“By Himself”: A Review of Gregory Pardlo’s Digest

Digest, by Gregory Pardlo, Four Way Books, 2014, 84 pages, ISBN: 978-1935536505

In “Written by Himself,” the opening poem of Gregory Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Digest (2014), the speaker says: “I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry.” He was born as, in, to, and from many other things (the poem is an anaphoric list), but this particular line stands out for its resonance in 2015, especially following the July 17th shootings of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. 150 years after the end of the Civil War, some still claim that it wasn’t about slavery at all. Memorials to Confederate leaders are still all over the South (there’s even one in Montana, for some reason). Mississippi’s state flag still prominently incorporates the iconography of the Confederacy. And a young man still clung to the feverish delusion that he had the right and duty to kill in defense of white womanhood and white male privilege.

Right up front, Pardlo makes the political personal: in writing “himself,” the poet creates a compendium of fractions, a series of notes that add up to a potentially confusing whole—in other words, a digest. So while Pardlo’s collection is arguably as concerned with race in America as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (the book many thought would win this year’s Pulitzer), its structure infuses that concern into a variety of contexts and aesthetics. The “himself” who would have once been deemed only three-fifths of a person and the target of the kind of terrorist who only sees in black and white, is a collage of experiences and texts that add up to something bursting the limits of any single idea. Because “himself” has existed in both spaces, “Copenhagen, 1991,” a poem with no explicit references to race or America, is as much about race and America as “Philadelphia, Negro.” As a collection, Digest eschews the deep-dive of the meditation on race and history in favor of the web of relations, with everything—race, masculinity, ideology, romance, and history—connected.

This polymathic texture has led some critics to call Digest’s verse “academic,” and for many readers, such a description likely isn’t heartening. Fortunately, it isn’t totally accurate either, at least not in the way that most of us think of the word. While Digest is filled with references to philosophers, saints, and great literary works and their histories, it’s more embodied than most “academic” poetry. It’s as much Prince and Led Zeppelin as it is Wittgenstein and Derrida. Even the philosopher most prominently on display in the book, Louis Althusser in the poem “Alienation Effects,” has his work placed in the narrative context of his having murdered his wife. Bodies, in motion and at rest, are everywhere in Digest.

But those who call attention to the book’s braininess don’t do so without good reason. Two poems in Digest take the form of course descriptions, one is an annotated bibliographic reference, and several name-check intellectuals. However, far from being impenetrable, these simultaneously skewer academic discourse while also revealing how close the language of “high theory” comes (perhaps unintentionally) to the poetic. “Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary,” for instance, is a series of increasingly long sentences about a course that will study Charles Russell’s The Mask (starring Jim Carrey) and Ang Lee’s The Hulk in order to better understand our “envy of the Other’s capacity for release.” Anyone who has taken a graduate course in cultural studies will recognize the project here: revealing the lofty ambitions (whether understood by the artist or not) of “low-culture” objects. The conclusion of the prose poem is delightfully ambiguous though:

While we might be tempted to reduce these types to the pat dichotomies of comedy and tragedy, this course will examine the ways in which there is but one mask, a Janus-faced cleavage of thou art and thus am I, our goat-sung desires adrift in the wilderness, our tell-tale passions pulsing beneath the gladiolas in a mildewed hatbox (the act of masking triumphal and deadly), trembling the bulb on its stem.

Is this Pardlo mocking the pretensions of professors, so many of whom are (as I can personally attest) frustrated poets? Is it questioning the academic tendency to “reduce” art to something knowable through theory? Or is it reveling in the fun of purple prose in the same way we consume popcorn flicks? A well-versed academic would tell us that the truth, especially the poet’s own truth, is irrelevant here, and perhaps with this in mind, Pardlo leaves us with a sensual image in one of the least likely places. For all the pearl-clutching engendered by university courses in pornography and thinkpieces about a Bacchic “hook-up culture,” nothing happening on any campus is as genuinely erotic as this flower.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Digest, then, is that it feels impossible to cover all of it in a single review. Indeed, its fractions add up to so much that one might be tempted to say that it lacks cohesion. But this wouldn’t be right. What binds Digest is cultural ekphrasis. Each poem, whether it’s about a work of art or not, reads the cultural narratives that shape individual experience. In the wake of the Charleston shootings, “For Which It Stands” is a necessary cultural reading of flags and what they say about the unity of nation that has continued to cut itself to ribbons whenever possible. The speaker describes the artist Theaster Gates’s Flag (2012) as being made

from old fire hoses, a couple dozen, like vertical blinds, no,
like cabin floorboards of canvas colored rusty, brick dust, some
cheerless drab-and-custard, beside a medley of vespertine
blues, hoses evoking landscapes of sackcloth and gunny,
texture of violence and tongues inflamed by shine, holy ghost.

The ekphrasis of Flag leads to what could be a new ending to the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the clauses following “for which it stands”:

I approve its message, its pledge to birth a nation
of belonging and to teach that nation of the fire
shut up in our bones.

This call for inclusive pluralism, for a real reckoning with the past, is precisely what those seeking segregation hope to prevent. Given the symbolic power Pardlo’s reading suggests, it’s not surprising that the meaning of the Confederate flag is being fought over right now. Digest, like the country Pardlo hopes to see birthed, is a vision where diversity is not a reason for separation, but a call to read better, to find the connections that make the story work even when it seems like it might not.

—Daniel Pecchenino