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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming books: This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

Some Notes on Gregory Pardlo


When I first heard Bitches' Brew in college, I didn't know the point of entry. I was expecting something else, and yet I knew it would somehow claim me. Much later, I realized, that with its dips and pinches, its contrails, its thrumming constant energy, I had absorbed it in memory. Gregory Pardlo's debut collection Totem (2007) gave me that initial feeling that I was in the presence of something multivalent, new, and both emotionally mature and highly intelligent, but settling in was difficult, the syntax slippery and sly. Pardlo begins Totem with a tour de force "Landscape with Intervention," a whitewater language ride:

     Sun white as a hambone and rain soon despite. Elbowed
     and gibbous, sun squirrels through the leaf-root in spasms
     and spills into the arms of the still laddering casualties
     of that arboreal coil toward light and the bark-mangy trunks
     fossiled into lesser light and those leaning like ski jumpers atop
     the ages of mossy, deckle-edged rock along the hillside wall
                       where light collects.

Note the particular attention paid to the startling metaphor ("Sun white as a hambone," "bark-mangy trunks"), the verbing ("sun squirrels," "trunks fossiled"), the pairing of descriptors ("elbowed and gibbous," "in spasms and spills"), and the manual override of diction ("and rain soon despite"), the snaking direction of prepositional phrases ("those leaning like ski jumpers atop the ages of mossy, deckle-edged rock along the hillside wall"). He shows evidence of handiwork on the syllabic level too ("still laddering casualties"), which gives the lines their sense of finish. Taken together, these compositional components work in the service of a syncretic kind of articulation, of putting into words what words can accomplish when they are set in motion to resonate beyond their denotations, when what is relational and dynamic rises to the fore. In his second collection, Digest, Pardlo has an epigraph from Aquinas, "The mover gives what he has to the one who is moved in that it causes him to be in motion." True that. "Landscape with Intervention" sluices on for 18 more stanzas.

Music runs through both Totem and Digest, and it functions not as emotional decoration or autobiographical soundtrack but as emblematic of consolation and its push-back, social edginess:

     Here I'll orphan the horn I have yet to name,
     surrender it to the broker who not only knows me by name,
     but has my headshot on the wall. In ten months, as many hands,
     I've pawned as many horns—he even knows which ones are stolen.
                    —"The Notorious Antagonisms of Robert 'Bathtub' Collier"

Pardlo is an urban poet who finds in his landscapes (chiefly Brooklyn) what nature poets find in the woods: a context and a mirror. In this setting, he mounts up detail to create a world charged with import, not always polite or approving but shrewder than that, not unlike the Manhattan poems of the late Kurt Brown. Here he is, about to take, I gather, the 6 train:

     ...Doors peel a toothless yawn where men sleep
     lengthwise on benches and I think of mice snuggled
     in the mouths of reptiles. Afford me some pity, dear Nessie
     of halogen and steel, your sub-street tempest sparking
     moments blind and shuddering with caprice
     like a wet dog. Your maps are like x-rays where I am circled
     and incriminated, a tumor. But we are concentric. In me, too,
     a prisoner contemplates escape, scrapes memory like soft stone
     at night and daily drags a tin cup along a cage of rib bones.
                    —"In Canal Street Station Late"

So what at first appears daunting to the eye is won by the suasions of the ear. In "Marginalia," a poem central, so to speak, to Pardlo's perspective, he advises us to

          Listen like a safecracker, navigate
     the intricate ruptures by ear: the Latin patois
     of picnickers, the Slavic tongues
     of lovers replacing your mouth with self-
     conscious silence.

I wonder what's in that safe. I did not fail to notice, as Pardlo intended, that a safecracker is an outlaw.

