Tolle, Lege

Gregory Pardlo
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

For generations, or so I’ve heard, Brooklyn families have shrugged off the city swelter, crowding I-87 North en route to the Catskills for summer weekends. In July 2016, partly in search of traditions that might bind our family to a community, Ginger and I joined the exodus. It was our second annual hauling of the Volvo, overstuffed like a circus wagon with a hodgepodge of duffels and rolly bags, and our two girls, Sara and Fita, who fought over holding Oliver, the family rabbit. With a generic soul singer–the voice we downloaded for the GPS–as our field guide, we avoided the highway and bushwhacked the rural roads to the temperate oasis of Fleischmanns, a small town seasonally occupied by Orthodox Jews. We were Gentiles–outsiders, as the word implies, a role we found comfortably familiar.

This was my first family trip as the undisputed elder Pardlo male. Even after his death, and even though what contact I had with my father in the previous five years was mostly through texts and rare phone calls by which I recognized him, figuratively and literally, as “unavailable” on my caller ID, I was still competing with him. In the end, he was convinced I hated him, which wasn’t true, but he’d become so delusional by then I couldn’t tell if he was high or merely unhinged. I couldn’t tell his heartfelt self-pity from manipulation. The reality that he was gone, that our cold war was finally over, left a deficit of purpose in my life.

Alan, Cynthia, and their two kids lived in the Catskills the entire season, in a house owned by the synagogue where Cynthia served as rabbi, which, considering the town population maxed out in the double digits during the off-season, made them locals. We were there for the card games and camaraderie, and to scavenge used bookstores for the weekend. We so anticipated the trip that it had the aura of a family reunion. We jokingly considered printing matching T-shirts for everyone to mark the occasion.

On the first day, Alan took the kids out for ice cream and found a local bookshop on the way, where he scored a complete set of the Boys’ and Girls’ Bookshelf, a ten-volume set of books from 1912. The subtitle was “A Practical Plan of Character Building.” It looked like a precursor to the World Book Encyclopedia set, those books that entertained me as a kid when there was nothing on television. Unlike the World Book, however, the Bookshelf wasn’t alphabetized. It was organized by topic, with titles like “True Stories from Every Land” and “Wonders of Invention.” When we came across a spread on the building of the Titanic, Alan palmed his forehead: the Titanic hadn’t sunk yet.

As Alan put one volume back and grabbed another, I shuffled between the dusty covers in my lap: anthropologists at work. The books implied hilariously rigid gender norms, but we also learned that, in 1912, it seems there were three distinct races of humans on earth: Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid. Also, the planet was stocked with unlimited resources begging to be exploited. Asia consisted of China and Japan, and the people who lived there were all called “Chinamen.” Less surprisingly, American Indians were noble and, not to mention, fun to imitate in speech and dress.

Blind spots, my new buzzword, replaces micro-aggressions in my vocabulary.

I figured the average black person in 1912 must have had to deal with pretty shitty conditions in public life, and these books targeted middle-class white American families who would have interacted with blacks while they were in uniform as domestic servants, barbers, train porters, caterers: occupations obscured from view by strict codes of conduct. The Bookshelf probably wouldn’t detail the structural and political shittiness surrounding black people’s public lives, I expected, but it must have something to say on race in America. They couldn’t have ignored the existence of black people altogether, right?

There was a small section on the games played by “Negro boys and girls.” Alan and I riffled through the index. Uhm, how about slavery? What did it have to say about slavery? Bupkis. Unless you count the Fugitive Slave Act appearing on a timeline of notable legislation. Also, the books noted, slavery may have been a factor in the Civil War.

Say what you will, but 1912 wasn’t that long ago in the lifespan of cultural memory. A century in the life of a nation is like twenty years in the life of an individual. Segregation, train tracks, redlining, and generational cycles of class alienation: these combined could isolate a white family so completely from the shared social memory we call history as to cultivate a naive conviction in the impartiality of justice and economic opportunity in America.

