In Patrick Rosal’s Poetry, Physical Exuberance Takes Flight

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By Stephanie Burt

New and Selected Poems
By Patrick Rosal

Joy takes hold in the brain, or the soul, when it takes place at all. For some of us it also drives the body: the pleasures of running on a beach, the exhilarating surrenders of sex, the “simple thrill / of touching ground.” Patrick Rosal’s poems pursue such joys through the rough New Jersey cities of his youth and the Filipino locales of his heritage. Most of his best poems show people — himself or others — using their bodies for good: “b- / boys contort cocksure / swagger into dance.” A teacher ties children together “with wire and stray twine” to rescue them from a typhoon. The “Little Men With Fast Hands” in his ode of that name include a knife-wielding rebel in the wartime Philippines as well as a basketball player who shows him “how to box out / a stocky forward on the inside with a slick / hip-pull so the ref can’t see.”

Children stride through Rosal’s poetry, too, bold and vulnerable, winning and needy, reminding adults what’s important, in the Philippines or in America or anywhere. In his allegorical “Town Called Sadness,” hope comes from an 11-year-old in a parking lot, “in sagging socks,” standing and playing the French horn, “one hunch-shouldered child / clutching a little dazzling galaxy / of voluptuous metal.” When Rosal remembers himself as a child, though, that power turns to anger. The future poet had no clue what to do with the storm and stress in his own body, nor with the sense of injustice he got from the street: “How many times I was swift,” Rosal admits, “to headbutt another kid in the chin / or moosh some 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 better for it. Others rely on lists, catalogs, accumulation, as in “Kundiman Ending on a Theme From T La Rock”: “Your very / revelry Your break- / neck scat the loot / you boost Your / rags Your seven- / thousand-island / slang.” A kundiman is a Tagalog art song or love song, often with anticolonial implications; Rosal uses the name for four poems here, all of them taken from his 2006 book “My American Kundiman.” The same immigrant solidarity and energy emerge in the fists and heels, the parties and the violence, in Rosal’s New York and New Jersey neighborhoods: “the hilot’s song / spilled into New Brunswick streets / drunk with a borrowed liquor / we call time.” (A hilot is a traditional healer.)

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    Almost a third of this volume consists of new work. These latest poems, also his most ambitious, propel Rosal away from realistic scenes and stories, into longer associative monologues, dream visions, extended figures:

    is like you’re made
    of 10,000
    beautiful doors

    and every day
    you try to keep them
    from flying open
    at once.

    The characters themselves fly into the open, or make the attempt, difficult wings emerging from their adolescent backs in a recurrent metaphor for becoming oneself: “the boy—I told you— / is trying to fly.” The nine-page leadoff poem, written almost entirely in terse couplets, builds to “boys who dream / repeatedly of wings”: “so few of us know what to tell them” when the day comes, on the first “morning they wake up / and feel what it’s like / to be changed by pain.”

    Rosal understands pain, in the present and in the historical past. But when he can, he chooses fulfillment instead. Watching Kobe Bryant in his prime, the poet can “bear witness to a body in flight / and for a moment know what to do / with half our human sorrow.” Another kind of witness comes through erotic desire, bodily contact, sex: “Making Out on a Hill Overlooking the Hudson,” Rosal imagines “I could stop the sun right now / I could be wicked as a fruit thief,” opening up (as he puts it in the previous poem) the “old spark of the body working / and working and working / it all on out.” Another new poem experiments with quick, typographically uneven phrases, stuttering and plummeting down the page as the poet tells himself to survive, to live, to outlive his former, destructive self:

    Check yourself
    for sorrow No noose
    today The rope’s
    for climbing
    Not too high
    now Too brave
    Too nimble Too
    agile for perpetual
    mourning I once
    set fire
    to a whole piano
    in my mother’s yard

    The language in these pages remains visceral, demotic, open to all comers and capable of neat aural effects: of an ant-infested tamarind fruit, “the busted husk has unfurled / a fine line of burgundy around my hand and wrist.”

    Rosal’s lively vernacular — especially in the lengthier, newer poems — can sound almost improvised, proudly suited for oral delivery: The poems invite us to hear them out loud. Other recent poets share some of his virtues: Consider the muscular wisdom of Gerald Stern, the expansive democracy of Martín Espada, the patient storytelling of Mark Wunderlich or the tough-guy stances of Philip Levine, though no one would mistake their poems for his.

    Though his earlier books found an audience — and won big poetry awards — this selection makes the best way to get into Rosal, because it’s the first volume to show his range. To read these poems one after another is to experience a kind of double or triple vision: an American bedroom, an Ilocan coastal village, a Metuchen street. That vision leads, in turn, to felt connections, to loyalty as solid as Rosal’s firmest, longest lines: “I pray for the dogs in my heart to sleep / and for the house of my cousin built into the side of a mountain / packed with rock and fire to be safe.” The man (and he is a man) behind those poems, the man the poems ask us to imagine, “cannot / stop / saying yes.” He talks loud, works out, loves life, might punch the air: He can get platitudinous, or predictable. But he can also bring his readers with him as he faces, at once, history and delight, injustice and “each living physical moment,” the “spark of the body working / and working and working / it all on out.”

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