From Epicurus to Sam Cooke, the Daily News to Roots, Digest draws from the present and the past to form an intellectual, American identity. In poems that forge their own styles and strategies, we experience dialogues between the written word and other art forms. Within this dialogue we hear Ben Jonson, we meet police K-9s, and we find children negotiating a sense of the world through a father’s eyes and through their own.
About the Author
GREGORY PARDLO is the author of the award-winning Totem and translator of Niels Lyngsoe’s Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace. The recipient of numerous fellowships, he is a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY and teaches at Columbia University.
Read an Excerpt
By Gregory Pardlo
Four Way BooksCopyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
All rights reserved.
Written by Himself
I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain't I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued by
mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.
for Colin Channer
"sing the Union cause, sing us,/ the poor, the marginal."
— Robert Hayden, "Homage to Paul Robeson"
Note the confection of your body
salt on the breeze, the corn-silk
sky. Olmstead's signature
archways and meadows. Kite
strings tensing the load of a saddle-backed
wind. This is Prospect Park,
Brooklyn, where limbs tickle
and jounce as if ice cubes shiver
along the shirtsleeves of evergreens. Pond
water whispers, and the echoes of Yankee
fifes linger in wind and in the shirring jazz
hands of leaves, and those shirts,
the skins, the human retinue converging
on the uneven playing fields. The African
drum and dance circle sways the pignut
tree into a charismatic trance as
Orthodox women walk powerfully by, jogging
shoes blinking beneath the billows of their
skirts, children rollerblading, trailing
tzitzits. Take heart in the percussion
structuring the distance like prophetic
weather, a shelter of vibrations:
the last conga note a bolt tapped into the
day's doorframe and you are no less, no
more home here than in the corridors
you return to in your dreams. illusory,
altogether babel-fractured, a single word
from you might bring the verdant fun-house
down. 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. You are Caliban
and Crusoe, perpetual stranger with a fork
in the socket of life's livid grid,
stunned and bewildered at the frank
intrusion of the mosquito on the hairless
back of your hand. You are stranded
at the limit, extremity and restriction,
jealous for that elusive — the
you're thinking: not the brick and mortar, but
the quickening backfill of belonging, the stranger-facing,
the neighbor-knowing confidence and ease
with the ripple that diminishes as it extends
over the vast potential of immovable thirst.
You are home now, outsider, for what that's worth.
in the Preamble, Gouverneur Morris refers, poetically, to the "domestic tranquility" shattered by rebelling veterans who, unable to pay mounting war taxes, confronted the state for having seized their homes. They argued their point with bayonets fixed to their flintlock rifles. Point being that blood should have been enough, as it was in their barter economy, to square their debt in the Revolution.
Morris could not abide an economy that imagined exchange in such discrete terms. For him, every shilling appraised on an altar of speculative devotions, every home subject to the metaphoric notion of home, the value of tranquility proportionate to the power one has to gerrymander the metaphor.
Consider the dear evangelists who canvass our homes saturday mornings, who share their pamphlets and good words, their domestic concerns swelling with their longing for the fellowship of us. spinoza gives us this reason not to opt off of their call lists: The good which a man desires for himself and loves, he will love more constantly if he sees that others love it also; he will therefore endeavor that others should love it also.
Be tolerant of their attention, their pursuit of agape, a planet-sized chip they bear on their shoulders from house to house, door to door, welcome or not, blessing whatever they find inside.
I finally friended my brother.
it may be we will never
speak again. Why speak
when we have this crystal ball
to judge one another's lives?
I imagine this is what
the afterlife will be like.
I'm ghost, we
say instead of
It is nearly July in Brooklyn and already the fireworks from Chinatown warehouses are bursting in stellar fluorescence like tinsel-tied dreadlocks above the Bushwick tenements and the brownstone blocks of Bed-stuy now littered with the skittering décollage of wrappers exploded across blacktops and handball courts, playgrounds and sidewalks knuckled by tree roots. My neighbor's teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply their roughly domesticated manhood, they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war. The competition is vigorous, draws spectators and blood. When the smoke clears, no charges are filed. We neighbors waver distractedly a moment before tracing our paths back into our quiet homes.