Blind spots, my new buzzword, replaces micro-aggressions in my vocabulary. Micro-aggressions are aggressive if we understand them from the perspective of the recipient alone. If, on the other hand, we identify, for the moment, with the alleged aggressor, we might see the interaction differently, and negotiate it with fewer fucks given. There is a danger of blaming the victim in this, but if I know the aggression is coming, either I can be butt-hurt about it and suffer or I can prepare for it, and engage it in a way that creates the possibility of an outcome I can live with. It’s like defensive driving: I might have the right of way, but I’d rather avoid the old coot barreling in from the merging lane than spend two hours on the shoulder explaining to an indifferent cop how the only other vehicle on the road clipped my passenger side mirror. Indeed, all anyone can do with micro-aggressions is either point a finger or apologize. On the other hand, hunting and cracking open blind spots as if they were Easter eggs is something fun we can all do together. There are too many people who consider themselves white and are absolutely dear to me. My friendships with them are life-sustaining, but they are nonetheless capable of saying some really dumb shit. And so am I, which is why I am convinced this is not a question of will.

Garden-variety micro-aggressions are involuntary, inadvertent, the result of ignorance and classical conditioning, and usually find sanctuary in blind spots. I want Americans to be united in the commitment to routinely question our individual relationships to the narratives that shape our national identity–to abhor blind spots that derail our pursuit of social justice. Perhaps this just means that one day we’ll all share the same blind spots, a harmonious choir of blinkered thinking, but then, what more than this is the definition of a community?

I want to start from scratch, I told Alan and Cynthia the next morning over breakfast. I want to reinvent America. I want to forgive us our history of slavery, and the crackpot invention of race we’ve used first to maintain that peculiar institution, and then later to designate an exploitable surplus population. And let’s forgive the debt, too; it would be impossible to administer reparations anyway, and to whom would we make financial amends? The day the government announced it was giving reparations for slavery, there would be such an overwhelming acknowledgment of African ancestry that Americans of all hues would crash the servers at the Census Bureau declaring their precious one drop of blackness. What I’m after is something more valuable than a government check.

In our new America, each July Fourth we will celebrate freedom and our ongoing struggle to defeat selfish and tyrannical impulses in every one of our American hearts. Each Thanksgiving, in addition to our thanks for the sacrifices of Native Americans, and for the Pilgrims’ travails, we will give thanks for the sacrifices of all those who gave freely, if not willfully, their bodies’ labor to produce the national nest egg of wealth we have since hatched and grown into a global juggernaut. Every Memorial Day, in addition to honoring known and unknown soldiers (including the many Revolutionary War veterans whose pensions were withheld because they were black), we will honor all those who risked their lives, and those heroes who gave their lives escaping and/or defeating slavery. We will revel in the richness of our diversity, we will celebrate the epic collusion of American culture. For Columbus Day, we will reach across the Americas to remember the voyages that enriched the nascent West: La Niña, La Pinta, La Santa Maria, La Amistad, the Clotilde, the Wanderer, the Hope (to name a few of the most legendary slave ships), and the Mayflower.

“Good luck with that,” said Alan.

I admit it is idealistic. Some might say we’re more likely to convince Congress to grant reparations. But I’m committing this essay to the dream of a new America.

“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So resounded MLK’s maxim in my childhood home, pitching family life at the highest intensity level, no matter the adversity. I was twelve when I joined my father in the commitment that scarred his character and shaped mine. It appeared to me then, and I know it to be true now, that the air traffic control strike of 1981 was the defining moment in my father’s life. A pivotal point for me by proxy; the strike still shapes how I understand all that happened before and after it in my life. My father was fond of reciting from memory the Rudyard Kipling poem “If”:


If you can keep your head when all about you

  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

      But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

      Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

      And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master;

      If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

      And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

      Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

      And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

      And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

      And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

      To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

      Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

      Or walk with Kings–nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

      If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

      With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

      And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

If I’m not willing to die for my dream of a new America, I am at least willing to be reckless for it. To recall the Kipling poem in my father’s voice is to clear a path through the debris of self-doubt, if only long enough to move my life a few metaphorical steps in the direction of my American Dream.

