal to certainty. When it works, it follows surprise…….. By following a poetic line by its music, by which I mean its percussiveness, its internal rhyme, consonance, assonance etc., I can be led to saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I’m led to something I didn’t even want to say.

And one last excerpt from that interview. I can’t resist, not when he says he loves thinking of the DJ as a metaphor for what a good poet does. First, the DJ has to practice—a lot. He also has to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music. He spends his time digging through crates (he used to, before Spotify and Shazam, etc.). He’s always looking for new sounds.

And then when he’s actually DJing for a dance floor, he has to feel. He has to listen while he’s making and what he’s making (a groove) has to be informed by what he hears and feels from the people in front of him (a good portion of a groove is sensed beyond simply listening). The DJ has to remember what he’s played so far, has to hear what’s playing now, and has to imagine what song might make the floor jump next. He is, in that way, a conduit of time. He is looking forward and backward at once—and never leaving the present moment. He is not manipulating time: he’s trying to find the way asynchronous expressions of time might converge to make a single beat. The poet/prophet has to do the same thing, has to look forward and backward at the same time, has to listen while he’s making, has to be asking questions about what came before, what’s to come, who is dancing and who isn’t. He has to figure out how many bodies can he get out on the floor.





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