The movies that illustrate the great soundtracks — Fame, Footloose, Flashdance, Car Wash — put the audience’s feelings on a slow forward-moving track, get them wet, soap them up, hose the undercarriage, and blow hot air on them. No offense to anyone who’s seen them a hundred times, but they’re thin, all business. The soundtracks themselves are another story, one not unlike the poetry that got us humans into this art-of-time habit. Music’s great illusion is that each listener has a personal, cosmically special, subjective take on an already pretty extraordinary social experience. If you haven’t had this experience, no explanation will suffice.
Gregory Pardlo’s first book, Totem, is a masterpiece of subjectivity, all qualia and stunning epithets, big feelings shaded with doubts, regrets, hesitations and guilt. It is a book with its headphones on, narrating the most amazing music, almost never letting you hear it. Where objectivist poetry vaporizes its big feelings in people-free landscapes, Pardlo’s subjectivist poetry feels all its feelings right up to the border of the interpersonal, and no further.
Those defenses protect a linguistic kingdom boasting remarkable natural resources. From the first poem, “Landscape with Intervention,” Pardlo displays a lexical density approaching Hart Crane’s:
In the clearing below the access
road, flags pop like Ps in a microphone and no one else in sight
sees the dishwasher toking in the car out back of the caterer’s,
dishrag on his shoulder like a dingy epaulette, his windshield gone
white with mist. For years he must have taken these
roads with paranoiac care, rubber-necking at the yoga of chassis
beneath wrinkled sheets
of metal, fiberglass chafed and chipped, quarter panels warped
like vinyl records in the sun.
This passage offers many kinds of pleasure – heightened sense experiences (the sights, sounds, even the ordinary out-of-the-ordinary towel on the shoulder evokes a physical feeling in the reader), statistically improbable phrases (“dingy epaulette,” “rubber-necking at the yoga of chassis”), and most important to Pardlo and least important to this reader, whodunit complexity regarding the speaker’s situation and the affect it motivates. It won’t spoil the poem’s ending or the book’s to say that the situations don’t always add up to the guilt that comes through.
If guilt is in the driver’s seat of “Landscape with Intervention,” shame is asked to step outside the car in “Volume Control.” The speaker segues from recollections of blissed-out headphone days, “The dial counter-clocking notches / Only as authority’s warrant turned / The knob on my bedroom door,” to standing “cuffed / Roadside of Route 287, the tide of traffic / Rising above my head,” a humiliation he endures by imagining back to the scene of safety, “a pair / Of headphones, a microphone / In my fists.” Both earlier and later, Pardlo casts this turn to subjective experience as a retreat, the “umbilicus of headphones” something his mother (!) warns him against. She’s got a point, and Pardlo ignores it, even as he frames it with a snap: “Compromise / Is a word that follows Missouri.” For the speaker of these poems, music and the exaltation it promises are the goal, not a danger. The succinctest phrasing of this mission statement comes as a quote from Denise Levertov’s introduction to a book by Jimmy Santiago Baca: “Next time you see such a figure, / remember it is very possible he is living an inner life / at least as vivid as your own.”
That quote comes toward the end of “Soundtrack.” At ten pages, it’s the longest poem in the book. It’s also an explicit argument for Pardlo’s poetics, not to mention a little wiggy:
But Harvey, nothing changes when you’re in the car.
True that, you say, but nobody’s in the car there is no car.
Perspective drawing caused a revolution by arresting
the viewer at an unnatural point in reference to some
horizon, you say, but what happens when the horizon swells?
What if the surface was fluid like a river and you was
in it and the experience had no way of reflecting on itself?
Do fish notice tides change? I would think so, Harvey,
my ears pop in midtown elevators.
My neighborhood once felt immense
as a foreign language. Now familiar, it is brief
as a song. Soundtrack, you’ve said, is utter interiority, air
bubble in a field of attention otherwise
tied to the rails of memory and presentiment.
Pardlo has a number of contemporaries who can set this many thoughts in motion and still hold the poem together — Ange Mlinko, Daisy Fried, Drew Gardner, Brian Kim Stefans and Major Jackson come to mind, and coincidentally they all share a NJ/Phila upbringing — so maybe it’s a period quality that he exemplies. It’s more likely that he is out on his own peninsula.
Harvey is not James Stewart’s pooka, by the way. He is dorkier, and therefore cooler, than the speaker. He provides insight into Spike Lee’s camera techniques, he comments on the history of soundtracks, and most importantly, he provides comic relief from the speaker’s intensity. After Pardlo starts riffing on Legos, Joseph Cornell, Germanic grammar and Ezra Pound, Harvey speaks up:
Money, aint shit about you dramatic.
Money, ain’t shit about you germanic.
It’s a terrific moment, and it points to a quantum leap Pardlo’s work might take: dialogue. In “Winter After the Strike,” Pardlo remembers going to work one day with his father, an air traffic controller fired by President Reagan in the 1981 strike: “You’d push the microphone in front of me, nod, and let me give the word. / I called all my stars home, trajectories bent on the weight of my voice.” Every time Pardlo addresses someone besides himself, feeling after lovely feeling comes through. If he gets to moving people around the scenes of his poems, and better yet, lets them speak for themselves, it will be as good as the movies. If he lets his characters sing, he might even outdo the soundtracks.
It might help to point out the four or five ways he currently makes his poems reliably dizzy, as well as to mention a few cheap shots he does not take.
Narrative, address. Pardlo always evokes a scene, and there is usually a narrative to piece together, generally addressed either to a sympathetic world, or himself. There are exceptions (see above).
Synecdoche. Pardlo gives and takes the part for the whole again and again. For example, in the (eventually) heartbreaking mother-elegy, “Vanitas, Mother’s Day,” the family piano’s “the Baldwin,” light doesn’t fall but rather “each / photon ripens.” These switcheroos function as resistors in the circuitry of the poem, every sentence requiring the reader to make some cognitive effort. Sometimes there’s too much resistance: looking at the already too-too-special dust in French air in his Van Gogh ode “Vincent’s Shoes” he sees “the lilted tint lambent / and diffuse.” Sometimes it’s kind of hot: in the teen fantasy “Suburban Passional,” he makes a routine paperboy collection call to a widowed neighbor who “crossed the room in Sergio Valentes.” This is significantly better than if she had walked to the door in blue jeans.
Metonymy. His thesaurus imagination often makes the paths he takes more interesting than they appear. In “Atlantic City Sunday Morning,” he notices cameras inside and out, and comments that “Surveillance here is catholic.” From his perch in security, he lets the power-synonym catholic give iconographic shading to the low-res video, seeing haloes and angels, “bishops of risk” (mating sparrows), “a junkyard of churchbells, a reliquary of Sundays” (a postcard image of the state capital at Trenton).
I’m not the critic to defend Pardlo’s dependence on allusion and art-hero stories, nice as his tender moment at the Cedar between Creeley and Pollock may be. If there really are people who need poems with cameos by Orpheus, I wish them the best.
Even in his off-moments, though, Pardlo never lets his poems go as mere words. The experience is always satisfyingly complete, if limited. The end product of these razzle-dazzling meditations and memories is a beautiful portrait — of the author. In this kind of poetry, you’re in it alone.