‘Digest’ by Gregory Pardlo

gregory pardlo
  • COLDFRONT RATING: four-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Four Way Books
  • REVIEW BY: Scott Hightower

Digest-cover-for-webTotem, Gregory Pardlo’s first book, sufficient in its own right (winner of the American Poetry Review 2007 Honickman First Book Prize), was notice of more good things to come. In Pardlo’s second collection, Digest, readers will find poems that consider “this hall of mirrors, this horror story,”

the value of tranquility proportionate
to the power one has to gerrymander the metaphor.

(“Problemata”)

Pardlo demonstrates clarity and restraint. He is a talented poet, a son, a husband, a father, a steward of domestic tranquility. In some ways, he is a poet looking for a history—or for his role in the family, for his country. O’l Man River just keeps rolling…through the smoke of another local impromptu-Brooklyn-Fourth-of-July-street fireworks display. The poem “Problemata” continues: 

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…
When the smoke clears…we neighbors…
trace our paths back into our quiet homes.

Pardlo can move seamlessly from “Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads or Gauguin’s pricey escape from the obscurity of the middle class” to “Agamemnon…raising his hand against his child at Aulis.” Claiming to be a “cornball father” himself, in the poem “Problema 4,” Pardlo taps parental fear and the currency of his father’s vengeance economy:

My father would
split the difference: I made you, he’d say,
I can un-make you, and make another one
just like you.

Pardlo has heard that “Some children are faithful. Some are made to behave.” But his time is more easily spent “gerrymandering the metaphor” of his own ambivalence and will into poetry. How does he who engenders come to balance power and domestic tranquility? Even the notion of “father” seems sandbagged with gender expectations. But he’s the Dad, and being Dad (similar to being Mom) is more than just a domestic role; it is a matrix with lots of nodes of contact and lots of episodes of collision. Pardlo’s poems reveal the matrix of a thoughtful, gentle man:

Here is the rind, here is the unexplainable
heart, the parts, the particles. A shape
shifter, a trick of the eye inside the living
tableau, he’s whatever he wants
you to see, Deacon, daddy-o,
doctor, Desmosthenes….
willing to venture the logic of the black
black-faced minstrel, the nobility of the hobo and the rodeo
clown, the carnival ride of irony… the ontological
gangster, the enigma mirrored in a stranger’s eye.

In another poem—a faux-course-description poem—one finds being green with envy, the Hulk, and the Bacchic body of the Other. Lets leave it with “our goat-sung desires adrift in the wilderness”–though Pardlo masterfully gets three more lines out of the material. A few pages further, there is a quote from Marvin Gaye Sr.

(When asked if he loved
his son, Marvin Sr. answered, “Let’s just say I didn’t
dislike him.”)

(“Raisin”)

and another faux-course-description poem…
We will consider the connotative spark rattling like a
pinball in the void between two bumpers of detonation…

(“Ghosts in the Machine: Synergy and the Dialogic System”)

There is nothing shrinking or shrieking about Pardlo’s poetic, or his plentitude. Any literary forefather would energetically infuse his cartwheel, his hopscotch, his double Dutch, were he asked to claim Pardlo as his literary son.

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