Gregory Pardlo’s Written By Himself

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Who just won the Pulitzer Prize?  Gregory Pardlo according to the New York Times.

Written By Himself
by Gregory Pardlo

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.

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Pardlo penetrates a profound secret with these lines that sound amorphous and natural:

I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born

It is as though the speaker is asking, “wait, ain’t I a woman?” since he had been living in utero in unity with one. And so the line must shift to “and a brother I was born” since if he can’t be a woman, he will be a brother. This may mean that he will be a brother who seeks a woman as first recourse. In that moment when he was waist deep in the water crying, no doubt it was a woman who brought comfort.

I sense here a possible clue to the power in much African American poetry and language in general.  My own work exhibits creativity of a fundamentally introverted character, in which the expression tends to vary between ambivalence and a very narrow, subjective certainty. Even in the grandeur of an artist like Whitman, or a dynamo like Rimbaud, at least in A Season In Hell, the psyche’s expansiveness can only grow by degree somewhat. True Berryman becomes a woman, Mrs. Bradstreet, and becomes a black man in the Dream Songs. But while fictive language by course outgrows the self, it seems perhaps black poets like Komunyakaa, Pardlo, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and maybe Robert Hayden, go inside and find there sources inside their sources, other waters, powers of larger identities.

Gregory Pardlo’s first book Totem has such a kind of massive richness. I highly recommend it; it is often ultra sensuous in language, highly textural, terrifically brainy, and has wonderful verbal juxtapositions. It’s beautiful.

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John Keats’ On the Grasshopper and Cricket

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While John Keats is not one of my favorite writers, I agree with many that his ear is matchless, his sound smoother than a herd of velvet deer. While coughing racked his body, the gentleness of his art created an entree sufficient to fascinate us today.

This poem however, I love for its observations. His sonnet, On the Grasshopper and Cricket, was written in a verse duel with Leigh Hunt in 15 minutes.  Some people think Hunt’s sonnet is even better, and that slug fest is observed ring-side here.

Asher Blake’s Elegy for Charles Mingus

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Jazz Elegy no.1
Charles Mingus

Upraised wrists of a woman
and a fat dead hen
that hangs below.
Three dogs linger for broth and bone.
With wings spread,
one last dance
before the shaman.

He has no poultice
for a foolish soul.
Nonetheless he stoops down
for a smooth stone.

Loamy Earth
lusts for the pines.
The ground moans
when they flex
in the juniper wind.
She never stops braiding
herself with fragrant pine
even to the mid desert stands.

The people open their mouth for spirits.
And shamans names are known
to those in pain.
In the city clinic,
the fame of magic towers
above the poor higher
than Tenochtitlan pyramids,
the desperate lashed to their beds
with plastic twine.

Fingers pluck
the doors of Bellevue
a double bass knocking
through mopped floors.

Mingus-curses
fall solo
for the doctor’s sigh is in his breath
his underscore is in his notes.

Inroads of Mexico
in the American interior,
the white worm healers of Cuernavaca
have Mingus magnetized.

Nonetheless, he dies of ALS.
Respite of the rain in June.
Callused fingertips.

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Charles Mingus, 1922-1979, may he rest in peace.

Wittingham Asluum

Asher Blake’s Elegy for David Schubert

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Elegy no.2
Poet David Schubert

First she sank in
blanched relief
he left
the clouds to cluster.

Lifting herself,
she could have been made of a sparrow,
it was not light.
One jump launched all

the fires of his ships out.
If you tear the shreds or
moulder me in the attic
still there are the scraps of me

some other woman
rejoins years fidelio
in the ground –
still she tries to make them fit.

She is,
well, am not I,
some kind of sour slave
feeding others?

The skirts of a mother’s suicide,
once uncovered,
are like black pitch
spread across the eyes.

Yes, he left the clouds to cluster.
In my mother
I was as a tie knot
more firm than marriage vows.

More sensitive than a man’s
member, is the skin in a sparrow’s
ear. He flies seaward farther
than the dove.

The shape of a poignant life
is a boy who grows in long fatherless
shadows. All poignant
lives make peninsulas.

