2 BOOKS by PATRICK ROSALTHERESA M. TENSUAN Reviews
Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive by Patrick Rosal
(Persea Books, New York, 2003)
American Kundiman by Patrick Rosal
(Persea Books, New York, 2006)
In his first collection, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, Patrick Rosal established himself as a poet whose words rearticulate the world. From the dark corners of “Nine Thousand Outlines” in which the poet traces out a story of violence and violation that
…starts in the armpit of a god -- the plots
of fishbone and vinegar a history of nails
a war or two a swan some saints of course some
to the declarations of the poem “Who Says the Eye Loves Symmetry” that sings of the visual pleasures of “unpainted pickets/cracked planks,” Rosal’s poetry compels a reader to view the world afresh, to take in the full measure of its funk, its pain, and its unexpected beauty.
Uprock spins the rhythms of Kurtis Blow and riffs off of the inflections of Audre Lorde, creating a framework in which the poet paints tableaus of sons keeping vigil at their mother’s death bed, of the gravel lots and strip malls of Edison, New Jersey, of a child staggering on a sidewalk in the wake of a hit and run. The beauty of Rosal’s language and the clarity of his vision compel a reader to look closely at scenes from which one would normally avert one’s eyes; in the hands of a lesser writer such scenes could be mere spectacle, turning a reader into a casual voyeur but Rosal transforms his readers into witnesses compelled to bear the full weight of the poet’s revelations.
In his new collection American Kundiman (Persea Books, 2006), Rosal opens new poetic registers, drawing from both new vernaculars and traditional lyric forms. In addition to the rhythms and inflections of black literary traditions and b-boy speech, the poet incorporates the soundscape of Tagalog through the invocation of Emmanuel Lacaba’s “Kundiman” (gracefully translated by Paolo Javier) and highlights the trace that mother tongues leave in the words of those who find themselves on American shores, from the manong who is the subject of the fabulously titled poem “Tito Teddy with a Cigarette Dangling from His Mouth Uses My Arm to Illustrate a Jiu Jitsu Bone-Break Move from His Coast Guard Days” to the father for whom English “rises from [his]/ankles into his belly from his torso into his limbs/ like molten glass.”
In “As Glass,” English is a medium that leaves father and son immobilized -- “all the lexicons/of sadness and delight turning cold and hard” (46), an impasse broken by a long distance phone call from poet to father in Spanish which enables him to speak to his father “with an affection/whose prepositions point in all the wrong directions/but for six full minutes we are unfamiliar/with one another’s rage For once/we are laughing at the same time/It’s simple: we don’t loathe one another in Spanish/like we do in English” (43). This moment speaks to the tangle of familial relations, national histories, and circuits of mobility and displacement that at times bind generations together, at times sunder those ties; Rosal’s poetry is shot through with unexpected revelations -- an old colonizer’s tongue can momentarily open up a profound connection, distance can be a necessary element of intimacy.
American Kundiman reanimates a Filipino lyric form that helpfully glossed in an opening note as “a traditional Filipino song of unrequited love” that became a site of cultural resistance and transformation during 400 years of Spanish colonization and the ensuing American occupation. Rosal casts the kundiman as “coded desire, a manifest longing in song, a beloved poetic subversion” (xi) and frames this body of work as one that honors the kundiman’s spirit -- literally as well as figuratively opening up a circuit of inspiration. The middle section of the collection offers a cycle of poems with titles like “Kundiman in which a B-Boy Contemplates How Rome (Like Many Fallen Cities) Was Not Built in a Day” and “Kundiman Ending on a Theme from T La Rock” which praises
Your funk Your every-
day nasty Your very
revelry Your break-
neck scat the loot
you boost Your
rags Your seven-
slang Your hype
Your hips Your spit
Your sickest wit
and snip Your every
The hypnotic ebb and flow of Rosal’s words remakes the reader’s own relationship to language, conveying both the poet’s and the reader’s power in re-envisioning the world. This kundiman’s litany conjures the power of untamed tongues that know the pleasures of “The sweet/convections of soy sauce vinegar garlic” (“Instructions on the Painting of a Portrait of My Mother” 63) that relish the “consensus of sweat and blood/and bloom”(“The Blue Room,” 50) as well as the “rich/bitterness we’ve learned to live on for so long/we forgot how -- like brothers --/we put the first bite in one another’s mouth” (“About the White Boys Who Drive By a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me,” 42).
While not labeled a kundiman, Rosal’s “Ode to the Hooptie” is one of the collection’s finest refigurations of the form:
This is for those cars—early model
Part rust/part primer a patch
of clear coat still holding on
to the bumper—chugging mid-day
down I-95 packed to the rear
window: milk crates blankets books
Someone in there is determined
To move on… (52)
Rosal’s love songs to those outside the conveyances of upward mobility, his ability to convey the grace of characters cast as convicts and beasts, his celebrations of the mothers and lolas and lovers who hold the world in balance all establish him as a poet of extraordinary creativity, breadth, and force. On my shelves, Rosal’s books rub shoulders with collections by Al Robles and Muriel Rukeyser -- fit company indeed for a writer who is transforming the voice and verse of America.
Theresa M. Tensuan teaches contemporary American literature at Haverford College; she is currently at work on Breaking the Frame, a study of the figure of the misfit in autobiographical graphic narratives which will be published by the University of Mississippi Press.