About Barely SouthSubmission GuidelinesCurrent IssuePast IssuesFeaturesBlog

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.


about | submissions | present | past | features | blog