Teeming sourdough, or seed
born with germinated seed.
David restless in a clotted pinch.
A hand went within.

There are not enough hands.
We must all love one,
asymmetric, for with the remaining
hand we refuse the Lord.

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This elegy is based on the intensely tragic and painful life of the obscure poet, David Schubert.  Particularly the focus here is on the suicide of his mother after the two had been abandoned by David’s father.  David was the one to discover her hanged.  He eventually became schizophrenic, suffered persistent poverty (including the Depression), and in a psychotic fit destroyed most of his work.  His ex-wife pieced together the fragments of his poems after his death and after 15 years found him a publisher.

David became an inspiration to poets like William Carlos Williams, John Ashberry, and James Wright.  You can read his poetry and what some other poets have made of him at poetryfoundation.org, and short bios at the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry and also at his wikipedia page.

(Painting above by Andrea Kowch)

Asher Blake’s Thwarting Ground

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Thwarting Ground

At last it is me I meet –
I mean the mole.
My pinhole eye
opens on the inside,
and the torn stair of childhood,
the crib-crawl drag,
all half-swilled tales,
and each jagged scissor edge
cohere in me like some collage.

I open on the inside
like some ceaseless
spangled housefly,
artless, paranoid –
his buttressed eye
bears all. His fur fangs
hang clean as they can get.
I cannot say why, for my life
I cannot say why, I cannot sing my
sigh. All the town comes skating

on my pangs, creaking on their sharp
stroking merriment.
It is a warm spring day
when children jump the thin ice
down like a scared cat,
when old men’s noses
begin to differ.
There is a rose and fond thorns.
And again a sweaty band
inside the hat.

John Donne’s Oh My Black Soule

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This is one of John Donne’s 19 Holy Sonnets.  I consider it the best poem on repentance I’ve ever read outside the Bible.  Donne was famous in his time for his sermons, which are highly literary and still available.  Neither his religious nor erotic poetry was published during his life.  He contrived complex extended metaphors for much of his poetry, showing a brilliance and charm, but here there is a fear and earnestness expressed in a few plain, though perfect, similes.

Holy Sonnet 4.

Oh my black Soule, now thou art summoned
By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion;
Thou’art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence hee’s fled,
Or like a thiefe, which till deaths doome be read,
Wisheth himselfe delivered from prison;
But damn’d and hal’d to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be’imprisoned;
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;
But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?
Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne;
Or wash thee in Christs blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red soules to white.

That last line is like a certain currency that can be converted into others.  “Dye” was another spelling for “die” and this unlocks a number of Christian paradoxes.  What is red with ruby love in Christ makes what is red with scarlet sin in us turn white.  He dyes us by His dying.

His death also slays us, making His death transitive to us.  For as Saint Paul said in one of his epistles, “the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” That is, because God Himself died, we cannot but live to God now, or else we die to God.

There is also the suggestion that the black soul confronting the power behind the death of Christ, which is red blood shed, becomes white in terror or anxiety.  Such is the dread described in this poem because the speaker is like a prisoner facing execution.  Ah, but Christ also was in bonds and faced execution.  It is precisely this identification of God with man that is religious and also as deep a font of metaphor, (the making of one thing like another), as one could hope for.

Because Christ faced sin and death and mortal flesh and judgment, the poet in diving down into those waters, and seeing Christ, has a potential source of rescue.

This poem has given us three colors, red and white and black.  And it applies these colors without erring, but paints the nature of repentance very adeptly.  There are also a few characters who occupy this sonnet and make a cohesive scene.  There is sickness – the armed “champion” of death.  There is a religious pilgrim who turned fugitive and cannot go home.  And there is a prisoner longing to escape and avoid execution.  Then there is Christ, who the speaker does not know how to reach with useful blushing.  The speaker leaves us in his contemplation; he is at Christ’s door.

Donne has made a gesture from a few strokes.  Because these are all in harmony, putting the colors right, we do not need more concrete description but the sonnet feels very evocative and personal.  All the colors are in their right places, and grace is simply for the asking if the speaker would find life.