Gregory Pardlo

Four Poems

Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2011

Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary

Images of the stud and the buck have an amorously crafted resonance burnished by cultural anxieties, an addict’s logic toward the habit they place in the mind and the mysteries we lay at their feet. This course will begin by focusing on models represented in the 1994 Charles Russell film, The Mask, and Ang Lee’s 2003 The Hulk. The mojo and the genetic regression, the hyper-sexuality and the rage: these qualities are thrust and airbrushed onto the bacchic body of the Other, as we fantasize our repression of them in ourselves, the unquiet threat of psychosomatic greening; a silk garrote, an onanistic envy of the Other’s capacity for release; a monumental iconography of the hermetical black box of the brain. While we might be tempted to reduce these types to the pat dichotomies of comedy and tragedy, this course will examine the ways in which there is but one mask, a Janus-faced cleavage of thou art and thus am I, our goat-sung desires adrift in the wilderness, our tell-tale passions pulsing beneath the gladiolas in a mildewed hatbox (the act of masking triumphal and deadly), trembling the bulb on its stem.


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.

Stevens Carter, "C-Note #4"

Stevens Carter, “C-Note #4”

Chapel Avenue After Closing

Guitar strings gossamer the bandstand floor
Amid cuticles of reeds. The upright
Bass against the wall bloats its zippered bag.
I pay the band and share a few more drinks
Before upending the stools on the bar
With the TV pouring carbonated
Light to counterpoint marbled canopies
Of air. In soapy water, shot-glasses
Slip, toast and make a thunder in the sink.
I have one more drink at the piano
And recall how the cats got down tonight.
But now the keys seem to have forgotten
Themselves. Outside the door, morning mounts its
Damp advance, swinging rust-bucket birdsongs

All God’s Chillun

Late Sabbath morning and the laboring children
of modest, leafy districts will let stall their mowers
& whackers and set their trowels upon paving
stones, float flags of bandanas across beaded
brows and turn their chins toward the uprushing
draft to kite their breath-taking
bodies like milk pod seeds. While air brakes of semi’s
on the off-ramps like power chords from some distant
rock opera anthem the children’s lifting
the children will gyre off Jersey lawns silhouettes
thinning in the terrific noonday sun forming a jet
stream across wetlands & the flame-
scalloped Narrows. The children’s outsized
shirts & pant waists we warn will not balloon
their longing for shores behind the horizon
or past the ozone patched with diminishing
shadows of the last battalion channeled into deserted
air shadows still crimpling like crepe
de Chine
against the industrial haze. We panic,
can’t fit all their images onto post office walls. And whose
flight are we talking here, anyway? Icarus or agony
of the American slave? They refuse to signal
the angle of our sympathies. Young America! they
cry while we shake our heads picturing their bodies
dropping like spoons & watches we
admonish them their youth their bones their
fall into oceans where they’ll glint and form
a railway only the ancients will read perched
on the detritus of commercial satellites,
and on car hoods, and athletic gear, all the gods
bottled in the machinery of our routine lives.

Gregory Pardlo is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is the author of two books of poems: Digest (Four Way Books, 2014), and Totem (APR, 2007). He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, the Lotos Club Foundation, the Seaside Institute, and Cave Canem. Pardlo has taught taught at the George Washington University, Medgar Evers College, The New School University, John Jay College, Hunter College, and NYU. To read more by this author: "Double Dutch": Langston Hughes Tribute Issue, Winter 2011