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Patrick Rosal

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Patrick Rosal

Photo courtesy of Patrick Rosal

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Some Notes On Style (A Letter to the Lady Who Mistook Me for the Help at the National Book Awards)"

Dear Lady at Table 24,

I keep thinking about those manongs of the I-Hotel, kicked out in the middle of the night, the police and deputies barging through the double doors with a steel trunk. The uniforms spill in from the street to clear the old men from their homes, some of them residents for half the twentieth century. There is footage of those manongs gathered in the barbershop downstairs, the diner, the pool hall. This one is slender, this one has a paunch. They are beautiful. Woven into their manner is both gravity and play–an affect you might get real good at answering to minor tyrants for the ten or 14 hours you work under the surveillance of some other underpaid grunt.

I can imagine the body at work in the field. I can imagine that body up to work before the sun’s up. I’ve watched my uncles and aunts in their own fields of peanuts and corn and sugar cane. I can imagine men on their various long roads home. Right now, I can imagine one man pushing a narrow wood door which opens onto his small room with a small bed and a good enough window. At this hour, he probably stinks pretty bad. He’s probably sore and a little stiff in his back or the fat muscle of his left hand. He might rinse his face and scrub his armpits twice. The clear water in the basin will cloud with dirt, salt, maybe a touch of blood from a cut in the thumb reopened. The whole washing of the body—ass crack and groin to the creases between the toes until he is renewed by talc and the musk of his own long skin’s oils. The man comes clean.

Maybe he’s already begun to hum to himself. Maybe he gets lyrics to the American standard wrong. He’s not even smiling to himself yet. But the music’s already just under the tongue. He’s already forgotten the stupid shit the foreman or field manager shouted down to him and his buddies. I don’t have to wonder too hard what men like this do with the first forbidden twitch to strangle an overseer. How that wince is held back, pulled in. How the whole arc of his fist, the turn of the hips, the shoulder’s quick pump, time and time again are stored away, like a journal for the working body, a vocabulary one might keep, a babble, a violence, a nonsense, a bestiary of brutal motion, each figure honed into a slight bow of the head, a loosening of the fingers to the first knuckle, how one might peek through the top of his eyes so as not to look directly upon a boss who is gazing back. 

Can you see the body getting older? Can you see the unburdening? The sloughing off of the more dangerous self? Can you see the man slip each leg into his boxers and a clean white t-shirt? At this hour, in this light, the cotton’s coolness softens him.

*

Dear _______,

The word style is cousin to stylus. It comes from the Latin to etch. Or to engrave. And so, style is a way to inscribe oneself upon the world, but also a way to dig, to delve into, to investigate. Style is, then, an inquiry. Style, furthermore, because it is a way to engrave, is also a way to carve a place into some landscape, a hole. That is, style is a way to prepare the earth for the body.

Patrick Rosal is a poet, essayist, and interdisciplinary artist. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Brooklyn Antediluvian, which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award. His writing has appeared in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, American Poetry ReviewGrantland, and many other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright Core Researcher Program, as well as residencies from Civitella Rainieri and the Lannan Foundation. He is Visiting Associate Professor at Princeton University and Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden.

I never felt entirely comfortable with being called a poet. Long before I wrote poems or read contemporary American poetry I was a musician, I was hothead-at-the-bar, I was a DJ and dancefloor feen… For better or for worse, each calling had its set of forms of expression. In poetry, I was trying—in a much more formal way—to connect. To try, as in assay, as in essay. I’d been trying to find a form, inherited or new; closed or organic, open or fixed. Sometimes the material of the trying was sound. Sometimes it was vibes. Sometimes it was the spontaneous, uncontrollable choreography of bodies to a backbeat. Sometimes, even speech. But I’d always been trying. To speak English, my parents’ second language, or Spanish, my second language, or any one of the dozen languages I might hear over the course of a day or a lifetime in an immigrant-rich New Jersey neighborhood. Not to achieve or resolve. But to give it a crack. To stretch beyond easily received injunctions and codes, both written and unwritten.

At this moment, writing essays is an extension of all my trying. I’m trying to see if I have a language for trying. Rather than a trial for language. Not a corrective. Not a figure of judgment, nor a form of the correctional. But a figure of attempt. The strange. The fall, the failure, the disgrace. A place I don’t understand. The interstices of awe and confusion. Feeling itself. A chance, perhaps, to take off this mask I know I can’t live within and have long thought I couldn’t live without (Thank you, Mr. Baldwin, for this sense of love.) Without embellishment or costumes—an improvisation. As my parents and every generation before me, to make it up as I go along. To invent. I’m giving these essays a try.