Friday, July 13, 2012

What The F!#& Should I Read Friday: Bonesheperds

What the F!#& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful

Bonesheperds by Patrick Rosal

Today, my fanciful friends, today I've got poetry for you. No, don't run away! If you don't like poetry, I think you should keep reading just for a minute. I know, I know, we poem-lovers always say this: trust me, you'll like this one, the same way that people who like Brussels sprouts are forever trying to convince those of us who utterly loathe them that it's just because you haven't had their delicious recipe yet - which infallibly turns out to taste like, well, everything we loathe about Brussels sprouts, quelle surprise.

Except once I actually did have Brussels sprouts I liked so much I asked for seconds. No, really! IT TOTALLY HAPPENED. And thus I entreat you to believe that it is possible that there are poems in the universe that you might really like even if you usually hate poems, because miracles are possible! Really! Especially when you pick up a book like this one, which, oh man, might kinda blow your mind. Maybe you're unconvinced? Maybe you think you know what poetry's like and you doubt its ability to kick you in the gut? (Maybe I shouldn't assume you hate poetry. But just in case...) Listen, let me just quote you an interview Patrick Rosal did last month for Lantern Review, in which he talks a lot about poetry's relationship to music. "Music is not loyal to certainty," he says. "When it works, it follows surprise." I invite you, dear reader, to be surprised, and thus, without further ado...

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set? 
5. Why the f!#& should I read it? 

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
Patrick Rosal, author of Bonesheperds, is an all-around awesome dude. He's pretty young - not sure exactly how young, but, you know, not old and gray. He's won a ton of prizes for his writing, he's a teacher and professor, he's been a b-boy and a DJ, he's a self-described "lifelong amateur musician," he's won a Fulbright, he's taught in prisons, his poems and writing have been in know, like I said, awesome. Among the other impressive things he's done he sits on the faculty of an organization called Kundiman, which is "dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry" and does a lot of nifty things like holding writer's retreats and reading series as well as awarding a swell prize and running a very cool community storytelling program called Kavad. (One of Rosal's poetry collections is called My American Kundiman.) What does "Kundiman" mean?

Patrick Rosal via Post No Ills, which has a pretty
well-done review of My American Kundiman if
you care to investigate (I would if I were you!)
Kundiman, says the organization's website, is the classic form of Filipino love song—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines. In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country. As an organization dedicated to providing a nurturing space for Asian American poets, we find in this name inspiration to create and support poetic expression.

Well, that's epically cool. It also - for me, at least, but I would take a leap and guess that for Patrick Rosal as well - is a pretty good way of thinking about some of what Rosal does with his work: nested meanings, love and politics, longing and misunderstanding, force and tenderness. I know I can't quote the whole damn Lantern Review interview, but, okay, here's a thing he says about his poetry that I absolutely cannot resist.
"To be a political poet doesn’t have to mean that you are only interested in convincing or converting people to a particular viewpoint. The sensual itself is political. It is a way to interact with and interrogate one’s world.

You might ask what the sensual has to do with power (i.e. the political), but it seems to me the official history and the public record, useful as they are, often contradict sensual experiences, if not erase them all together. What political rhetoric says about being poor or black or an immigrant is often directly challenged by the smell of our own fingers after a day of work, the way we kiss, the way we hold a knife or trombone. A kind of history resides in the sensual. And poetry, in sound and sense, is a way to record that."

Okay, if you don't think that is amazing, or at least interesting, you can stop reading now.

2. What the f!#& is it about?
You know how sometimes things get called "gritty" and that usually means they're about violence and/or poverty? Well, when I was reading Bonesheperds, I kept thinking oh, this is what people are kind of trying to talk about when they use "gritty" as a complimentary description. Because usually it's just a dopey term, kind of like magical realism, that people with very little experience of violence or poverty use to describe something that is about violence or poverty but is, you know, trying to be meaningful. Urban Dictionary time: "harsh, coarse, rough and unrefined, as in film depictions that portray life as it truly is, without false distortions, stylizations, or idealizations. Often, the realism is exaggerated such that the culture or society being portrayed appears more coarse than it really is."

Via mary-lou on Flickr
Or, just a little further down the page, "A type of realism, usually invoked by films and documentary. Strangely enough, "gritty realism" is only perceptible to media and film critics and the term is hardly ever used by anyone else. In fact no-one but film and tv critics ever use the term."

