By David Nilsen
“All the gods
fettered to the machinery of our routine lives”
That’s the final line of the poem All God’s Chillun from Greg Pardlo’s newest volume of poetry, 2014’s Digest. It captures the balance at the core of the book, the juxtaposition of the abstract and the routine, the eternal and the daily. Pardlo the man, the father, the son, the lover, the mischievous chronicler smirks at the language of academia, thought divorced from experience, oblique reasoning clumsily fumbling with lived human moments and emotions. Pardlo the academic, the student, the professor cannot wholly shed this language. These two parts of Greg Pardlo toy with each other in the pages of Digest, taking turns at the mic and often appropriating each other’s images and phrases.
Greg Pardlo recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Digest, quite a feat considering the difficulty he experienced in getting it published. The book, his third, was rejected the major publishing houses and many of the indies before finally being picked up by Four Way Books, a small press out of New York. It had taken nearly four years to reach publication, and initially only 1,500 copies were printed¹. The book largely flew beneath the radar in 2014, eclipsed by new volumes from esteemed poets like Edward Hirsch, celebrated indie efforts from young hotshots like Saeed Jones, and socially timely books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Digest appeared on a few lists of notable books at the end of the year but didn’t make much of a splash. Then it won the Pulitzer.
Digest is a curious pick for the Pulitzer committee, not because the book is undeserving but precisely because it doesn’t belong to those other groups. Pardlo is hardly poetry royalty, and it would have been hard to say he was even an emerging star before the award. I had assumed the Prize would go to Rankine’s Citizen, winner of the National Book Award and a book that could not have struck at a more perfect moment. That the award was bestowed on this small book makes me look at these verses more attentively. I’ll be honest – I think Rankine achieved a better balance of personal and political, something Pardlo does work at here, but perhaps does so more transparently. Pardlo buries his reflections on American politics and their effects on his life as a black man within densely constructed poems that work in philosophy, criticism, narrative imagination, personal reflection, fatherhood, childhood.
Early in the book Pardlo’s concern lies heavily with the theme of fatherhood. In poems like Problema 3 Pardlo perfectly expresses the mixed bag of parenting–the joy and the frustration–while subtly weaving in the particular anxieties a minority parent experiences while trying to parent in public. He recounts being at the supermarket with his daughter, dancing in the aisles with her to Motown playing on the store’s radio, before encountering a mother whose son is throwing a fit over withheld treats. The poem concludes:
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?
Some of the most profound and deeply affecting lines of the entire book are asides referencing the poet’s father. He says little directly about his dad, though lyrics speaking to the complex push and pull of growing up under a hard man dot these pages. In Philadelphia, Negro Pardlo says of his father, “And like America, his fist only rose on occasion, / graceful, impassioned, as if imitating Arthur Ashe’s balletic serve, / so that you almost forgot you were in its way.” In For Which It Stands he tells us, “Because his kids were / rebel cities my father loved like Sherman.” Lines like these not only represent some of the most lyrically beautiful writing in the book, but also best bring together the disparate strings of the poet’s thoughts contained in its pages.
There are recurring references in Digest to philosophy and some of its historical players, though–while I am unqualified to speak to the more subtle possible references and themes in the text on this point–not much of the word count is actually given to any real discussion of those philosophers and their ideas. The titles and asides that reference these figures seem more like springboards of a daydreaming moment launching Pardlo on forays of personal reflection. If anything, the many poems here ostensibly ordered around philosophical study are the most pedestrian in focus of the entire volume. Pardlo here seems to be making a game, teasing us into expecting high academic and intellectual gymnastics and then chuckling, telling us he was only joking but he does have a memory he’d like to share if we have a moment. Just so we don’t think Pardlo is working in a medium he doesn’t understand, one of his most impassioned poems here is about Louis Althusser, the French philosopher who murdered his wife in 1980 while struggling with severe mental illness. The 10-page, first person poem is complex and nuanced, honest but generous, revealing itself in layers and not showing its cards too quickly.
In Digest Pardlo shows himself a poet who can do so many things well. The book is not as cohesive thematically or tonally as I might have preferred, serving almost as a catalog of what Pardlo is capable of, a mix-tape compilation of hits, but the poet’s abilities are beyond dispute. It will be exciting to see what this Pulitzer winner does next.
¹ Digest‘s publication history was informed by Alexandra Alter’s New York Times piece on the author from April 22, 2015.
Greg Pardlo’s Digest is available now at Greenville Public Library.