by Joshua Bennett
It is well-noted that surprise, or at least the promise of it, is one of poetry’s great gifts. A related, though seemingly antithetical, merit of the genre is its capacity to produce familiarity. At its best, poetry engenders moments where these affects are simultaneous and altogether inextricable: you experience the collision of the sense that you are reading or hearing something you have never heard or read before, and the irreducible truth that that language has connected you to a fellow traveler, some other earthling across the room or thousands of miles away, one who long ago threw this poem out into the world like a trained raven or homing beacon to find you. Good poems always lead us elsewhere; into other grammars and worlds without warning. They teach us how to live and die with dignity, and in the presence of a greater beauty than we otherwise might dare to imagine. They demonstrate an alternative order of things: another way that it could have been, and could still be.
Gregory Pardlo’s poems live in this realm, and dance in the space between what has been andwhat might come into being if we are brave. When I first read his work, I got the distinct sense thatI was in the presence of one who had simply never heard, or else chosen to ignore, the ostensibly universal pull within the American academic and social scene for black folks to code switch (a term that comes with all sorts of trouble, and not the good kind, built right into it, but I’ll say more about that elsewhere). Greg is pulling from all of his Englishes all of the time. Watch how, in the following sequence of lines, he moves from founding fathers to high fades to the historical relationship between African American fatherhood, nation-building, and the imposition of colonial visions of wildness onto descendants of the enslaved without missing a beat:
Jefferson said for each generation a flag. Maybe he said Constitution. I once raised a high-top flag of my hair, a fist, a leather medallion of the motherland. I studied heraldry and maniples (which are not what you might guess), little sails and banners down to the vane of a feather. Because his kids were rebel cities my father loved like Sherman. Because I wanted history I could touch like the flank of a beast.
It’s not simply that Pardlo moves with a certain kind of grand discursive flair in his more dazzling moments of associative composition (though that is indeed one of the many delightful aspects of what the good brother has going on), but that those moments signal something critical about the dual role of both the black and the contemporary in contemporary black poetics: i.e., black study as an act of re-imagination and repair, black writing as a means through which a captive people said to function as a subgenre of human life can somehow claim and contaminate the category of the universal, invert its polarity, and turn its powers toward the work of liberation. Pardlo is an inheritor of everything. Hisis a vision of blackness that is capacious and all-encompassing: Copernicus, double-dutch, particle physics, Wheatley, Freud, Afrocentrism and everything in-between belong to him, to us. Almost adecade ago now, Greg told me in a writing workshop that I could “use all of my words” and Ihaven’t stopped thinking that way since. His work is an embodiment and extension of that wise,loving counsel. If rigor is our dream, to borrow a phrase from Hortense Spillers, then we must commit to using all of our words. All of our fears, and failures, and most radical imaginings. We are infinitely more than the language we have been given to express what we have seen, and survived. It is our collective, corrective task to make that language stretch, and do work that it was never intended to do. To craft a black poetics made to the measure of the world.