Boneshepherds by Patrick Rosal
A Review by Jacob Victorine, Book Reviewer
I’ve rarely come to a collection of poetry with more expectations than in the case of Patrick Rosal’s Boneshepherds. I had read his two previous collections, My American Kundiman (2006) and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003), and felt akin to this writer who so gracefully straddles the narrative and the lyrical, the inexplicable and the performative. Rosal is one of the few poets I know of who can address the reader directly (as he does in “Pride Fight”) without drawing him out of the poem. Rosal’s poems ask to be lifted to the mouths of his readers, yet once visited on the page they reveal even greater intricacies. This oral quality does not only present itself in Rosal’s writing style, however, but also in his themes. For as long as I’ve been aware of his poetry, Rosal has been a poet who concerns himself with music and the body. Boneshepherds represents his most ambitious attempt at merging these two motifs.
The collection opens with two epigraphs, one from the great Pablo Neruda. The passage begins, “Show me your blood and your furrow” (1) and concludes with the last line, “I come to speak through your dead mouth” (11). If there are any doubts as to what a Bonesheperd is after this proclamation, Rosal removes them with the collection’s first offering, “Boneshepherds’ Lament.” The poem is a violent landscape of the speaker’s legacy and memory: a murderous piano student who once played for his parents, men who slaughter pigs on the island of their ancestors. At one point, the speaker asks (apparently shouting to the graveyard or sky), “And in return do your ancestors expect you / to simply shutup and bring to the murderer a bottle of rum / and—god help you—a song” (60-62)? These lines demonstrate a witness questioning his own culpability. The Boneshepherds are both the ones who do the slaughtering and the ones who stand by and watch the bones collect. Rosal pushes us to ask if we sing to raise the dead or to drown their voices out.
In the past, Rosal has shown himself as a poet who draws from personal experience, using people from his life to shape his speakers and their settings. In Boneshepherds, however, he moves closer to myth, mixing memory with the strange (and sometimes, the supernatural) to craft narratives that go beyond the individual. It is Rosal’s most expansive collection yet. There are still small stories of love, ancestry and laughter (in “Tamarind,” when the speaker awakes after a night of karaoke with his cousin, Joseph, or in “Shrike Ode” when his friend, Hector pierces his hand on a fence while running from some Newark cops), but as a whole, these poems push toward the universal. They are at once longer (often two to three pages) and wider reaching than Rosal’s past offerings.
It is the way Rosal weaves the personal and the universal together that allows his poems to reverberate through the bones of so many, like the guitar in “Sundiata Elegy,” written for the poet Sekou Sundiata. In the poem, the speaker tells of his time at a resort in Puerto Plata: how he borrows a guitar from a man named Elmond who works there. At one point, Angel, another man who works at the resort, plucks the instrument from the speaker’s hands and begins to play:
he held the instrument at arm’s length gazing into it
as if he himself had cut and planed its wood.
Clearly, it wasn’t so much the guitar he admired
but all the hands through which it had passed. (28-32)
Later, the speaker returns the guitar to Elmond, and watches him use it to seduce a woman who swings her hips to its rhythm. “Sometimes I wonder / if music isn’t just another version of light” (55-56), says the speaker, “slowed down enough for the living to dance with the living” (57).
Music is everywhere in Boneshepherds, often shadowed by death. This is no more apparent than in “The Parable of the Disappeared Man.” A lieutenant fills a mansion with “all the families of seven barrios—the rich, / the poor, the vagrant” (29-30) and forces them to watch from its windows as his men prick a choirmaster for hours “with no more than the points of their bayonets” (39). Rosal writes: “They were not to speak or move. They were not / allowed to cry or else the lieutenant’s boys would shoot them” (33-34). Using the choirmaster as a symbol for music and the lieutenant and his men as a symbol for silence, Rosal creates physical stakes for the perils of censorship. He simultaneously intensifies this danger by making the townspeople complicit in the crime. In effect, we become the townspeople watching the choirmaster suffer through the window of the poem, thereby compacting the poem with the times we have failed to act against silence in our own lives. Silence, Rosal warns us, is the most dangerous enemy of them all.
In “Delenda Undone,” Rosal’s speaker weaves through a family history filled with foreign occupation and forced silence:
This is the truth. I’m not wealthy. I can’t buy
space or time on billboards or websites. The name I inherit
doesn’t part columns in the city’s Daily Journal.
My family comes from a long line of farmers.
My cousins scrub their chopping blocks with salt.
They shush the goats before they kill them. (43-48)
Boneshepherds is a rally cry for the freedom of speech. It not only reminds us of the small instances we have each stayed silent (as the homeless woman sleeps on the subways steps or the man at a nearby table assaults the waiter with epithets), but of the times we have all stayed silent (the Holocaust, Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide). It reminds us that to witness and say nothing makes us accomplices in the crime.
Yet with all of the silence (all of the looming death) in these poems, music is always nearby, acting as its counterpoint. Music intensifies the peril of silence by reminding us of all that we have to lose. In the last poem of the collection, “A Tradition of Pianos,” Rosal writes: “This—/ this is what music can do, can let all the love out of us, / fearlessly, and we can boogie down—or kiss” (31-33). Music is what brings people together to teach us the far reaches of love. It is what lets the body, the breath expand, without everything collapsing.