Gregory Pardlo’s second book of poetry, Digest, asks us what it is to have a father, to be a father, what kind of parenthood a country has and where ideas are born. His methods include satirical syllabi (particularly poignant is “Ghost in the Machine: Synergy and the Dialogic System”), retellings of the same utterances with new meanings, and interlocking narratives (as in “Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora” and “Alienation Effects”), and groupings of poems (including “Marginalia,” “The Conatus Improvisations,” and “The Clinamen Improvisations”), which produce resonance for subjects like violence, family stories, and the complications of memory. From his “dad-pants” to passing references to his “newly pregnant wife,” Pardlo will not let us forget that he is a father and that no one knows exactly what this means.
This compulsion to re-tell figures aesthetically appears in Pardlo’s reworking of Gayl Jones’ character in “Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidor,” in which a combination of repetition and the introduction of new elements in each version lends new dimensions to the character in each of the four free verse sonnets. Consider the first lines of the two different versions of the narrative:
My husband Mutt backhanded me down the fire
escape out back a blues bar called Happy’s. Nothing
holds a family together like irony and a grudge.
My husband Mutt handled the hose that doused the fire,
the reason I can’t make babies. I’ve claimed the blues
is a current like electricity, but mine was a combustion
engine cutting shapes out of noise...
There is a wide streak of feminism flowing through this poem, which is opened up by both subtle reminders and insistently chosen subjects. Other times, this interest returns when readers least expect it. When Pardlo voices historical characters like Louis Althusser in “Alienation Effects,” he works through the problems that seem to arise for him, whoever the cast of characters or context may be:
The pink bud of her tongue between her capped
teeth reminded me of the racoon I shot by accident
with my air rifle as a child. I lifted it from the
bloodstained snow, snow falling patiently beyond
the trees. Some assume I did not love my wife. I
prized her very much. She stepped into my grief
with fairy-tale precision. My pity became her.”
A few stanzas later, we learn the poet’s rhetorical move in voicing this dramatic monologue: he is working through his own understandings of a subject he visits many times in the book, the objectification of women and their response voices. The many attempts Althusser makes to explain his situation melt into what seems to be the voice of the poet, which casts in brilliant doubt what we should understand from Pardlo’s voicing of Althusser. Many have asked, what does it mean, what could it ever mean to voice another? But Pardlo does something more complicated than answering, he shows us this move through the poem, on the page. We can point to this magical drift between character and the poet as he presents the speaker of the poem with wonder that exceeds comprehension.
The narratives and representations we offer our children and their impacts are complicated by “Black Pampers,” which offers a citation to parenting book Black Pampers: Raising Consciousness in the Post-National Home, “a how-to for upwardly mobile black parents beset with the guilt of assimilation.” It offers advice on children’s rooms, “Want tips for nursery decor? Masks and hieroglyphics, akwaba dolls.” It also raises direct questions that other poems in Pardlo’s text offer through stories: “At what age should you begin initiating your little one into the historical memory of slavery?”
Pardlo does not pretend to bring the audience to answers, a fact set off by his refusal to cleverly moralize, or even tightly end, his poems. Readers instead encounter re-openings; in “Alfred North Whitehead” in “The Clinamen Improvisations” he ends with “Hegel says ‘Before setting out for a quotation, first dig two graves.’”
Pardlo is always letting the light of alternatives into his conclusions, which prevents this sometimes academic text from acquiring the cobwebs of verified knowledge. Pardlo is making and unmaking our understandings of the familiar and those philosophers and historical characters we think we know, repurposing them to explore issues related to narrative and fatherhood.
Pardlo gives us contrasting images fatherhood from both sides: picturing himself with his daughter singing along to the grocery store music and himself interacting with his father over adolescent desires. In “Problemata 4” Pardlo writes, “At thirteen I asked my father for a tattoo” and his father responds, “His laughter/ was my first lesson in the human Ponzi/scheme of paternalism, the self-electing/indenture to the promise of material inheritance,/men claiming a hollow authority because,/ simply, their fathers had claimed/ a hollow authority.”
The poet elevates the friction between fathers and children while offering new ways to think about those interactions. Even when the subject of fatherhood drops away for a moment, the extraordinary mixes seamlessly with the ordinary. Take these lines from “Boethius”:
Even Virgin Mary couldn’t compete with the miracles
performed on dashboards by GPS devices that summon
the heavens for guidance instead of forgiveness...
These poems are thick with meaning and replete with references. Pardlo is not afraid of illuminating straightforward subjects (fireworks, guitars, grocery shopping, cars) with Deluzze and Guittari, James Joyce, and Donna Haraway. This matching of objects we all encounter with texts that might not normally spring to mind allows Pardlo to show the workings of his mind and all these incredible associations from Spinoza, to slave narratives, to what his wife thinks, and references to all sorts of musical figures.
Perhaps this rich language is Pardlo’s aesthetic response to very ephemeral poems which concentrate on the self rather than on subject, through which we might come to know the identity of the speaker. For Pardlo, history, philosophy, and politics are with him all the time. His connections aren’t conveniences for narrative or contingent on our understanding of the situation at hand. They are not meant to draw the contrast of the surreal.
The reader has the sense that these connections are authentic in that Pardlo has come by his associations honestly, not as tricks to bring together unrelated things in language play that may produce some new thought for the reader. Instead, in the Romantic tradition, he is using the language that bounces back from his subjects to give us a sense of how his mind works and simultaneously illuminating relational knowledge previously unknown to his readers.
Hannah Star Rogers grew up in rural Alabama and received her Ph.D. at Cornell University. She teaches at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Archive, Leonardo, and The Southern Women’s Review. She has received writing residencies with Arthub and the Acadia National Park Service and is currently working on a manuscript, American Letters.