Award Winners

William Carlos Williams Award - 2022

Patrick Rosal

The Changing Hymn (Allegory of the Singing Lover)

                          For Mary Rose

During the Trouble Years
my love sang the same song
every day but every day
she’d change—slightly—the words
One day she sang a song for sweepers
and the next day the sweepers became
hangmen On Friday the hangmen turned
into willows In September
the willows turned back to broomsticks
broken in the hands of janitors
She and I used to play a game
waiting for the ferry or on long walks
to my auntie’s house One of us
would begin a song
and the other would repeat the line
changing just one word—
back and forth like that—
drawing and redrawing the images
in the lyrics each time growing
an extra eye or tongue or
losing a foot one word at a time
The game gave us nuns (whom we loved)
on skateboards and who ate steamed buns
in Muncie where they confessed
to the Best Western desk
they were once boys who were once
orchids who were snakes first
slithering through midtown palaces
blazing on trains turned
rocketships in Oxnard and tractors in Parlin
before straddling massive salamanders
in Paris where the sisters farted
on the heads of billionaires
and shook tambourines
in their yellow teeth before
they got down on their knees and prayed
And the cold mist of the ferry was
always good And the cold air between
our house and my auntie’s just as good

My darling loved most to sing
in dark places especially dank bars
packed with locals who were swift
to rise from their crummy chairs
and stagger to their feet setting their drinks
on the closest table or they’d simply
fling their glasses to the floor
to finally hold one another so close
they could sniff each other’s cheeks
though hardly anyone knew another’s name
My love put their tables in her song
and the backroom’s musty wood
and the dusty lavender smell of factories
beside the perfume of goat breath
like a gift inside the song
and sometimes the crowd
would swell into laughter all together
to see if such a singer and such a song
could hold the joyful sound
of a hundred strangers and
they would stomp and twirl
to see if their dance
could keep up with my love’s song
and with all their singing and swinging
stepping and sliding they forgot
their walking legs and their meat hooks
and the thick pine smell
that haunted their saws
my lover’s song so fearless
sometimes the dead got up too
for even the most crotchety of our elders knew
if we opened ourselves up
wide enough to the song
the song would not leave us
even lying down
                         and this is how
her singing became a country
that could go everywhere
a vagabond that moved through
whoever welcomed it This is how
a song became a little nation
inside a hundred people
grooving so hard no one could say
exactly what a nation was—the land
the people upon it or the ones
buried in its fields and hills
for the dancers were pure tremor
cycle and vibration Migrants
they were pure wave

Sometimes short on rent my love
would sing for quick money
in big beautiful halls      crystalline and sad
where the people were also sad
for their ties were always straight
and their clothes were well pressed
and they dared not scuff the good gleam
of their belt buckles—that kind of sad—
they were so rich with the wealth of silks
and platinum garland and fast boats
The marble floors of their salons
so clean you couldn’t tell a single
blade was put to wood
or that a drop of blood had fallen
on their shiny tiles
                              No evidence
of the making
                       but by god
when my love sang every one of these
bright-buttoned folks would sway
barely budging at first
so you couldn’t notice the ghosts
stirring inside them
like a sugar starting to cook
into its first kick of liquor      swirling now
nudging them like a sweet inner fog
They tried (Oh did they try) not
to let the rhythm in      They gripped
the tables’ silver in their fingers
and curled their toes inside their shoes
And just as the music got into their stiff hips
their bodies relented      It was then
my love would begin to fit new words
to this familiar tune       And clever
she would hide me inside the song(!)
maybe just the crook of my neck
or the pink scar across my forehead
(which she’d touch to calm me
when I was sick) Sometimes
she’d smuggle into the song
my busted up pinky      my bruised feet
or my father’s piano      And I would laugh
even louder when the coiffed ones laughed
so hard and loose they seemed
to be breaking all their great grandfathers’ rules
for even the powerful understood
the power of what’s hidden
how a woman’s voice of wild harps
and charging horses was guiding
this monster of a song inside them
while all us savages and outcasts
rode stowaway tucked into the tune
with all our fists and all our feet
and all our sweat and grime
soiling their powdered armpits
and fancy panties in public

And when my love finished
they would suddenly close up like
a patient quickly suturing himself shut
At the end of the night
their long candles burned to their bit wicks
a few of them would approach my love
and shake her hand as if
she had only one arm They’d thank her
as if she had no eyes to kiss
and she would tell me going home
she knew the song would not
stay inside them the way it seemed to abide
in us that spirit which makes
the hammer and hoe blade ring
and the hospital’s faucet water
so cool to the lips you might lick the spigot
and the engine of the trolley rattle hot
this very old spark of the body working
and working and working
                  it all on out

And there were mornings—though awake—
my love would lie in bed like empty luggage
For many nights she moaned in her sleep
as if the song were leaving her for good too
But then in a week or month      often
after the winter cold lost its sting
to the first gingko buds
we’d lift our heads at the same time
and hear a small breaking
                                         the cracking
of a crate smashed glass and crystal
which gave way to flutes and cuckoos
the heavy steps of old ghosts
to keep the new ghosts company
This widening country of wandering bodies
all the sound through which she roamed
and every sound which roamed within us
she made and unmade and remade again
in the Trouble Time      everything
she sang and unsang out of fevers and blood
where no one was ever lonely
      She never wanted others to be lonely
She sang so no one would ever
be lonely
                    I’m speaking in the past
as if we will never exist again
                    and yet
                                  every song changes
as it goes             We’ve already begun
to turn into tomorrow
             We are the soonest sounds to come

From The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems (Persea Books, 2021). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of poet.

Erika Meitner on The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems (Persea Books)

Reading Patrick Rosal’s The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems is an embodied experience; these poems jump off the page with a muscular exuberance. You can hear their raw emotions singing in your gut, and feel their language in the sway of your limbs. These are poems that aren’t afraid to pitch their bodies onto flattened cardboard to pop and lock and spin, creating a new vernacular as they go that’s kinetic and visceral. “Shame / is like you’re made / of 10,000 beautiful doors // and every day / you try to keep them / all / from flying open / at once,” he writes in the title poem, and The Last Thing contains over two decades of poems—not only Rosal’s greatest hits from Brooklyn Antediluvian (2016), Boneshepherds (2011), My American Kundiman (2006), and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003), but also 60 pages of new work that cement his legacy as a virtuoso poet who creates banging standalone showstoppers.

And while each poem in here is its own self-contained world, having them proximate between these covers allows the breadth of emotion, language, music, and range of Rosal’s forms to shine—the elegies and love poems, odes and narratives, laments and hymns, aubades and kundimans, prayers and letters and incantations, call-and-response, parables, and lists. We move from America to the Philippines and back again, through the streets of Jersey and Manhattan, with poems that bring the world into them to push “the fluid boundary between storytelling and song,” as Rosal writes in the stunning preface, which also meditates on oppressive systems and the nature of poetry as a language of resistance. Rosal is a poet who is unafraid of emotional imperatives and is as attuned to justice as he is to the breath and integrity of his lines. In “Bienvenida: Santo Tomás,” he tells us, “Sometimes / we have to sing just to figure out / what we cannot say.” Rosal’s is a poetry of grief and loss, survival and perseverance, as much as it’s a poetry of ecstatic joy and humming eroticism. I chose this book because it moved me immeasurably.

Purchase The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems