One of the signature features of POST NO ILLS Magazine is our (Inter/Re)view where we invite two artists to sit down for a live conversation about one work, as there is something about the vulnerability and casual wisdom which comes through in a dialogue that is difficult to capture in a written review.
For our first installment in this series, poets Abdul Ali and Fred Joiner met to discuss Gregory Pardlo’s debut collection Totem, winner of the 2007 APR/Honikman Prize. [As visual aids to this discussion, selections from Totem are published, with permission of the author, beneath the audio below.]
Pardlo, Greg. Totem. Philadelphia, PA: American Poetry Review, 2007. 96 pp. $14.00 (cloth).
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CHILD
in this house, let nothing just stay
the same. push the walls away while
you stare at the ceiling. wood paneling
and textured paint. the stairs are a derelict
list of angles. throw a ball into them
& measure its return. there is portent,
there are picket fences & everything
needs a Band-Aid. here is a tulip.
hold it by the stem. lick the cake-
mix. try to lick inside each petal
while you lay before the TV
on your stomach. hear the static
as you touch the screen. it is stubble-
faced. tap the glass with your fingernail.
sit too close and the picture ripples.
push up your sleeve & rub the skin
inside your elbow so it tickles a little.
but not really. tomorrow you’ll be late
for school. your lip will split in the morning
cold. from then on it will hurt to smile.
VANITAS, BALTIMORE AVENUE
hush thrown in relief against an evening
rain, the tripled brow and hands a plea
netting nervous air and flexed light in each
hyaline bead__imagine a shower curtain
on a power line__a trolley cinching the lacquered
avenue like a belt__heaving at the bowed horizon
cavorting like a pug on a leash (if this
were a moment it would pass
all the second hands dancing tangents around
the hours concatenated like Christmas lights (O
ripe spark o sodden mist in brief and unapparent
raptures beneath pewter limbs of the dead
oak splintering the concrete and the quicklime
sky___the gutter’s baleen flickers the forked
braid estranged from some woman’s weave
we are gathered we are soaked
into hulls, not unlike the bodies washed
aboard barks___a typology of cargoes thick with wet—
stranger fruit-driven after visions
that remind us of our own
The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.
At Broadway and Market, buses
______kneel at the curb like Indian elephants
and I wait where everything is
______pick up and move, where merchants
have erected sidewalk shops
______on folding tables. There is the video
bootlegger beside a table full of sunglasses, crab
______legs folded beneath mirrored shells. Another
has logos for sale; yet another cries incense
______and oils. The sibilants breach and rise
their fumes like struck stones they hum
______“these oils mix with your own,
last longer than a campaign
______promise, longer than it takes
a dealer to make bail.”
______And the scents aggress my way:
Black Love, Paco Rabanne, Vanilla
______Fields, China Doll, Nubian or Mecca Musk.
I am handed a shred of material stained
______like an old hatband, pedal thumb
and forefinger beneath my nose. An estranged
______instinct rises from my fingertips like dust
blown from the grooves of a gospel 78.
______I’m asked what I think. Why argue
the naming of clouds? Olfaction is a stationary
______camera, it captures whatever may come
into view: The man who laid a rug of cigarette
______breath on my shoulder, the strawberry
schoolgirl mindful of lip gloss kisses
______and the strained negotiations between taste
and smell. These memories preserved like people
______of Pompeii, speaking with air as dim
as that hulking sky, the falling
______ash of it. Each brow marked with a dusty
thumb. But I am unholy and academic and wish
______these moments were fleeting like the feeling
on my fingers after handling candles. So I, I’ll catch
______you on the way back, family. For real, for real.
My eyes water with the wonder of anointment
______and what vulnerability precedes a sneeze.
IN CANAL STREET STATION LATE
at night I stand alone along the lonely platform pew
overlooking rodents ghosting sediment and slipping
through fractures in the monochrome reel
of filth the tracks, frame by frame, display.
The station announcer’s voice
conjures the anima of bags in garbage cans.
Trickles sound icily from the city’s
untidy veins. Blear-eyed and unsteady,
mice to me flit faint as water sliders,
could well be those dimpling insects
that darted against the surface of my backyard
pool blown over with leaves, needles, cut grass.
And where is my old mower now
with its sneezing two-stroke engine
and tattered grass-catch that once culled
a nest of wasps through its brutal centrifuge?
It should be in the shed beside snow shovels,
beside the woodpile bejeweled with spider eggs.
The evening streaked orange and blue.
Fluorescent green of my canvass yard shoes.
Crane flies, outside the shed door, hung within
the maw of the mulberry eaves beside a paper
lantern shifting easy in the breeze. Breath quickens
in the tunnel like a throat trembling with light.
The conductor skippers a list of cautions when the train
arrives. Doors peel a toothless yawn where men sleep
lengthwise on benches and I think of mice snuggled
in the mouths of reptiles. Afford me some pity, dear Nessie
of halogen and steel, your sub-street tempest sparking
moments blind and shuddering with caprice
like a wet dog. Your maps are like x-rays where I am circled
and incriminated, a tumor. But we are concentric. In me, too,
a prisoner contemplates escape, scrapes memory like soft stone
at night and daily drags a tin cup along a cage of rib bones.
About the Reviewers: ABDUL ALI is a contributing writer for TheRoot.com and has published in publications such as Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Washington Post, and Black Issues Book Review. He is a recent graduate of Howard University and resides in Washington, D.C.
FRED JOINER is a poet and artist living in Washington, D.C.’s historic Anacostia neighborhood. His writing has appeared in Callaloo, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora, Mosaic Literary Magazine, and Warpland.