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).

Ali/Joiner Totem Review part 1 (14:52)

Ali/Joiner Totem Review part 2 (10:18)

Ali/Joiner Totem Review part 3 (6:46)


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.



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.



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 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.