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Rosal, Patrick. My American Kundiman. New York: Persea Books, 2006. 65 pp. $13.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Jonas Holdeman

The attraction of our primordial cycle of pain-and-release—like a child probing a loose tooth—is what pulls me into the poems in Patrick Rosal’s second book, My American Kundiman.  Reading “Beast” from the first section of the collection, and one gets an intense, imagery-dense introduction to the poem’s subject:

___________________This Beast who is six-foot-four and speaks
five versions of Pound-and-Pummel In South Philly
I’m watching him play summer league where Beast thinks
he’s a poet even when he hauls down a brick
off the defensive boards and there’s four other
black men on the court calling to him
Beast! Beast! Beast! He answers them
with all the sensitivity of a cretic foot: a quick
pivot mid-court that knocks the opponent’s skinny
two-guard off the gawky pair of iron
skillets grown out of the poor kid’s ankles and projects him
like an old neurosis across the crud-ridden gym floor. (6-7)

The assonant resonance of “quick/pivot mid-court” and “two-guard off the gawky” provides the successive sounds of physical stress, followed by the homophonal “grown” to punctuate the “poor kid’s” futile efforts and to foreshadow his dismissal from the playing floor—abrupt and bruising.  The most compelling moment in the passage comes in the form of a tongue-in-cheek ars poetica reference to how Beast answers the men “calling to him” post-rebound; after all, what’s more satisfying than for the little shooting guard to have been metaphorically stomped by a “cretic foot” than an “amphimacer”?

Rosal’s diction is thick with street speak that captures the “blacktop ineloquence” of the scene.  The speaker voices his sarcastic appreciation for a “blunt left wing-blade” on the chin with a mock-polite “Thank you Fuck you too,“ posing a rhetorical question those with scars earned from full-contact sports can truly treasure:  “Isn’t this so often the affection between men/that we should share not a single lovely word unless/through a battered mandible.” Then, pivoting deftly, the poem accelerates toward its closing seconds to reveal that Beast’s world is not bound strictly by a blacktop court.  Whether it’s because he doesn’t want to be the instrument of his father’s demise, or because it’s payback time for being on the receiving end of life-long “oak-switch cruelty” and “ass-whoopings,” Beast ignores his dying father’s silent plea to remove the ventilator from his throat—”Take the goddamn thing out“—and is made to do what no one before has been able to do make him do: stand motionless and take the pain—as does the reader.

And maybe reading these poems is less like fiddling with a loose tooth and more like a nice root canal.  Rosal writes with such an unflinching eye for the details of human experience—especially when examining the misery of loss as he does in the prose poem “An Essay on Tango Composed While Listening to Adriana Varela”—that one may want to reconsider having his or her Chiclets excavated to see what it’s like to survive the aftermath of devastating love-loss:

Because a beautiful woman once broke my heart without trying I’ve spent long stretches of my life perfecting one amnesia after another and I’m telling you someone is shouting my name on Avenida Santa Fe She is calling from that lovely nowhere  [. . .]  How will you not want to go back to kiss her and have her taste an entire river’s silver soaked in the shallows of your bones. (23)

Rosal extends us an invitation that is more primal than formal.  With titles like “About the White Boys who Drove By a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me” and “On Our Long Road Trip Home I Don’t Ask My Friend If He Thinks His Youngest Daughter Might Be Someone Else’s Kid,” one feels compelled to see for oneself; to submit to the craving for cathartic cleansing borne of the vicarious experience of psychic pain, glad it’s the speaker in “Dear Aracelis” and not he or she who says:

I got the end
of an entire winter
between my teeth
like the time in London
I stole a plum from the tree
where Keats wrote
his nightingale
[. . .]
And for three days
I sucked every
bit of flesh off it
till all was left was the pit
and I swore I could taste
that city’s every conflagration
and soot and I held that
on my tongue too
even as I kissed
my Baby goodbye. (25-26)

Though the page can be turned, the scene left, the reader is vaguely aware that he or she has been, might yet be, the one enduring the dull, lingering pulsing of love being smothered.

And so, though it hurts, one reads into the kundimans of section two. A “kundiman” (as the poet tells us in the notes) is a traditional Filipino song of unrequited love; these poetic songs of longing range from the Strunk & Whitesque sensual exploration of a woman’s body in “Kundiman in Medias Res,” (“I love your 700 questions/each strand curled long/across my lips the sudden/punctuation of your spine”) to “Kundiman: Offering,” which looks and feels like something Wang Wei penned:

sacrum__________this holy bone
in the same
_____to say
_______________at their root. (32)

The kundiman is more theme than form, though unique and tantalizing (as tantalizing as what Rosal does with traditional forms, particularly the sonnet: he doesn’t break form so much as he customizes it).  In “Playing Congas with King David at My Brother’s Wedding,” Rosal starts with the ababcdcdefefgg scheme of a traditional English sonnet; but, like a poetic conguero, he infuses the verse with spondees to echo the staccato beat of a Cuban drum, injects street lingo and bravado in the opening lines:

Me and this David are an angel’s full flight from hell’s char
and halfway to heaven’s chin I’m sweating hard from the biblical
fevers that first burned these skies black that tripped the funky spark
that flamed polyrhythmic
I can almost trace my own frail umbilical. (19)

He sparks funky end rhymes like “biblical” and “umbilical,” “gab” and “mob,” ”heckles” and jackal,” “heels” and “gills,” then echoes the musings of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Tonight we shall grow old
We shall toast to our heels
God will fling us back to sea & we’ll jam
‘til we spit up salt from our gills. (19)

Though Rosal handles emotionally charged topics adroitly, occasionally, he edges into sentimental territory, as happens in “A Poet Visits With Prisoners.”  Here, Rosal presents a speaker who calls on inmates with the smell of sex still on him:  “I smuggle steam/and the funk of an unbathed woman/ who’s left early from my bed” (17).   The speaker reveals a reticence toward being in such close proximity to convicted killers. The only way he’s able to “let murderers/touch [him]” is because, in addition to the conjugal aroma of a woman, he admits  “I carry lies with me/as well: one in each hand/and several between my teeth.”  This attempt at establishing a connection between himself and the cons as fellow miscreants feels contrived, as does the poem’s ultimate line, “It’s how they teach me to be free.”  These, however, are minor exceptions to an otherwise skillful handling of the human emotional experience.

Not all the poems in My American Kundiman explore the pain of loss. Some, such as “The Blue Room” plumb the depths of self-examination and self-discovery: “That was the year I first smelled a girl/on my fingers—a consensus of sweat and blood/and bloom—” (50). And in doing so, Rosal loses none of his artistic command:  the profusion of consonant s-sounds echoes the stuttering hesitancy of the young lovers, the polysyndetonal “sweat and blood and bloom” suggestive of, despite the speaker’s bravado, how emotionally overwhelming the situation was for them both.  In “Ode to the Hooptie,” we are treated to a celebration of the beat-up car as a cultural icon: “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” (52). The poet provides the sound of a sputtering engine with all those alliterative p-sounds, the personification of the pigmentless paint on the car’s bumper an indication that everything about the vehicle is hanging on for dear life.  But no matter where that Bondo-coated sled is headed, if the owner marvels at the kind of poetry that hits like a skillfully leveled elbow to the chops, My American Kundiman will be there among the milk crates, blankets and books, ready to be picked up and read when that hooptie finally makes it home.


JONAS HOLDEMAN teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee.  He is currently pursuing his MFA from the Drew University low-residency Poetry and Poetry in Translation program in Madison, New Jersey.