archives winter 2009



Shall We Dance
            For MP

This is for you, asleep, right now, curled up
in your big bed, alone, turned
away from the window facing the river,
the taste of Spanish wine maybe
somewhere in your mouth, you,
who might never dream of bluefish scales
or apricots knocked about in buckets
or shiny pianos locked away
in bright lit rooms.  Wait.
Let me slow down, pause
a moment before I wish
one good reckless kiss toward
you who won’t wake for a few hours
more, rise, dress, and ride the dark
headed to no work you love.

Knowing how much you can’t stand
this city when it rains,
let me send you this first: a small
torrent by surprise one night
as you stand in flip flops on some curb
in Chinatown, drenched, your favorite
outfit slightly ruined and you,
with your hands thrown up
in disgust, laughing your ass off. I say,
tomorrow let’s drink no wine, but dance
on one of those west side piers.
And like that one summer night
the dock swayed beneath us
and you clapped so hard
you busted your watch
and bruised your palms,
let the beats be free and deep.
Let the air be cold. Let me, finally,
deliver to you three syllables
that sound like the name of someone
you can’t bring yourself to love so easily,
three small stones that, together, will
make no sense, but will linger
in the world you dream, a place
where similar things rarely converge,
where, rather, they whisper
to each  other across entire seas.

Let there never be entire seas
between you and me
for long. And if it must be
that way, if some god decides
to lay down between me and you
one hundred submerged
provinces, let me seek out the closest
shore one cold morning, looking out
from my own nation toward
the nation you are sleeping in
and listen, above the blare of the surf
trashing its million chandeliers,
for something slight, and not quite
lost, like the sound of your sleeves
passing across your wrists.


Graveyard Shift in Master Control

Every night, fifty small black-and-white cathode ray tubes
mired the Master Control Room in a lunar blue.
I was already a Rutgers flunky two times over, hired
to crank a couple knobs and tweak the late-hour
cablecast vectorscope: color burst, saturation, hue.
My only companion was Fred, a middle-aged Italian
from Long Island with glasses and a comb-over
who made good enough on his childhood piano lessons
to earn out of high school a spot at Manhattan Conservatory.
Once, he even composed a high mass for the Bishop of Lima.
But a commission by the biggest cathedral in Peru
doesn’t pay as good as leaving your wife and two-year-old
behind at home for nine hours to gawk at a monitor
in a room buzzing with bad laugh-tracks and muted game shows.
At 19, I wanted to produce hit records, which meant I was on a quest
to uncover all the mysteries of music, as if that knowledge might free
all the latent platinum and gold of my imagination,
as if the imagination needed no more than to reach back into time
and seize some pure intention, some melody hidden
in the soul of a baby boy before he’s ever wacked on the ass,
before he takes into the small miracle of his lungs
the first antiseptic whiff of air made human by his mother’s
tears and shit and nine months of shared blood.
Of course, the only mystery of music was that it begins and ends
in silence, and that its silence is so perfectly misunderstood.
Because I believed silence was the source of all
tension and resolution, was the purest thing in song, and because
I had yet to sit beside someone whom I loved with all my heart
and experience the absolute stillness of her body, I couldn’t
comprehend how exact something could be in its disregard.
Some might say all the sad magic to half-a-million
homes in Central Jersey burned in master control, for twenty-four
hours, every talk-show re-run, post-game highlight, newscast
bombast, and final Casablanca kiss. We were hardly men enough
to ignore such magic, except for one night, when Fred
turned to me, breaking our usual small-talk formalities
(he knew as much about the Knicks’ first-round draft pick
as I did about second-species counterpoint). I’ve got something
to show you, Fred said. He pulled from his bag what looked like
a rolled-up canvas in that cramped, dim-lit boot-box of a room.
By the way he spread it out on the scratched-up, coffee-
stained console, it seemed a document just short of holy. An original
Philip Glass manuscript, he explained, with no reverence or rapture.
He ran his fingers along mad clusters of notes rising then falling,
some long cadences yoked together for measures by a slender tie
then disappearing. The machinery of the room
clunked and chugged along, and though I was a snot-nose suburban
bumpkin with ambitions of platinum and top-forty,
Fred tried to explain to me some of those musical passages,
as a scientist in a lab might lower his voice and simplify his speech,
recounting what it’s like to watch a rare cereus bloom
or hear some dying species of mostly mute bird cry.
I probably asked some dumb question about accidentals
or diminished fifths, but he just smiled, the slim timbre
and spare rhythm in his voice trailing off in its matter-of-fact
delight. And soon we became so utterly calm.
If someone walked in, they might have thought
we’d just finished some long argument or prayer.
The cassettes jogged to their cue points. The columns of decks
chirped on. We barely heard the capstans’ whine. By shift’s end,
Fred and I parted, having shared a music we could carry home
in our bodies, astounded and soundless and free.



Fact: the shrike is a small bird
that impales its prey
on thorns and steel barbs.
There are no shrikes
in the streets of New Jersey.
My friend Hector,
dodging the cops one night, 
took a running start
to scale a ten-foot fence
in the pitch-black
of an alley in Newark,
a city of murdered lords.
He skewered his hand
onto the fence’s
longest iron picket
just as the flashlights
pivoted toward him.
If you’re going to be
a good thief, he once told me,
you have to learn to make
perfect sense. Fact: a spark
is pure light, plasmic,
lost in a flash amid an alley’s
howling light. You don’t have
a lifetime, Hector said,
to learn to disappear.

The first time I watched
my uncle disappear,
he did so into a field
of sugar cane. The tip of his bolo
went first. The hilt followed,
his dark arms, his hat. The last
I saw of him were his heels.
In barangay Santo Tomás,
my uncles don’t dream
of hell. They say, when you die,
you’ll hear, if you’re lucky,
the chack of a few birds
beside you weeping. In hell,
the shrikes lift what’s left
of the smallest bones
of your hand, carry them
one by one to this low-wage
hack who spends his infernal days
assembling salamander tooth
and gecko spine. Remember:
it was the god of steel who seized
the tongues of a hundred
senators and pimps
to fashion from his bright pink
spoils the first slick
sinews of the shrike, dumb
thug, songless passerine.

Fact: angels dream
of sulfur, the way thieves
dream of birds. Jesus,
on Calvary, refused
to disappear. He chuffed
a few last breaths from his
scrawny rack of ribs,
and the thieves beside him
dreamt of shrikes
by the thousands
plaguing the prefect’s
mansion, nabbing
all the small wall lizards
in Pilate’s house
for six months until
the house was overrun
by gnats and horseflies.
Fact: two thousand years ago,
a few shrikes, the first
swift filchers, fled
from a governor’s mansion
to a hill just outside the city walls
to sling from their beaks
a few writhing lizards
onto the makeshift crown
of a bony, slaughtered king.  


Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers Workshop. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, and many other journals and anthologies. He has twice served on the faculty of Kundiman’s summer writing retreat.