“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

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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)

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

“Warbler” by Jim Harrison

This year we have two gorgeous
yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush.
The other day I stuck my head in the bush.
The nestlings weigh one-twentieth of an ounce,
about the size of a honeybee. We stared at
each other, startled by our existence.
In a month or so, when they reach the size
of bumblebees they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.

“Warbler” by Jim Harrison from Dead Man’s Float. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

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* With a wave to kind reader Usha who, during the Spring, offered this as one of her favorite poems, shortly after Jim Harrison passed away (March 26, 2016). 

Usha’s suggestion led me to learn more about Harrison. Reading more, I learned that Linda King Harrison, his wife of 55 years, had passed away less than six months earlier (October 2, 2015) and that Mr. Harrison had “died a poet’s death, literally with a pen in his hand, while writing a new poem,” (from “Jim Harrison and the Art of Friendship” by Doug Peacock via thedailybeast.com.) And although Harrison (author of many novels as well, including Legends of the Fall) said in a 1980 interview-“I’m always having a man in desperate straits trying to help somebody else out with no apparent success,” Mr. Harrison said, “because nobody can be helped by anybody.”–he did indeed help and champion many during his life, according to Peacock:

Jim Harrison was one of the most generous men I ever knew. He lent countless thousands to dozens of less fortunate friends who needed help; he seldom if ever got paid back and that didn’t stop him. Jim would invent jobs for me when he thought I was broke. He lent money to my ex-wife that I never knew about. When traveling he kept his single good eye out for a paucity of tip, the dangerous baldness of tires, or the looming mortgage payment. He took care of working writers like Chuck Bowden and Jack Turner. That generosity extended to sharing his time with younger and beginning writers who he encouraged and sometimes mentored throughout his life. At my wife Andrea’s bookstore, Jim was always up for signing books by the box-load. One night in 2011, when Jim was sicker than shit and Linda was in the hospital with a coma, he crawled up on the stage at a benefit and read with Peter Matthiessen—Livingston, Montana’s greatest literary night.

Thank you, Usha, for the suggestion and for the gentle nudge to learn more about Harrison. Click here to read another piece by Harrison, “Bridge,” which includes the beautiful line: What beauty in this the darkest music / over which you can hear the lightest music of human / behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.

“Advice from the Experts” by Bill Knott

I lay down in the empty street and parked
My feet against the gutter’s curb while from
The building above a bunch of gawkers perched
Along its ledges urged me don’t, don’t jump.

Bill Knott, found on-line via the Poetry 180 project

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A special wave of thanks to Arne who suggested this poem for us via our Contact page while I was on hiatus. Feel free to submit your own favorite. 

“Little Beast” by Richard Siken

  1

An all-night barbeque. A dance on the courthouse lawn.
     The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night
is thinking. It’s thinking of love.
             It’s thinking of stabbing us to death
and leaving our bodies in a dumpster.
   That’s a nice touch, stains in the night, whiskey and kisses for everyone.

Tonight, by the freeway, a man eating fruit pie with a buckknife
    carves the likeness of his lover’s face into the motel wall. I like him
and I want to be like him, my hands no longer an afterthought.

  2

Someone once told me that explaining is an admission of failure.
    I’m sure you remember, I was on the phone with you, sweetheart.

  3

History repeats itself. Somebody says this.
    History throws its shadow over the beginning, over the desktop,
over the sock drawer with its socks, its hidden letters.
            History is a little man in a brown suit
    trying to define a room he is outside of.
I know history. There are many names in history
                  but none of them are ours.

  4

He had green eyes,
            so I wanted to sleep with him
    green eyes flecked with yellow, dried leaves on the surface of a pool–
You could drown in those eyes, I said.
              The fact of his pulse,
the way he pulled his body in, out of shyness or shame or a desire
    not to disturb the air around him.
Everyone could see the way his muscles worked,
            the way we look like animals,
                his skin barely keeping him inside.
      I wanted to take him home
and rough him up and get my hands inside him, drive my body into his
    like a crash test car.
              I wanted to be wanted and he was
very beautiful, kissed with his eyes closed, and only felt good while moving.
    You could drown in those eyes, I said,
                  so it’s summer, so it’s suicide,
so we’re helpless in sleep and struggling at the bottom of the pool.

  5

It wasn’t until we were well past the middle of it
    that we realized
the old dull pain, whose stitched wrists and clammy fingers,
              far from being subverted,
had only slipped underneath us, freshly scrubbed.
          Mirrors and shop windows returned our faces to us,
      replete with the tight lips and the eyes that remained eyes
               and not the doorways we had hoped for.
His wounds healed, the skin a bit thicker than before,
    scars like train tracks on his arms and on his body underneath his shirt.

  6

We still groped for each other on the backstairs or in parked cars
                as the roads around us
grew glossy with ice and our breath softened the view through a glass
      already laced with frost,
but more frequently I was finding myself sleepless, and he was running out of
                lullabies.
But damn if there isn’t anything sexier
          than a slender boy with a handgun,
                  a fast car, a bottle of pills.

  7

What would you like? I’d like my money’s worth.
            Try explaining a life bundled with episodes of this—
      swallowing mud, swallowing glass, the smell of blood
on the first four knuckles.
              We pull our boots on with both hands
but we can’t punch ourselves awake and all I can do
        is stand on the curb and say Sorry
           about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine.

I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.

~ Richard Siken, from Crush

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I tried to get the line formatting as close to Siken’s as possible. To see the poem in its original format, you may read it in a .pdf version of Crush HERE or buy the book on Amazon HERE.

A wave of thanks and gratitude to Josie F. who suggested this poem for us via our Contact page.

“Gate C22” by Ellen Bass

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching–
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after–if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now–you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.

 

Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

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The poet reads her poem:

(both poem and video are available on her website.)

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A wave of thanks and gratitude to James R. who suggested this poem for us (along with some other great pieces that I may set up as a week at the end of July). Feel free to submit your own favorite poem via our Contact page. Thanks again James.