In Patrick Rosal’s poetry, physical exuberance takes off
THE LAST THING
New and selected poems
By Patrick Rosal
Joy takes hold in the brain, or in the soul, when it occurs. For some of us, it also enlivens the body: the pleasures of running on a beach, the exhilarating surrenders of sex, the “simple thrill / touching the ground”. Patrick Rosal’s poems pursue such joys through the harsh New Jersey towns of his youth and the Filipino places of his heritage. Most of his best poems show people – himself or others – using their bodies for good: “b- / boys contortion cocksure / swagger into dance.” A teacher ties the children together “with stray wire and string” to save them from a typhoon. The “Little Men with Quick Hands” in his ode of the same name include a rebel wielding a knife in the wartime Philippines as well as a basketball player showing him “how to box / a stocky striker on the inside. with a tablecloth / hip – pull so that the referee cannot see.
Children also peruse Rosal’s poetry, daring and vulnerable, winning and needy, reminding adults of what matters, in the Philippines, America or elsewhere. In his allegorical “Town Called Sadness,” hope comes from an 11-year-old in a parking lot, “in droopy socks,” standing and playing the French horn, “a hunched child / hugging a small dazzling / metal galaxy voluptuous. However, when Rosal recalls her childhood, that power turns into anger. The future poet had no idea what to do with the storm and the stress in his own body, nor the feeling of injustice he felt in the street: chin / or moosh a brat in the face. “
Some of Rosal’s best poems (“A Town Called Sadness” among them) work as anecdotes or parables, easy to follow and best for it. Others rely on lists, catalogs, accumulations, as in “Kundiman Ending on a Theme From T La Rock”: slang. “A kundiman is a Tagalog art song or a love song, often with anti-colonial implications; Rosal here uses the name of four poems, all taken from his 2006 book “My American Kundiman.” The same immigrant solidarity and the same energy emerge in fists and heels, parties and violence, in the Rosal neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey: “the Hilot song / spilled in the streets of New Brunswick / drunk with borrowed alcohol / we call time. (A hilot is a traditional healer.)
Explore the New York Times book review
Want to keep up to date with the latest and greatest books? This is a good place to start.
Almost a third of this volume consists of new work. These latter poems, also his most ambitious, propel Rosal away from realistic scenes and stories, into longer associative monologues, dreamlike visions, extended figures:
it’s as if you were made
and every day
you try to keep them
to fly open
The characters themselves fly in broad daylight, or attempt, difficult wings emerging from their teenage backs in a recurring metaphor of becoming oneself: “boy, I told you, I’m trying to fly”. The nine-page introductory poem, written almost entirely in laconic couplets, revolves around “boys who dream / repeatedly of wings”: “so few of us know what to say to them” when the day comes, the first ‘morning they wake up / and feel what it is / to be changed by pain.