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Wednesday Shout Out
Winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, Gregory Pardlo’s Totem, is (as its title declares) a literary version of an emblem representing, in this case, the ancestry that inspires the poet’s verse. But the ancestry in question extends beyond the homes of the poet’s childhood and moves into the intellectual and spiritual communities of his adult education and curiosity. Reflection and observation merge frequently, set in motion by the most incidental of activities that become significant suddenly.
The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.
It takes skill of coordination and calculation to play this jump rope game, but so too plenty of imagination as evidenced by how this poem spins its momentum from the literal to the metaphors that become the “jewelry” of the girls’ movements. Superimposed on this familiar playground scene are the images of sparring boxers, animated bandleaders, gravity-defying cosmonauts, because this basic playground exercise is like the training ground for the physical exertion of all other tasks, labors, professions.
Pardlo uses the simile as a strategic device (we also have the girls dancing “like bees,” slapping and scooping “like a paddle boat,” “surfaces fracturing and reforming/ like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water”) to reflect the speed of change, range and possibility of outcomes in the game of Double Dutch. So too this collection as a whole, which takes the quieter streets (as in the poem “Man Reading in Bed by a Window With Bugs”) to the more assaulting ones (like “Oils”) with equal “wonder of anointment” and a flair for the startling image.
Of note are the three longer pieces, “Landscape with Intervention,” “Vincent’s Shoes,” and “Soundtrack,” which weave autobiography and the knowledge of environmentalism, painting and jazz to construct complex investigations of the poet taking shape as an artist in the troubled world of artists. Pardlo’s search for answers is the reader’s gain. To quote contest judge Brenda Hillman in her introduction (since she so accurately surmises Pardlo’s role with award-winning collection): “In times of cultural miasma, the sound of a poem can be like the voice of a pilot when a plane is landing through fog.”
(From Totem, published by The American Poetry Review, 2007. Used with the permission of the author.)