This is true. And if Bonesheperds was a movie, the critics would start to say gritty and then stop, because, well, it checks all the boxes, but really? It's a little too hard to dismiss like that. It's a little too alive to dismiss like that. Actually, a lot too alive. It's true that there's violence in it, and darkness. But there is also tenderness, and beauty, and music. You know, like, um, real life. And here's a little scrap from one of my favorites in the collection, "A Tradition of Pianos," written for his fiancee Melissa Piano:

...I like to touch them, to hear
their honky-tonk octaves' shrill, like a voice famished
into nothing but a thirst for a shot of rum from a scrap steel cup.
And I don't mean to suggest one must suffer
in order to make Great Art, only that we all, at one time or another, 
suffer terribly anyway, so we have music. 

I can't actually even type that without getting strangely choked up and hot behind the eyes. Only that we all, at one time or another, suffer terribly anyway, so we have music. 

Yeah, that's what I call poetry.

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
This is a good book to read in places that make you feel uneasy. Dingy subways, laundromats, ultra chi-chi restaurants - anywhere you feel not quite at home around the edges, or worried about whether the world is maybe actually a dark place after all. Because this collection isn't cheerful, but because, as he writes in another gut-wrenching miracle of a poem in this book called "Ars Poetica: After a Dog,"

...if we're lucky, sometimes both
the darkness and the laughter are our own. 

4. When the f!#& is it set? 
Right now. Always.

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
Read this book to remind yourself that joy and darkness are brothers, and they go hand in hand throughout the universe in their strange, impervious waltz, and sometimes the best thing (only thing?) to do is just get up and dance along behind them.

If you think you might like Bonesheperds, you should definitely read the rest of the review I quoted up above, because dude is smart. And buy his book. Support living poets! As Kevin Devaney says, "He's one of the best we've got whose heart's still beating."


  1. I have a very ambivalent relationship with poetry. I love the old masters, but I have no real liking for most modern stuff. People don't know how to write poetry anymore, because people don't know how to read poetry anymore. Of course, there are exceptions, but, generally, they are too hard to find for me to feel it's worth my time to bother with it.

    I have a blog series about poetry in my mind, but it's been there for a long time, at this point, and I still haven't gotten to it.

    1. I agree that people aren't being taught well how to read poetry, but I wonder if they EVER were? I'd be interested to know who you DO like. A lot of my favorite contemporary poets are voracious readers, and most of them are in the slam and/or spoken word community. That community suffers from several stereotypes and stigmas, at least one of which involves the idea that the writers in slam/spoken word are not "educated" in the craft of poetry. But I've heard too much poetry that makes the back of my neck tingle from that group of writers, and not enough contemporary academic poetry that does the same, to know perfectly well that that's a load of bollocks.

      Have you read John Rybicki? There's a WTFSIRF coming up on his book of poems We Bed Down Into Water one day soon. He's got an amazing touch.

    2. I like Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Byron. Shelley. I also like Whitman and Tennyson and cummings. And Burns. I really like Robert Burns. And Frost. I can't forget Frost.
      I'm sure there are more.

      Mostly, though, I don't like poetry since the advent of free verse. Free verse did to poetry what Picasso did to painting. It made people who have no ability or learning think they can just throw anything onto some paper and call it whatever they want to. Kind of like what e-publishing is doing to books right now, too.
      I do realize there are some good poets out there, but they're much too difficult to find. At least, I don't feel like I have the time investment for that kind of search.

      Poetry has really turned into music in so many ways. In that I mean that people that might have, at one time, been poets now write lyrics.

      Of course, I don't listen to much pop music, either.

  2. For Friday F#$%&^@G reads.

    The Flower Daughter

    1. Who the f!#& wrote this book? The only voice disabled DJ in America, from Santa Cruz.

    2. What the f!#& is it about?It is about fathers and daughters and women and power in society.

    3. Where the f!#& should I read this book? Anywhere.

    4. When the f!#& is it set? In prehistory on the Salsbury Plain, on the moon in the future, and all in between.

    5. Why the f!#& should I read it? Because it is a good book you have never heard of.

    Sorry, you asked. ;-)


    1. Hi MM,

      I'm not sure where the impression was given that I was asking for recommendations; while it sounds like a fascinating book and I'm always happy to consider requests, if you have a book you'd like me to look at for What The F!#& Should I Read Friday, please submit it to me via email. For future reference, the comments section is not a great place to publicize your company's works, especially as WTFSIRF is where I write about books I have an existing relationship with. This website does not currently run book reviews.

      Thanks for stopping by!


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

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