A certain impedance governs the electrical switches of the poems. At the same time, that awareness of the new and original nevertheless comes to you courtesy of the more normative (Western) lyric parameters by which many of us were raised to locate poems among Poetry. Pardlo is at home in culture and historically aware, both locally and globally. At first pass, his references might seem unduly associational, but this, I think, is a talk-to-the-hand defense on the reader's part, who will, not without guilt, be pricked with the thought, I should know who that is... But the point is not name-dropping: he really is comfortable with the library (and the record collection) in his head. It is a hyper-kinetic, caffeinated mindset, always aware of surroundings and attendant to their ironies and implications. Stevens says that the poet is fulfilled "only as he sees his imagination become the light in the mind of others." That's the good thing about his work: you feel that light—his light—come on in you. In an interview, Pardlo confesses, "I don't just favor the inward turn, I abide by it." The inward is where our histories show up, and his poems, regardless of their crushing-it summations (both Totem and ;Digest are a spot-on titles), have a quiet, custodial quality pleasing to the Muse. This quality extends to literature generally.

The troubled history of a recent novelist Gayl Jones stands behind Pardlo's "Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora after Gayl Jones." The poem begins with the domestic violence that is a given in the novel: "My husband Mutt backhanded me down the fire/escape outback a blues bar called Happy's."

     Whoever owns these blues is a matter
     of some debate. The story of my people unfolds
     each day like a newspaper detailing the catechism
     that connects me to history: Are you hurt? Yes, I am
     the hurt, the silent mouth is the barter. What's a husband
     good for?
Seed money. Generations working the fields. Why
     do we make dreams?
A little ritual. A little lining for the purse.

Pardlo channels Jones, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, to name but three, but what channels!

In "Copyright," the writing and presentation of Richard Wright's Native Son are "helped" by the unlikely (but historically true) assistance of outdoor pageant playwright Paul Green, bigoted Chicago reporter Charles Leavell, Richard Wright himself, and Robert Nixon, the prototype of Bigger, each of whom provides a monologue.

Paul Green:

     I know the hearts of men are governed
     by the endowments of nature. As some children
     are faithful. Some are made to obey.

Leavell:

     ...Nixon, the "Brick
     Slayer," as I christened him,
     had none of the charm of speech
     or manner that is characteristic of so many
     southern darkies
. I am a gentle man.
     He is very black—almost pure Negro. Withal,
     I had to cleave that slate with first words, in order
     to get at him, get the nature right, and I
     could almost hear stone sing
     like the brick
     he used to beat the white woman
     who discovered him, that June day in '38...

Richard Wright:

     No wonder I
     was reluctant to ditch the script I wrote
     with Paul Green, that playwright
     accused of being a lover of the down-
     trodden.

Robert Nixon (who has the last word):

     More crucial than surveillance in the round
     house of corrections is the being
     watched the prisoner faces raising hairs on the ears.
     Like the sun's warmth on the back recognized as light,
     recognized as presence. White noise.

Pardlo also possesses a saving humor. Two of the poems in Digest, are send-ups of college syllabi. You know the kind of colon-segregated, Tartuffian titles for courses whose précis employ edgy academic jargon as teasing come-ons for powerless graduate students. "Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary" begins,

Images of the stud and the buck have an amorously crafted resonance burnished by cultural anxieties, an addict's logic toward the habit they place in the mind and the mysteries we lay at their feet.

"Ghosts in the Machine: Synergy and the Dialectic System," is introduced with similar self-assurance:

Self-effacing, the number zero stands austere, a window onto Nature's abhorrent force, a hyperborean rebuke to the tropic heat of being. We might say zero is the perfection of affect, round as a pucker it dallies, dispassionate, for a kiss. In this course we will observe...

Imagine reading these as catalog entries and thinking, "Ah, yes. That's the ticket!" Similar in form are the "Conatus Improvisations," riffs on philosophers. J.L. Austin may have warned us that "it may be unwise to chivvy language beyond the coarser nuances," but Pardlo is having none of it. It seems the M.O. of his art is that he chivvy everything.

In "Gassendi" he writes,

     We can say about cars
     what Jefferson said about slavery when seeking pity for his
     hardships. "Like holding a wolf by the ears." Talk about
     awkward.