I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind. Being a poet doesn’t make me virtuous. Poetry never prevented me from totaling a car. No shrink wrote me a prescription for poetry. Poetry never represented me in court. Poems can’t keep me from getting mugged or roughed up by police. Poetry never cured a hangover, and it never paid a bar tab. Although I have wept and prayed to poetry to ease my burden in these and other regards, which have constituted, at one time or another, the core preoccupations of my daily life, poetry answers no prayers. Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.

Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I’m no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language, a skill that, through reflection, also helps me identify my own blind spots. The best poems model the kind of work I want to do on myself. It’s difficult to identify my strengths and flaws on my own, especially if I’ve spent my life around people who think, act, and perceive the world in the same way that I do. Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one’s own head.

Poetry teaches me this because in order to “get” a poem, you need to find its fulcrum, a tipping point that is rarely obvious. Most poems have a moment when something shifts. It may be midway through or at the end. This is the moment of transformation–we call it a volta, or “turn.” The turn could be a plot twist or a change in tone. You can identify the turn by comprehending first the poem’s overall patterns and prevailing logic. There might be many patterns in a single poem, and some or all of them might get broken or disrupted over its course, but the volta is special in that it marks the moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. There is rarely a single turn that everyone can agree on, and who cares if everyone agrees? Reading is a solitary exercise, a union of one. The detective work of looking for the volta is what gets us into the poem, makes us rewrite the poem in our own voice and consciousness.

For example, I’ve spent hours working out when Gwendolyn Brooks, in her 1963 poem “The Lovers of the Poor,” first signals that the “Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League” are going to hightail it out of the tenement house they are prospecting for their charity. Is it when the smells of the tenement begin to vex them?

  But it’s all so bad! and entirely too much for them.

The stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans,

Dead porridges of assorted dusty grains,

The old smoke, heavy diapers, and, they’re told,

Something called chitterlings.

Or when they look in horror at the emblem of poverty made by the woman and her children in a doorway? Is it when they see the rat? I’m inclined to identify with the “Ladies” (and I think Brooks wants me to), because I can see how they’ve misread their relationship to their own power and privilege, and how that misreading of self comes most sharply into focus against the unfamiliar (to the Ladies) background of the tenement house.

Some poetry lovers claim that poems don’t have to have a turn. This is usually what people say in defense of shitty poems. Of course there has to be a transformative moment, a moment in which we experience not just the characters or speaker in the poem, but the poet him- or herself in crisis. The turn doesn’t have to bring the reader to any grand epiphany or catharsis, but if–whether I’m writing the poem or reading it–I walk away from the poem without feeling as if I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own, if I feel as if the placid surface of my consciousness has suffered not so much as a ripple, then I’d say that poem owed me an apology for having wasted my time. If there is no turn, no transformative moment, then the poem is a journal entry, at best a laundry list of reflections and anecdotes, or what I think of as a “litany of relapses”–the barren passage of time unthwarted, moving predictably toward a predictable end. “The moment of change is the only poem,” says Adrienne Rich. (I’m being harsh, I know. There are many conceptual poems that produce a productive disturbance in the mind. I don’t mean to dismiss turnless poetry out of hand.)

If nothing is risked, if nothing is offered in sacrifice, then there is nothing to draw poet and reader together. Without risk, the reader has no reason, other than being nosy, to be invested. Without risk, the poem is a screen rather than a medium. It’s a visit to the zoo. We want access, vulnerability, flesh. Isaac did not literally have to die. God, lacking poetry, wanted to feel that Abraham’s devotion was real. The poem is a ritual space for the practice of feeling.

There is no feeling in monotony. We have to establish something before and something after. The teacher M. Degas in Philip Levine’s poem “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” draws a line on the chalkboard, and asks his students to describe what he has just done. The poem turns when the brightest student in the class replies, “You have begun to separate the dark from the dark.” This is one of the most fundamental justifications for art I can think of: the moment of change is the only poem.

Gregory Pardlo is Co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University and visiting faculty at New York University Abu Dhabi. His poetry collection Spectral Evidence is forthcoming in 2024.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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