January Lit: "Dangerous Poems" by Patrick Rosal

January 20, 2015

Image by Henrik Berger Jorgensen via Flickr

For the new year, we bring you a poem about poems (but not just about poems) by Patrick Rosal. It's impossible to read this poem without thinking of events from the last few months. The poem asks us to consider the power and danger of both words and people, painting the subject with flawed humanity and questionable intentions. At the end we're left to wonder where we as readers, writers, and citizens, stand in this scenario -- as perpetrators, victims, or somewhere in between?

-- Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor 

Dangerous Poems

A poem thought it saw
the flash of an axe or ninja
star spinning toward it
in the dark. But the poem really saw
a man standing on a corner
waving his hands. The poem
got startled. The poem
got scared. The poem
didn’t understand what
the man was saying. If
the poem mistook the man
for a hydrant, would the poem
have shot? If the poem
mistook the man
for trash piled six-feet
high, would the poem have thought
twice? Every poem
comes from somewhere
—not just a long line
of other poems. Sometimes
a poem is the first
in its family to become
a poem. The poem that pulled out
a gun used to make-
believe like this
when it was young: The poem
hid in a dank basement
behind a couch
with tore up cushions.
The poem popped up
and shot the lamp
and the cartoon crows
on the screen and the lion
that lost half its stuffing. The poem
celebrated by screaming
at the top of its lungs. Now
the poem wears the same pants
and shoes as other poems
so they know on the street
which poems belong,
which poems don’t.
Sometimes a poem learns how
other poems talk. Sometimes
poems learn how other poems
shut up. A poem sends
messages along frequencies
where other poems are likely
to be listening. A poem is not
a snitch. The buck-buck
of a poem’s gun rarely
travels the radio waves.
A poem reports its shooting
after the fact. The city will hold
a press conference
and a man will speak
on behalf of the poem. A poem
did it—slid the sidearm
free and pulled
the trigger six times.
The man waving his hands
on the corner showed the poem
all his ten fingers
but the poem didn’t
count them. One head shot
was enough. A poem did it. And
no one heard. What if a poem
mistook the man
for a man? It’s hard
to mistake a hand
for a hand. But a poem can mis-
take eyes for bullets
sailing straight for your neck
and a wallet for a glock
when it’s dark. It’s hard
to mistake the dark
for a blast of black
cloud filling the brain.
Can the poem imagine itself
as a man? Are there many poems
with no bodies? You see,
a poem did it. Last night,
a poem pulled out
its gun and shot
a man who had twenty
dollars in his pocket
and a space between
his top two front teeth.
The official investigation
has produced
no witnesses. After
a poem clocks in
it better not be caught
singing.  When poems
in question have been asked
at last by mothers: What
happened What have you done
the poems are known
to answer: I’m a poem.
Mistakes happen. I was just
doing my job.


Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal is a multi-disciplinary artist and author of four books, most recently Brooklyn Antediluvian, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize. He has taught at Princeton University, the University of Texas, Austin, Sarah Lawrence College and has earned fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright Senior Research Program. A professor at Rutgers-Camden, he has led workshops for youth, incarcerated populations, and many other communities across the U.S.