Intro for Pat Rosal reading at the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival, April 2011
It's my great pleasure this afternoon to introduce Pat Rosal, a poet I've known for thirteen springs now--he was a student in a class I teach here sometimes on the essay, and I served as his poetry thesis advisor--and it's been a particular pleasure this year to welcome him back to Sarah Lawrence as a colleague on the faculty. What impressed me most about him years ago was his combination of passion and care; sometimes as a teacher one has to settle for one or the other, and it's a joy to find someone who not only cares about the work with his whole big heart, but persists in the sometimes dull day-to-day tasks required to make it better than it was before. And now he's made three beautiful books, in whose titles you can probably hear his verve before he even gets going: Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, My American Kundiman, and Boneshepherds.
As you'll hear, Pat takes a poet's care as he works--with line breaks and living rhythms, with image, with sound--but also with an ancient poet's task sometimes a bit neglected here and now--the task of figuring out What your ancestors expect of you. To do this, you have go to back. There's a famous James Snead essay from 1981 called "Repetition as a figure of black culture," where he takes apart the Western notion of 'progress,' noting the alternative possibilities of circularity and flow--"In black culture," Snead says, "the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is 'there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.'" Matthew P Brown, another thinker and essayist, quotes Snead in an essay about funk, which he describes like this, in words that describe Pat's work too: "It is expansive and social, intensely democratic. It asks us to move here, and not go there."
Pat's work "asks us to move here" via what he calls in one poem "the kind of love that will trouble that silence into music" -- love that has something in common with what Lorca called 'duende,' what in Arabic might be called "Tarab," something in common with the tradition of the ghazal and the longing song of the kundiman--"broken-bed and graveyard bliss," Pat calls it an "Ars Poetica", somewhere between "a sex shop and a Bible shop/two doors down" -- in the aptly titled
"Making Love To You The Night They Take Your Father To Prison" he calls it
One good address. "what kind of sound is this," he asks, "that rallies us all."
As I read Pat's books I kept thinking about Muriel Rukeyser, one of his ancestors, her poem "Waking this morning": "Waking this morning,/a violent woman in the violent day." "I want strong peace," she says, "and delight/the wild good." His books are worlds of men in which a woman might feel welcome--required, even--in the beautifully titled "Delenda Undone," he writes "my work is trying to find the very word/ rippling in my body, which is a woman’s body/my mother’s, and a man’s body, my father’s/and nowhere to be found in the languages/that have conquered the lands of my ancestors."
Born about the same time as that Rukeyser poem was a song you might know, the Neil Young song "Cortez the Killer"--banned in Spain under Franco--it came up on the random shuffle as I was walking up the hill today. It came out in 1975, but he said he wrote it in high school while he was studying history. "He came dancing across the waters/with his galleons and guns" one line says--the values that have brought us to the edge of this cliff--an edge from which Pat Rosal's work begins to bring us back--dancing another new-world way--with his beat-rocking fury, his violent tenderness--his "hands to caress the wreckage," as he puts it--with his love, and his excellent ears, and his babyswipes--with his wild good, and his words.