“I do believe that somewhere in our language, in our performance of speech, that all the background noise of ambition and criticism and judgment can sort of melt away and what’s left is just human interaction.”
Gregory Pardlo, PEN Poetry Relay, August 2011
The rich portraiture and storytelling of Gregory Pardlo’s poems offer the reader a glimpse into the inner worlds of people with whom we may have little in common, but whose humanity touches us deeply and helps us feel intimately connected.
Raised in New Jersey, Pardlo’s work reflects the geography of his childhood and young adulthood. There is a pure pleasure in reading his poem “Rolling Thunder” about his experience running a roller coaster during the summer when he was 17. Anyone in the tri-state area knows Rolling Thunder as one of the original roller coasters at Six Flags Great Adventure. While the title, and certainly the subject draw the reader in, the precision and craft of the poem give way to subjects of (forgive the pun) greater gravity. The energy and momentum of growing into an adult is controlled by his careful line breaks and stanzas, and the gorgeous images he creates, such as “…rails shaking like confectionery….” Much like a roller coaster, the poem takes us on a journey from anticipation, to thrill to rest.
Pardlo’s subjects become our neighbors. We begin to recognize ourselves and our loved ones. In a variety of forms, the poems are muscular and defined. Totem, his first book, which won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, contains a number of poems entitled “Totem,” which hold up historic or cultural figures as entry points into the understanding of larger cultural issues. In addition, Pardlo’s “Vanitas” poems borrow their title from an art term for a symbolic work that explores the impermanence of life. However still and unmoving these two paradigms may sound, the poems are rich in movement, rhythm and energy.
Here, the view of Philadelphia as the speaker floats towards New Jersey on the ferry: “Your office buildings wrinkle/ like sequined gowns at sunset/jazzed by the river’s brisk cologne…” from “Vanitas: Camden Ferry”. And here a cobblestone street “Mercer St., with its stampedes/ of rubber bulletting the dimpled stones/ and the wail and moan/ of the distempered,/ their perfunctory aggressions…” from “Vanitas: Intersection.” He is doing much more than paint a still life with words here. Yes, we see a vivid picture in our minds, but the landscapes are alive with meaning and give context to the poems and enrich our understanding of the speaker’s point of view.
We look forward to welcoming Gregory to the Festival for the first time. Here is a clip from his reading at the Best American Poetry 2010 Launch Reading. Advance the video to 2:00 to hear him read.
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