“Written By Himself” by Gregory Pardlo

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
           ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.


~ Gregory Pardlo, “Written By Himself” from The Best American Poetry 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Gregory Pardlo.


* Many thanks to Jim B. who blogs at Poetry in Motion for suggesting this poem for us. In his note, Jim said, “I am drawn, mesmerized by the poem “Written by Himself” by Pulitzer Prize Winner Gregory Pardlo, so here I share it with you and your readers.” We are so glad you did, Jim. With thanks and gratitude, Christy


I found an interesting interview Gregory Pardlo did with Ching-In Chen at The Conversant.

About his poem “Written by Himself,” Pardlo shares:

I hope “Written By Himself” prepares the reader for my wrestling with selfhood more generally, too. I accept, for example, that my identity is a digest of discourses, and that my engagement with the world is mediated through these discourses. There is a voiceover in my head that asks, “What would the character appropriately cast for this situation do if I were playing that character?” This is common for the media saturated life. But even when I can tone down (to my satisfaction) the what-would-my-character-do kind of posturing in my work, I still have to shake off whatever theoretical discourse I’ve used to make that problem legible. I realized there’s no peeling the onion. The onion is egotism. Maybe trying to get beyond the ego is pointless (and egotistical). So instead of chasing romantic notions of sincerity in each poem, that is, instead of chasing my tail, I decided to look at my relationship to some of the frameworks I’ve used to shape my thinking and feeling. I decided to interrogate my relationship to books.

I’m ready to take a shot at a grand statement now: “Written By Himself” is an attempt to make apparent the discursive performance of racial identity. I want to make that performance almost burlesque in its self-consciousness. There is no singular, coherent speaker in the poem. No image in the poem comes from a firsthand experience except in the sense that my firsthand reading gleaned the images collaged in the poem. In this sense, the poem could have been “written” by anyone. Anyone fluent in African American literature could have rendered that performance of blackness. I want to push the pretense of an authentic speaking subject to such an extent that a kind of truth, a kind of sincerity, might be possible (as in, but not exactly, Camp). Through all the putting on of voices and texts, I’m hoping to cause a rupture, a chance to walk on my own in the world of language, momentarily, even if I have to imagine my way back to a pre-verbal state, a stage before I was born into narrative consciousness.

Of course, I might read the poem very differently next week.

Related: Pardlo also was the subject of a very interesting read on the Best American Poetry blog, “The Pulitzer win of Gregory Pardlo, Baltimore and what Poetry can do.” (April 28, 2015)


Thanks again Jim for the poem and for introducing us to Pardlo’s work.