Sundiata Elegy

by Patrick Rosal

Sekou, only weeks after you died, I met a man named Elmond
at a resort in Puerto Plata. His job, to stand
at the commissary entrance every day
to make sure the guests had properly paid
and didn’t show up naked for breakfast.
Elmond studied French history, wrote in Creole,
and every morning stepped into his beige company-issue
khakis to welcome as a sort of friendly sentry
the Dutch, the English, the well-to-do Americans.
He’d raised his several siblings himself, and sent each week
what money he could to his family in Port-au-Prince.
Every morning we chatted in Spanish
like two men met in common exile, quick
to open the doors of their inner laughter.

The afternoon we first talked, I offered him a book of poems,
which he took, not as a gift, but in barter.
I’d heard Elmond several times singing, strumming
a beat up steel-string and asked if I could perhaps take the guitar
just a couple days until I left, and would he hold this book
in the meantime as collateral, to which he twice said yes.
And for a day and a half, I was the one sonovabitch
on Hispaniola singing with my cracked voice
a full repertoire of corny ballads. At one point,
a man named Angel, who folded towels at the main pool,
came up to me on the beach, shushed me, and took the guitar away.
Then, as if to make further good on his name, he sang to me
Quisiera ser un pez…offering that ancient wish
with all the sweetness of flesh and honey. After,
he held the instrument at arms length, gazing into it
as if he himself had cut and planed its wood.
Clearly, it wasn’t so much the guitar he admired
but all the hands through which it had passed.
Angel began to name for me, not just Elmond, but every one
of a half dozen men working at the resort who shared the guitar—
busboy, custodian, bartender, musicians all of them:
Javier, Berto, Santiago, and Roqui, the blind masseuse
who claimed to hear things we could merely see,
each man keeping the guitar for some time, then
relinquishing it to the next man, until it was his turn
to hold it an hour or, as I had, a couple days at most
and Angel mused the guitar must have been older than
the oldest of all the workers, smuggled into lovers’ bedrooms,
banged around in cramped buses and the backrooms of saloons.
Angel shoved the guitar back into my arms and told me to sing on.

The morning of my flight home, I found Elmond
at the entrance of the commissary reading to a woman
from the book I left him, which I told him to keep
as if our trade were even in the first place. He put it down
to make room for the guitar in his lap. I thanked him again
and shook each of his hands goodbye. As I walked off,
Elmond drew a chord across the strings, and the woman,
with her eyes still locked on him, sprang up, snapped
her chin over her shoulder and tipped her hips in rhythm
a few times, even her small collapse into laughter on beat
to Elmond’s bachata croon. In the body of one who believes,
some kinds of music must be just another version of light
slowed down enough for the living to dance with the living.

Brother, wherever you are, I like to think
you’ll ask a pretty lady to dance with you tonight. If so,
I hope you’ll listen for the distant music of borrowed guitars.
Surely, you’ve been waiting for news. So I’ll tell you this:
it’s cold in New York and raining hard, so that a million
strings right now shimmer through the alleys of your city.
You had a gift for hearing what the rest of us could only see.
You took up a whole nation’s rage with two good hands
and heaved above your head, hauled it down our boulevards,
bore it on your back through this adagio throb
of blue dream and steel…  You turned it all into song.
I know this much. There is a man in Puerto Plata who can tell me
everything I need to know about the history of France
in a language his great grandfathers made up. I’ve come back
to live in someone else’s house in the richest country
in the universe. None of us belongs anywhere
without love. Everything has begun to die.
Some of us keep shouting your name.


Patrick Rosal is the author of My American Kundiman, winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive,” winner of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. His poems and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies including Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, andLanguage for a New Century. He has taught creative writing in prisons, community workshops, Kundiman and writing programs at Centre College, the University of Texas, Austin and, currently, Drew University. In 2009, he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Fellowship to the Philippines.