I was supposed to write this book review months ago but had difficulties with understanding some of what was going on. In order to be more prepared, I waited and asked for an extension. Since then, Gregory Pardlo’s book Digest has won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. So, of course, the pressure is on in ways that didn’t exist months ago. Still, I must say that there are many aspects about this book that I do not understand, but with patience I discovered some pretty wonderful things happening in this collection. I will explore both the challenges and the gifts, sometimes with the two blurring. The version of the book with which I’m working is an uncorrected proof so if there are any inconsistencies this is why.
This first poem also performs what I see as the concern of the book, reflected in its title Digest. We are given a lot to take in, to digest so to speak, in a small amount of time. The challenge here for the reader is knowledge, and that was the ultimate challenge for me. Often times I felt as though I was missing out on something, not smart enough to really access the poems in a way that would most nourish me as a reader. Such is my insecurity and the demand of this book. Also what comes to mind with the title of the book is the Negro Digest (later renamed Black World), founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson as a magazine for African-Americans to get inspiring news. This is not the say that the book is solely about race or inspiration, and truly that would not be a negative if it were, but the idea of the capaciousness of the Black experience comes into play, the speaker of the poems never shying away from his own racialized and male experiences.
Let’s back track a bit. The general structure of the book is in three sections. The first is untitled, the second is called “The Conatus Improvisations,” and the third is called “The Clinamen Improvisations.” I’ve found that the first section deals with a general sense of creating place through the lens of a speaker who is obsessed (in a good way) with the myriad ways that place defines self and family. Therefore, self can redefine place. The relationship begins with “Written by Himself”, the first poem that acts as an ars poetica, setting up the desire for community and, through that desire, animating the poem with the lives of others such as Sojourner Truth “crying/ ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born”, W.E.B. DuBois “I was born passing/ off the problem of the twentieth century”, and Langston Hughes (the chiasmic syntax opening the poem with “I was born…” and ending in the final line “I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born,” echoing Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
And such is the energy behind most of the book. We are given dense descriptions that name drop heavily throughout with no footnote. You get Crusoe, Richard Wright, Caliban, Robert Hayden, Gouverneur Morris, Spinoza, Venus (Williams), Gauguin and others in the first poem, “Marginalia”, which spans 12 pages over six sections. There is also frequent pairing of what many would consider “high art” with pop culture icons and figures (e.g. Marx and Doc Martens in Marginalia: Problema 4). It’s a lot to take in but the poems themselves are written well-enough that the sentiment comes through even without knowing who many of the people are. In some strange way, the ability to gloss over what could easily be considered trivia by a more ignorant reader (raises hands) becomes a driving theme for the entire book: all people are part of this world and operate in ways that, under fair scrutiny and empathy, can be accessed by anyone:
“The hammers on Over the Hills made my fingers bleed.
That is, my devotion to their shapes made my fingers bleed.
Child of Crowley, Bukka White, paddling hips across the stage.
Time’s architect, sketch blueprints lesser innovators read.”
“[…] what Nietzsche refers to as “Dionysiac rapture,” the “vision of mystical Oneness” symbolizing the root assertion of self-surrender: yes. And we will study how this primordial union begets the mystery of Zeno’s arrow stitching the sky across a battlefield.”
from “Ghosts in the Machines: Synergy and the Dialogic System”
“[…] How and how soon should you intervene if
you suspect your child lacks rhythm? At what age should you begin
initiating your little ones to the historical memory of slavery?”
from “837. Wilsom, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising
Consicousness in the Past-Nationalist Home […]”
Location is also a large part of this collection as places scattered throughout the book act as ways to simultaneously locate and dislocate the speaker by expressing how difficult the idea of home, lost-ness, and belonging can be. “You are home now, outsider, for what it’s worth,” closes out the second poem of the collection Marginalia: Preamble, and this kind of haunting of, versus living in, where one calls home only gets more intense. From the evangelists who wander “from house to house, door to door, welcome/ or not, blessing whatever they find inside,” (from “Marginalia: Problemata”) to “Even Virgin Mary couldn’t compete with the miracles/ performed on dashboards by GPS devices that summon/ the heavens[…]” (from the poem “Boethius”), one gets the sense in reading this book that being somewhere is always unstable, almost as being someone.