Because Venus lifted the Rosewater Dish like a shield in the sun the graying father of two swatted a juggle of balls against a playground wall that had been graffitied for an episode of Law & Order set in the hood. The desiccated catgut of his racquet strummed like a junkyard harp with each gouty ground stroke. A muscle fire stoked to warm the bagpipes in his chest. Like a waft of charcoal in the park, there came to him thought of the bargain implied in God's command to Abraham. Not unlike Robert Johnson's deal at the crossroads or Gauguin's pricey escape from the obscurity of the middle class, these appeals to the brute motives of the blood, mortal insecurity seeking relief in the barter for fertility, which is to say, fame. This was the mind of the man as he stiffened and hid his wind in a falsely barreling chest, setting out to retrieve what may have seemed portentous — a citrine moon descending on the shirtless men playing handball on the opposite court, an intrusion like a cell phone ringing in Alice Tully Hall. Their annoyance was muted but palpable for they, too, were performing the ritual of their devotions. What he wouldn't give to hear, like a nest of hungering chicks, his flock, the epochal cry of thousands in the stadium around Centre Court, his name on the wind. Perhaps he'd swap it all for the boy he once was, the future altered, and follow some stellar herald, righteousness and treason arcing in his mind like a halo, to risk a life he could only begin to imagine.
"My Father they have killed me."
— Chinua Achebe
Consider throwing the baby from the window a figure of speech barely reaching across the fence separating expression from intent. For all our sake, I tell my wife, I'm going to throw the baby out the window now, as I rise from the sofa in response to the midnight wail of another footie uprising heard among the moans and whines of our neighbors' appliances and the various alarms of the city's eternal self-soothing. The ancient hardwood floor in the bedroom upstairs groaning under thirty-pound footsteps for the fourth time tonight. it is nearly July in Brooklyn. Windows are open. Consider the neighbors grimacing, pillowing their ears against the little one's battle cry.
Because I am teaching euripides in the fall, I am reading him now between commercial breaks, and imagining far-flung Brooklyn quorumed in the armories and in streets beneath the gingkoes and buttonwoods, crowds gathered to mandate I quiet my lamb eternally. What if my neighbors read my hyperbole as oath, made me keep my word? Who would I betray? Would I smuggle my mewling daughter to Canada, flee this land? I do love Brooklyn so. I have lent a neighborly ear to elderly West indians on the B44 from Bed-stuy to Flatbush. Heard them lament Yankee reluctance to use old-country discipline, which, they claim, is the only real solution to this climate of "gang foolery." spanking. Yes. The sacramental rod tanning backsides of the elect few, a ritual hazing to appease the divinity of the unknowable and omnipresent urban populace. Consider the vanity of sacrifice, the paper tiger of blind devotion fanning the dander of a timid hand. Consider Agamemnon, victim of pride and contagion, raising that hand against his child at Aulis, the inexorable machinery of tribalism grinding away the primacy of paternal love. Beware the prophet, the genie, the divine stranger who, with a wink, unmasks your arrogant self-images, who finds the harmonic note that gathers your most discordant emotions toward the mute accumulation of will. What I do this night I do for you, Brooklyn, i offer, as the banister whimpers beneath my trembling hand.
The Fulton st. Foodtown is playing Motown and I'm surprised at how quickly my daughter picks up the tune. And soon the two of us, plowing rows of goods steeped in fructose under light thick as corn oil, are singing Baby, I need your lovin', unconscious of the lyrics' foreboding. My happy child riding high in the shopping cart as if she's cruising the polished aisles on a tractor laden with imperishable foodstuffs. Her cornball father enthusiastically prompting with spins and flourishes and the double-barrel fingers of the gunslinger's pose. But we hear it as we round the rice and Goya aisle, that other music, the familiar exchange of anger, the war drums of parent and child. The boy wants, what, to be carried? to eat the snacks right from his mother's basket? What does it matter, he is making a scene. With no self-interest beyond the pleasure of replacing wonder with wonder, my daughter asks me to name the boy's offense. I offer to buy her ice cream. How can I admit recognizing the portrait of fear the mother's face performs, the inherited terror of non-conformity frosted with the fear of being thought disrespected by, or lacking the will to discipline, one's child? How can I account for both the cultural and the intercultural? The boy's cries rising like hosannas as the mother's purse falls from her shoulder. Her missed step from the ledge of one of her stilted heels, passion loosed with each displaced hairpin. His little jacket bunched at the collar where she has worked the marionette. Later, when I'm placing groceries on the conveyor belt and it is clear I've forgotten the ice cream, my daughter tries her hand at this new algorithm of love, each word punctuated by her little fist: boy, she commands, didn't I tell you?
