Brooklyn Antediluvian

Brooklyn Antediluvian

The kid, no more than 13, backpack
slung over the shoulder, flanked by two

girls probably from his same grade
in white button-down shirts and school-

gray skirts. They walk so light, reeds ought
to be splitting this late-March breeze

so their fine stride has got the right soundtrack.
Dude looks me up and down in my doorway.

It’s about three o’clock on Tuesday
Montrose Ave., a half-block from the L,

when most the middle school crews come
rising about five at a time from the subway.

He doesn’t break his gait to point
at my I-heart-Brooklyn sweatshirt and say,

It don’t fit. I think he means I’m too fat
for the pullover, but he says Nah. It don’t fit.

He’s not locked on my eyes for more
than a second, walking past me on Montrose—

the name of an Avenue whose two Roman
syllables imply hills and slopes banked

from foot to crest in roses and I try to conjure
not just this street but the whole borough

from East River to Kosciuszko souped-up
for miles with those prickled vines and lobes

and lobes of red. My name, in Spanish, means
rosebush. In Scotland, there’s a field called Rosal—

a village sacked and looted by English dukes
so their sheep could graze on bloody grass, get fat,

then surrender their wool, hide, gristle,
and bone in anonymous service to the throne.

There are no roses there either. In Old Norse,
my name means field of horses. And maybe

there was a time those beasts galloped down
the Scottish hillocks every other day in spring,

and maybe a steaming new foal from a mare’s
huffing body staggered, still sopping, into the herd.

The child swings the fat end of his tie
from his left fist. I want to ask him,

What’s your name? Maybe he already knows,
my name means nothing. Even in a town

whose backroads I know so well I could still slip
a cop tailing me twice in one night, a town

whose wooded dirt paths beside the Northeast Corridor
were narrow enough to kiss a white girl hard

and for her to bite my skinny clavicle clean
through my secondhand shirt and for the world

of New Jersey to forget that kiss ever happened,
even there, in the Borough of Bonhamtown

of Edison Township in the County of Middlesex,
where young ladies hike their skirts, drop

their green hair and skate the streets
with a backpack slung over one shoulder,

talking sweet smack until the big boys cower,
my name means nothing. Like most names,

mine was first handed down to a family
in another country whose penniless boys

had nowhere to go unless an American came
and sliced enough twenties from a wedge

to send a small, perfumed and newly bathed
crew of those country-ass brown kids to rollick

for one night with the light-skinned girls
who worked the edge of town. Then the boys

could pay the dancers to call them whatever
they wanted. The name they gave me was

so empty you could put any landscape into it,
any country. I once put a lake inside it

and at the bottom of the water’s murk,
the townspeople found a horse, just drowned.

When they cut the horse open, they found stones
the color of roses. Turns out, the stones

were worth something. So they gathered
kindling, chopped up the horse and cooked it

into a stew. The men who hauled the horse
from the water, not unlike some millions

of their time, were hungry. They dumped
the rose stones back into the lakehead

for someone else to one day harvest. And
they ate. Without a nickel to their names,

their stomachs stuffed with tough meat,
they stumbled drunk, out to the edge of town

and implored the girls to call them
John and Peter, Harry and Amoroso.

As for Montrose, I learned early on, if you follow it
far enough due north, this street changes its name.

When my mother married my father, as goes
the Western tradition, she changed her name

from Gelacio, which is Spanish, derived
from Gelasius, the Latin name of an African

pope, a Berber, they say. Look how far
a name can travel, borne by a brown body

whose old name vanished when he crossed
the sea as one condition for him to rule

the Christian world, which he did,
according to some, with wicked orthodoxy.

I used to think the waters erased the names,
but who charts the waters charts the names

as well. The Spaniards trucked their God
from old Rome. And along with cannons

and garrotes, whetstones and coffers, Gelasius’
name was in the freight that came to a simple

village just inland from the South China Sea
where my mother would be born.