The legibility of the speaker in this book is almost always a palimpsest, the speaker written over by Western philosophers and historical figures who are, in turn, written over by the speaker. Take for instance the poem titles in the section “The Clinamen Improvisations”: “Deleuze & Guattari”, “Cervantes”, “Alfred North Whitehead”, “Epicurus”, and “Kierkergaard”, each followed by a short quote from each. The poems beneath do as the section titles state; they improvise, riff off the epigraphs from each philosopher/thinker like a true jazz musician, jazz a poetic aesthetic that soaks through this book with every comma and description. We get in these almost-sonnets snapshots of a person who knows a lot but in many ways doesn’t care or doesn’t care to explain. Instead of a long exegesis of academic text, we get from the poem “Cervantes” (the epigraph reads: If it answers no other purpose, this long catalogue of authors will serve to give a surprising look of authority to your book) an actual list of authors ranging from Adrian Matejka to Tyehimba Jess, Latasha Nevada Diggs to Aimee Nezhukamatathil. And what’s fascinating is that he does not give full names. One has to be “in the know” of some of these poets in order to even identify them in the first place or be audacious enough to fill in the blanks, possibly getting it all wrong. Again, ignorance versus knowledge gives a completely different reading, both rewarding in their own way. It’s playfulness like this that shows complexity of our speaker and therefore adds complexity to the reading experience.
If I had more space, I could write an essay about the second long poem of the book called “Alienation Effects”, but I do not have that privilege. I’ll say briefly that this poem gives Frank Bidart’s extensive persona poems like “Ellen West” and “Herbert White” a run for their money, blending the persona of Louis Althusser, who murdered his own wife, with the author of the book in a haunting, absolutely terrifying way. The reflexive critique of misogyny through the unflinching, near-stoic eyes of Althusser bring to light the subconscious ways in which manhood acts as a revisionist interpretation of not only the women who are victimized by misogynist thinking but also the men who suffer from their own incapability to truly love, therefore revised from human to something else altogether perplexing. The form of the poem, 29 small prose blocks broken up into numbered sections, is miraculous to see on the page, like tiny mirrors that double as prisons for the one writing the poem and for the reader. This claustrophobia is indicative of the dangers of misogynist thinking and the violent self-isolation that is perhaps necessary for anyone who may feel empathy for Althusser. In the voice of Althusser (or is it the voice of Pardlo, who for some reason cannot be called “the speaker” in this poem; it’s a strange impossibility) we get:
“Poe says the death of a beautiful woman
is the most poetical topic in the world. Are these
my only options? Enshrine her in the church of the
beautiful or display her in a cage of misogyny? I am
no poet. She was no beauty”
“Negation is a structure that humbles most. Could
I be the cause of an action that does not follow
from the expression of my will, but rather from
an illegible and transcendent desire?”
The book itself is so full of objects, people, and theory that a book could be written about this book. This is part of the challenge I had as a reader. I was frequently overwhelmed with the largeness of Digest, its many gesticulations towards knowledge and suspicion of said knowledge as well as my search for navigable waterways, so to speak, when I was stumped on the who, the what, and the when. it can be cumbersome floating between a book of poetry and an encyclopedia and dictionary. I also had a lot of trouble, actually, with the length of the sentences, getting lost in the syntax and boggled by enjambments that I could not make heads or tails of:
“[…]While air brakes for semis
on the off-ramps anthem the children’s lifting
like power chords from some distant rock opera,
the children will gyre off the lawns of Jersey silhouettes
thinning in the terrific noonday sun forming a jet
stream across wetlands & the flame-
from “All God’s Chillun”
But I have a theory about why there is so much knowledge-sharing and logorrhea in this collection. There seems to be another reflexive move in the book, one of immense urgency, of a desperation to show what one knows to the utmost while also critiquing the arbitrariness of that knowledge. This comes into direct contact with the nuanced ways Pardlo writes about everydayness, in particular being a man who is pays close attention to family dynamics across generations. He is humorous, exacting, and the lines themselves are meticulous surgical flourishes that cut to the white meat of how dizzying fatherhood and families in general can be:
“[…] I shared what I know of dreams
deferred and Marvin Gaye. (When asked if he loved
his son, Marvin Sr. answered, ‘Let’s just say I didn’t
“[…] Richard Pryor
says we are bound to fuck up our kids
on 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 “Marginalia: Problema 4”
I haven’t yet mentioned race in such a way that considers how even Blackness as an identity feels both freeing and baffling to the speaker, and it doesn’t help that what is paired with Black culture is the ever-present oppression of Eurocentric ideologies that refuse to back down, at least not obviously. One can argue that opening with an epigraph from Aquinas then talking about new gang initiations re: reimagining jumping-in a new recruit, as a way to remove authority from the Western canon and place that authority into the new hand and scope of Black interior imagination.
This book is very American (Brooklyn, NY especially) and speaks to the American (im)possibilities of being a person who is always searching for a home that is right beneath his feet, mischievously shifting beneath him as history in its three forms of past, present, and future swallow him whole. What the speaker finds in the belly of the American Dream is all the bile and mucus of pop culture, historical trauma, and Eurocentric taste-making, and family tragicomedy, most of which cannot be digested. Get it? Digest? And what happens when we as readers decide to take on what this book has to offer? That is the question. Just because we can chew it doesn’t mean we can process it. That is the risk, a worthy one, of this Gregory Pardlo’s Digest.