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Tag: Gregory Pardlo

Problema 4

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Problema 3

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 inter-

cultural? 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?

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Problema 2

“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,

asIrise 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 mandateIquiet 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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Problema 1

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Attachment: Atlantic City Pimp

Left of the @ sign the email address

was ethnically gendered with the nonce

noun sistah, which, I have to confess,

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 dialect.

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora

after Gayl Jones

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.

Depends on what you call family. What’s left now

of the generation I hadn’t known I made is just a scar

squoze shut like a mouth that won’t eat, a score

where doctors had to retrieve the fetus, its tub

and my plumbing altogether. Now I’m soundproof,

and now I’m forever hollow as a plaster statue.

Just as I can’t go back to where my mothers cast

me out to flatter their memories chiming, echoing,

braiding the wind with their eccentric melody, Mutt

can’t come back to me no more. I can picture him though

harassing the shadows of my voice, drunk as a judge.

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. Lying at the bottom

of those stairs I could already feel my machine slipping

into pictures of still water. I began swallowing water-

melon seeds by the handful hoping something take root:

a vine, a silence. I was reborn at the crime scene;

I survived the rent in time to look back on it squeezing

shut like a fist. A refrain: echolalia: bad penny: menses.

Evidence of a pattern we are determined to reveal

when we find ourselves standing before the judge.

Evidence of the devil we’re determined to reveal

when we’re testifying for the jury and the judge.

My husband Mutt stared back down the barrel of his years,

came up loaded and hapless. I was determined

to take him in spite of my history, to refrain from adding

to the pattern emerging from the rueful chorus: my mothers

cast me as amanuensis to record their versions

of the crime. Once upon a time means once and for always

and for wherever you are and now I’m singing blues

in a bar revealing as much skin as you should

be willing to reveal when you pouring your seed

into the electric element. We are given two names:

one to work like witness protection, and one to carry

mechanically to the grave. I never took my husband’s name.

I imagine that would be as useful as a newspaper covering

my head in the rain. Useful as letting my eyes be the judge.

My husband Mutt handed me back all the love he felt

I had failed to give him. That’s saying something close

to nothing. “Do nothing til you hear from me,” he said,

and smiled. 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.

each song is a number of the seven veils: each number is

a revelation of skin measuring degrees of distance from

the crime and from the guilt of the crime. Corregidora:

as much kin as we’re willing to reveal lest we be judged.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.


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 domestic, yes,

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.


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

through which

to judge one another’s lives?

I imagine this is what

the afterlife will be like.

I’m ghost, we say

instead of goodbye.

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

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 storyIwas

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.

from DigestFind more by Gregory Pardlo at the library

Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.