No exclamation point. His father, the subject of his forthcoming memoir, and his son, seem to play tag-team in "Kierkegaard":

     The body is under duress. You drop warnings like bread
     crumbs as your children tumble rough in the ash heaps of cherry
     blossoms filed along the esplanade while the Parks Dept. drains
     the near ravine. A hose rises like the leaf-rot like the shunt
     that spigots your father's blood all week. Since he began to smell
     of fatigue and carbolic soap, his locker room-style wolf
     tickets nettle you everywhere. Evaporation will not relieve you
     of the mirage you see approaching now, walking on clouds of sky-
     blue booties from the hospital. He is reaching out his hand.
     He is offering the last chance he may give you to be worth a damn.

The poet is the son, and his children ("your children tumble rough in the ash heaps of cherry/ blossoms") appear before the father's final offering, father who is himself momentarily a child ("blue booties"). That offering, in light of the overlay of generational identity, could as easily have been extended by the children.

One of my favorite of Pardlo's poems is "Palling Around" (pun intended), an elegy for a street person, of which I quote three stanzas:

      He heard the curtains of sleet cleaving
      from magnolia leaves encrypted Aztec
      frequencies, he said. When the sun
      god liquors loose each ashen tongue
      the planet tattles. We are advised
      to listen: this he'd grunt to signal his

      dwindling fuse and the bartender would
      show him the door. In his honor I tune
      my form to the emanations of this vibrant
      life: Either someone'd dropped a blue
      coin and I've picked up the murmur of its
      ribs—a quarter kiltering beneath the blond
     
      brick arcade of the whispering gallery
      at Grand Central—or someone's table
      is ready. No matter that I set my phone
      to airplane while I thumb these lines, I can
      still be reached by tender thought: a dirgeful
      brass cortège stirs the ear inside my chest.

I am glad to see the presence of "tender thought" activated in spite of (or by means of) the "dirgeful brass cortège," which in no way lessens the hints of paranoia that haunt the subject (e.g., Aztec frequencies, the planet tattles). Among all the implied anonymity and distractions (bar scene, Grand Central, phone set to airplane) "in his honor I tune/ my form to the emanations." At the same time, and in the presence of these same distractions (and others later), the speaker's attention is ever keen: the quarter is kiltering, for instance, and its "ribs" murmur. There are contraries: tenderness and anger; distraction and attention, sleet and magnolias.

The aforesaid tenderness is likewise on view in the domestic and Brooklyn poems. Having now established his own domestic sphere puts him in mind of the history (in Philadelphia) from which he descended. There are poems of fathers and children, as well as extended family members and generational encounters here. Domesticity is one subject, personal and centripetal; family is another, general and centrifugal. The account of taking a cousin to see Diddy in Raisin in the Sun riffs on the notion of "raisin." And while he hopes the twelve-year-old will reach all the way to the play through the fascination with celebrity, he's aware both that, like Diddy, he has "swapped fictions/ surrendering his thug persona for a more domestic performance." His wife is pregnant, and this note is answered by the aside that, "When Diddy was two, they found his hustler dad/ draping a steering wheel in Central Park,/ a bullet in his head." Like the Bard, like any number of poets on "acting," Pardlo equivocates on the notion of performing: they mean two different things, and yet they are, perforce, the same, of a common root. Of an email from an aunt he notes,

     Left of the @ sign the email address
     was ethnically gendered with the nonce
     noun sistah, which, I have to confess

     I scoffed at.

————

             She must have thought
     she'd reached her brother, my father, who harbors
     like a gold molar a taste for robin egg and mauve
     pocket squares, a flourish of trim, a hand-stitch,
     lapels check striped and foreshortened
     like tyrannosaurus arms and ostrich
     print Stacy Adams to match.
                     ("Attachment: Atlantic City Pimp")

I come away from Pardlo's work moved and impressed. The poet-as-Mensch is not a well known category, but that figure arises from his poems. From American history to contemporary philosophy, from Sam Cooke to contemporary painters, he possesses and articulates an impressive range. I have often thought that the best poems offer a kind of courtesy to the reader, a compliment, to the court of the other. You can feel the load where the pen meets the page—that courtesy. The poems say, to paraphrase Walcott, that the compliment to the reader, who steps willingly from reading to involvement to sympathetic appreciation, finding a fresh world emerging among fragments and allusiveness, is greater than the assumption of wholeness when they were thought whole. Then you have to wonder if they ever were, and that is wonder too.

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