At thirteen I asked my father for a tattoo. I might as well have asked for a bar mitzvah. He said I had no right to alter the body he gave me. Aping what little of Marx I learned from the sisters down the street who wore torn black stockings with Doc Martens, I said I was a man because I could claim my body and the value of its labor. This meant I could adorn it or dispose of it as I chose. Tattoos, my father said, are like children: have one, you'll want another. I knew there was a connection between the decorated body and reproduction. This is why I wanted a tattoo. Yet I reasoned, not in so many words, his analogy only held in the case of possession, i.e., I possess my body, but can not possess my children. 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. Knowing I had little idea as to what my proposed tattoo might resemble, my father sent me to my room to sketch it using the pastels he had given me for Christmas. Based on his critique, he said, he would consider my request. But he had already taken the shine from my swagger. How can I beautify what I do not possess and call it anything but graffiti? Chris Rock says my first job is to keep my daughter off the pole. Whether or not I agree with him, I get his point. As a father myself I now see every mutinous claim of independence as the first steps toward my sweet pea's falling in with a bad crowd. Richard Pryor says we are bound to fuck up our kids one way or another. My father would split the difference: I made you, he'd say, I can un-make you, and make another one just like you.
Attachment: Atlantic City Pimp
Left of the @ sign the email address
was ethnically gendered with the nonce
noun sistah, which, I have to
I scoffed at, thinking it was from some self-discovering
student of mine, before realizing it was
my aunt who sent the jpeg from her cell
phone. My aunt who doesn't mind
a bit of shell if it means getting all the crabmeat,
who is known to only leave behind
enough of a tip to shame the wait staff
for their inattention. The subject line read:
"AC Pimp" as if her painted nails and belly laugh
made her expert in the fauna of pimps, a soul-stirred
savant of things cold-blooded. As if she could
divine an ivory handled Derringer holstered
at his breast icing the steel heart cognate
to the gun, that twin ventriloquist of tinder
and sulfur dust, that rhythmic and delicate
organ pumping like a fist that has a knack
for snake eyes and the superfluity of bruises
that follow every spaghetti-strapped back
talker's doubt. 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. The modest,
feathered derby contrasting all those boas
festooning street lamps and mail boxes.
But my aunt is no mere expert.
"AC" may have been a random tag,
but that word "Pimp" bore the import
of all us do-wrong men. she was, in effect,
signifying — the kind of humor that
waters the eye, the doubletalk, the shadow
Like her spite-tinged smile at a bridal
shower, her patina of derision enlivened
the photo. My aunt, who refuses to settle
for a man less Christian than she is finds
everywhere despicable men. Hence the dozens
via email, the critique, like a razor inside
a roll of twenties, the currency
of our vengeance economy. Perhaps
there was an untroubled sea
just beyond the garish casinos behind him,
a stilt-walker or mime outside the frame,
a carnival and boardwalk where the horizon
would be, and a tour bus full of people waving.
Of all the images that might speak to something
inside her, this was the one she found worth saving.
Corrective Lenses: Creative Reading and Recon)textual/ization
A text dropped in the brain's pail rattles the way astrophysicists say they can hear the birth of time tuning the salt rim of Saturn. For example, Finnegan's Wake. For example, horoscopes, and little notes folded into cookies. The society of Prophetic Archeologists argues all arguments are subject to confirmation bias. in this course we will venerate the subjective mind, or rather, examine how subject/ object share the fuzzy circumference of a lone spotlight beneath the proscenium arch. There is no reliable narrator. For example, tea leaves or cloudbursts in the shape of ladybirds. We will interrogate the cagey and shifting sign in order to coerce all its false confessions. We will learn to project our backslashes to snatch a suffix like the fake mustache of an incognito, impose parentheses to ironize our dependence on convention. Because there are no valid means of assessment students are encouraged to assign their own grade upon registration. Any book will do: phone, face, match, bank. We will set course across wastelands of difficult punchlines under bad signs to flush the comic truth like what? a flock of starlings? a dime bag ? while we pretend a grasp of subtleties as they spiral sparkshowers like a Chinese New Year, red, gold, red, gold, red, gold.
Excerpted from Digest by Gregory Pardlo. Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo. Excerpted by permission of Four Way Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Written by Himself 3
Problema 1 10
Problema 2 11
Problema 3 13
Problema 4 14
Attachment: Atlantic City Pimp 16
Corrective Lenses: Creative Reading and (Recon)textual/ization 19
Four Improvisations on Ursa Corrigedora 20
Renaissance Man 27
Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary 29
Copenhagen, 1991 30
Ghosts in the Machine: Synergy and the Dialogic System 32
Palling Around 33
Philadelphia, Negro 37
The Conatus Improvisations
St. Augustine 42
Alienation Effects 48
Black Pampers 58
Prom Lighting with Cummerbund 59
Chalk Dust on the Air 61
For Which It Stands 63
Pool Table 65
All God's Chillun 66
Wishing Well 67
The Clinamen Improvisations
Deleuze & Guattari 71
Alfred North Whitehead 73
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