She lugged that name as far as Gelasius did,
from a coastal town in the tropics

to a drafty brickface with a ratty couch
and bad pipes. In Greek, her name means

full of laughter. Right now, the gleefullest
shouts bounding through the outerboroughs

belong, in part, to this kid and his two friends.
You could say, they make a sound that contains

my mother’s name and I could track that
happy fracas from Bushwick to Kent and walk

far enough with them the long way toward
the Navy Yards after this block turns off, just

before they split toward their own route
home and I could stop and point out

the one-bedroom second-floor walkup
my father rented in 1964 for thirty-five dollars

a month. He paid in cash and the landlord said,
Father, let me show you how to live. My father

was a Father when my brother was born
and stopped being a Father when he became

a father to me—to be clear, he was a Catholic priest
then my mom got pregnant a second time.

The day my dad moved to Williamsburg,
his landlord drove him out to Chinatown

and sat him at a dice game where he blew the rent
in an hour. The burly bouncers ushered the man

out by his elbow. My father followed. That’s
how to live, Nick.
My father’s name is Nicholas,

but his family called him Charito, which is
a version of Rosario, or rosary,

the beads his mother held onto until death,
counting the prescribed mysteries of their faith,

which has its rules, one of which is that
priests should not make love and women

should not make love to priests, but my mother
did, my father did, in secret, in the dark lots

and public parks of Chicago, until they escaped
that city’s tsismis and my mother left, pregnant,

for Canada. My father landed in Brooklyn first,
in a half-bath flat on a street that trades its name

for another. Brooklyn ends somewhere
under water, the centuries of wreckage joining

this island with the next. I’ve wondered
if ninety-six winters have left some American

evidence in the name of this thin-framed kid
whose slick walk belies the young green vines

of the coming summer, the season in which
his mother might call out her window for him

to set the table for dinner and some nights
she might stay up waiting. I think I know how

a name can hang mid-air as if from a lamppost
at dusk. How a mother’s name and a father’s name

can hang in the air or from a window or swing
from a sad maple and no one will notice. Yes,

streetcorners often honor someone else’s virgins
and saints but sometimes we invent a name

for the hell of it. The hell is ours to remember.
Here’s proof—no one has written this down:

there once was a man who put on a crown
and made himself a king. And his first

order from the throne was to send
his governors out to issue new names

to each town. Among the hungry
was a woman whose job for generations

was to watch over the thousands of wild
horses that stampeded the land upon which

her whole tribe had built their homes, in which
they made love and broke each other’s noses

and the horses snorted down from the hills’
crests with no one but her to witness

how a steed mid-gallop flops over so fast
and so hard it opens like a rose, but what if

a hundred of them, what if ten thousand?
Who else would see the secret rupture?

How does a field of beasts become a field
of flowers? How does the field never change

its name? How could we ever remember?
The woman, those horses, the brutal floral

funk that floods a meadow once the animals
are gone? I like to believe you can teach

a child to snip a bud from a bloody thicket
just as some hidden name erupts. I like to believe

you can join one hundred of the child’s elders
armed with small sickles to help gather the field’s

equine flowers. You can place the flowers
on the tables of governors. You can stand

among the ones who hewed those hunks
of wood and hammered the hand-lacquered

boards together and never sat to eat —
neither simple meal nor feast. Your names

were taken and in their place they shoved
some other word like laughter

crafted with a Spanish hatchet or carved
into Roman stone. Every name is a word

embedded with a wish. And isn’t
a wish just a godless prayer. Like me,

you might have seen how sickles swarm
in flowing metallic droves to cut those lost

names from a field of prickled stalks. Multitudes
come, not to watch the field but to reclaim it,

to slash a path all the way back to the tables
we first fashioned, to present our gruesome

harvest to our governors who—no surprise —
refuse to listen. To those ghastly murmurs

culled from the grisly pastures, that roll call
of the dying and nearly dead, they just

plug their ears with their fine royal wool.
                                                                        Oh, Montrose,
four stops from the river and six from Union Square,

the woman, who kept watch over the horses,
lived long enough to take her name back.

She whispered it into the field and the field
said the word over and over into its own deep dirt

and rock and billion-gnarl until the name
stayed for good, coded into its light at dusk.

There’s a herd of bloody brutes that blossomed
before her eyes and here arrives your summer

child at my twenty-first century door,
late-March, the winter still stiffening our toes.

