Patrick Rosal is the author of Uprock, Headspin, Scramble and Drive, winner of the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and My American Kundiman, winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award and the 2006 Book Award in Poetry from the Association of Asian American Studies.
"[In Boneshepherds,] Rosal has infused his poetry with the joy of language."
"Every heartbreak, grief, and outrage is laced with a hopefulness born not just of Patrick Rosal's tremendous gifts as a poet, but of his humanity."
"Patrick Rosal is quickly writing himself into the prominent role of young statesman in contemporary poetics. Unabashedly, he is influenced by hip hop, blue collar issues, and poetry alike: The result is stunning."
"Rosal is a second-generation Filipino whose heritage is a rich part of his work, but he is also an all-American urban kid...[with] the boastful beat of hip-hop...playing in the back of his head. . . . In Rosal's world, beauty and pleasure are contagious. So is the charm of his poetry."
I jokingly refer to Patrick Rosal as my doppelgänger. I was attending the AWP Conference in Austin, TX back in 2006, when a woman walked up to me and praised me for my reading. It was clearly a great reading because she was absolutely thrilled to have spotted me idly walking up and down the book fair rows in the convention center. She kept tugging at my shirt like she was going to rip it off of me and she kept staring at my name tag. Then someone else congratulated me on a great reading. Then another person. And another. Of course, I wasn’t the reader they were congratulating. Patrick Rosal had apparently given a reading for Persea Books and what I was being congratulated for was all his doing. This has happened to me many times since then.
One particularly memorable instance was when poet Jericho Brown asked me if I still danced. I had no idea what he was talking about until I recalled a video I had seen on YouTube of Patrick and Ross Gay dancing in sync during one of Patrick’s visits to Bloomington, IN. Ross and Patrick kick and slide in unison, smiling, clapping, and laughing as the music plays.
Patrick Rosal is a mighty talented person — I’ve seen him elicit oohs and ahhs from an attendant audience, and I’ve seen him make people cry during his readings. I’ve seen him play a guitar, play the piano, sing, and yes, dance.
Even though I’m often mistaken for Patrick, it’s one of those mistakes I gratefully embrace because I think his poetic work is marvelous and such is the case for his third book and latest poetic offering, Boneshepherds (Persea Books 2011). What strikes me about this collection is how skillfully the poems navigate between despair and love, between violence and music, between loss and transcendence. Such an undertaking requires skill — to reign in the terrible and the joyful. Boneshepherds then, performs a tango of the greatest magnitude. The book is a dance of conflicts — where the dancer who leads and the dancer who follows embrace closely and move in graceful syncopation. Where the sum of the two create such a beautiful movement.
Indeed, Patrick Rosal is a deft dance partner, offering readers his arm as he leads. Boneshepherds is organized in five sections with poems bookending each section. Imagine each section to be an act and for each act, the poems collectively dance to an orchestration with notes similar to those of the other sections. The poems that reside outside of the sections are the musical dance numbers that serve as a transition into other sections. I understand that I’m describing the book clumsily here, but it’s useful to think of this book as a compilation of five dramatic dance numbers with shorter dances serving as transitional elements. They’re poems that put the reader in a position to move. The book’s first poem, “Boneshepherds’ Lament” offers a primer as to how Patrick moves between conflicts. The poem opens with a grim tale:
A boy who played Chopin for my parents one afternoon
led another boy to the woods and hacked him in the neck
forty-two times with a knife
hoping squirrels would run off with the skull.
In the next stanza, the poem leaps to a lesson during the speaker’s childhood:
When the fat-fisted teachers of my childhood spoke,
they told us the soul’s ushered finally
to some bright space beyond a grand entry
where anonymity is a kind of wealth.
And in the following stanza, the synthesis of the two ideas generates the speaker’s action:
So I aspired to be nameless and eternal
until the day I got enough balls to tell
those nuns and brothers in baggy cassocks
to go to hell, and in doing so, I was really committing them
to perpetual memory, the inferno being a place
where one’s name is never forgotten.
In such aspirations, such commitments, we the readers are the beneficiaries. The poems that seed the pages of Boneshepherds are filled with memories and observations of mayhem and violence, but also joyful remembrances. We follow Patrick’s footsteps and are rewarded by where his dance has taken us across the ballroom floor. As the first poem, “Boneshepherd’s Lament” establishes the steps and the rhythm of the book. The interplay between the two is the space where the speaker’s hope for transcendence occurs. In this particular poem, the speaker finally reconciles despair with art as he examines a painting by Goya and observes:
In the far background, on a hill, a single figure of ash
appears to raise both hands, the human pose of victory
and surrender, and maybe what Goya wants us to see
from this distance aren’t arms flung up — but wings: an angel
waiting to transport the grave bodies off the battlefield,
over the bright hill where he stands,
where no one will see them in good light.
What is recognizable in the poems that populate Boneshepherds is that each poem is part of a precarious encounter between the haunted past and a joyful present. Patrick’s speaker is constantly attempting to determine which idea leads and which idea follows.
As I mentioned, there are moments of exquisite joy in the book. One of the most endearing images from Boneshepherds is found in the poem “Tamarind,” where the speaker, feasting on tamarinds with his cousin, Joseph, plucks a rotten tamarind and:
. . . a mass of ants [had] hollowed out
the tamarind and left its dry, fragile husk
intact, until I crush it open and set loose a delicate
rivulet of dark red running up my trigger finger and thumb,
swarming now my wrist, splintering several swift paths
around my elbow, a thin sleeve of fire writhing
around my forearm. I stomp both feet hard
to shake the critters free. Joseph, by now, has lost his mind,
laughing, and I’ve lost all good sense too.
The joy of the image is deeply personal for me. I can imagine Patrick jumping up and down frantically trying to shake free of the ants. I can imagine his face, a mixture of fear and glee. Such an image fills me with gratitude for the poet’s generosity and humility, allowing himself to be rendered in ridiculous terms. Yet he maintains his poetic stance as he writes “. . . Today, I’m grateful / to dance beneath a tamarind tree / beside a two-bit assassin instead of the woman I adore.” Even in the presence of maddening and ecstatic joy, there’s the understanding that both joy and loss are engaged in their own dance.
I’ve revisited Boneshepherds several times since receiving the book and I’m struck by its resonating pleasure. It is a richly attendant book — it is present. In Patrick’s musical world, the poems hold us in a spiritual, emotional, and visceral embrace. In such an embrace, we are consoled. We understand, as Patrick tells us in “A Tradition of Pianos,” that “in order to make Great Art, . . . we all, / at one time or another, suffer terribly . . . , / so we have music. . . .” The music of Patrick Rosal’s Boneshepherds moves us to dance. Hold the poems close to your chest. Close the space between you and his words. Allow the words to move you across the floor. You’ll be thrilled with where they take you.