Gregory Pardlo’s Written By Himself


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.


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.