When I was a young man, I once had fifty singles
in my pocket. I thought I’d get to keep my name

from birth by writing it on dollar bills
or slipping those notes one by one across a bar

into the fingers of a woman working
the afternoon set among the turnpike

semis across the Hudson. It was enough
to pay for a couple drinks and an hour

to chat with a girl in pasties and a thong.
Like my father I thought I had nowhere

else to go. So in dirty cutoffs and flip flops
I followed desperate boys half way around

the world into the red light districts
where dozens of girls in riding boots or

stilettos scanned us for a balikbayan
(dipshit American? Even better.),

where you can choose a name
and lose your face in flashing neon.

But you have to remember the name
they gave you first. The one you came with.

My cousin, a younger man than me,
told me: if you manage to escape

any darkness (say a haunted grove
or thick wooded stretch patrolled by enemy

soldiers), right away, you have to turn
toward the dark. You have to shout

your own name back to make sure
your soul follows you into daylight

or at least into some dim street. You see, that dark
could belong to a precinct of captive dancers,

where, with your last fifty greenbacks,
you can order endless beers and the girls

will hug you all night and make you think
you’re inventing a language to kiss them—

and another language to lie in bed
until dawn mostly alone—but those

women know the slick talk of every john
from Melbourne to Mississippi.

One morning I tipped the madame and flagged
a taxi bloodshot. A light rain spat down.

Back at my uncle’s house, I thought
it might be beautiful to shut the blinds

and listen to the tapping as it steadied,
heavy on the corrugated roofs

through night into the next morning,
the slow gathering of a billion hammers

spiking the metal overhead, not one
wind in the streets. The sewer line out

near the national highway and the six-block
gash in the blacktop under repair filled quick

with rain, chasing the mice into every bedroom.
I might not get to the body count the typhoon

left behind, how it circled back, zig-zagged
for a second rip-and-run across the island.

They baptize natural disasters as if we could
call them closer or coax them back to where

they come from: Katrina, Sandy, Ondoy.
During that last storm, it took two weeks

before the worst of the waters receded,
before they found three men rotting in a tree.

No one had looked up. But for the sweet
reek wafting down, no one would have seen them

drowning in the sky. It’s what happens when
a storm keeps stirring a river and a river

keeps taking, flushing shanties down main roads
towing more than 3000 bodies below.

Even the governor’s snorting horses flopped
onto their sides, the tonnage whisked off

tumbling in the current. I’ll save the story
of the yard-hand who panicked with his sack

of stolen stones and their scarlet glow,
how he shoved them over the course of weeks

into the mouth of his master’s favorite parade horse.
The storm left the boy and took the horse.

I don’t want anything. I do want something.
I want to say the names we’ve been given

out loud. The ones they took
away. I want to say the names

of those who named us. I want
to go back far enough that all of memory

gets cloudy and we have to, as I imagine
our grandfathers and grandmothers have done

for more than four hundred years, make it up,
even if all we got now is the whiff

of a river swelling, the half-truths
and full lies inscribed in books

packed in a middle-school satchel
on a cool day in Brooklyn. I live

in a country where the legends
are illegible or torn off. I have settled

on a block where I can watch from a distance
100,000 billboards alter the nighttime

sky, the kind of lights that change the bodies
of horses in a field before your very eyes,

stampeding the land with no one to witness
the thorns burst from their rumps

and mouths and undersides blooming bloody.
What do I know anyway… I’m the one

who believes we have ancient names
like dawnlight flashing into the dreams

of murderers and sunken into the hillsides
of countries whose shanties and projects

are named for virgins and saints, though
children drown there, just like they do

everywhere: Manila, New Orleans,
Brooklyn. There’s not a name that fits.

You could flood an avenue with storm-
water or roses or the horses could suddenly

split down their bellies mid-stampede.
Your name could curse a city. And it would be

a calamity. It would be spring.

Patrick Rosal is the author of three previous poetry collections, most recently Boneshepherds. A new book of poems, Brooklyn Antediluvian, is forthcoming in 2016. His work has appeared in New England Review, Grantland, The New York Times, Hyphen, Tin House, and many other journals and anthologies. He teaches at Rutgers University-Camden’s MFA program.


Recent writing

E Read More

PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

W Read More

PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

S Read More

PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

T Read More

PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.