Cultural and the Intercultural: Digest by Gregory Pardlo

by The Editors

In Gregory Pardlo’s latest book, Digest, he manages an incredible balancing act. His poems are narrative and personal; they incorporate domestic themes; they take on the father; and they manage to weave in classical references without placing his work so high on the ivory tower that it becomes faint with lack of oxygen.

Pardlo’s writing is muscular without being showy. Rather than announcing itself with fireworks, his craft and insight can creep up on you. For example, it might not be until reading “Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora,” the tenth poem in the book, you might stop and say out loud to your back garden, “Wow, this guy can write.” Pardlo isn’t flag waving, insisting that we recognize his prowess. He simply incorporates several modes effortlessly: narrative, lyric, personal, ekphrastic. The fact that each one seems so effortless is what compels a person to shout at the bougainvillea, “These are beautiful poems!” 

Digest is rooted in Brooklyn and contemporary culture and Pardo’s specificity in that landscape allows for the excursions further afield, either geographic or intellectual. “The Conatus Improvisations” is comprised of six sections, each titled after a philosopher (Heraclitus, St. Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Occam, Gassendi). Each poem, while tipped off by the philosopher and an epigraph, is strongly rooted in the present. From “St. Augustine”: 

Prince calls it little because he imagines a woman’s body waist up, the rest Corvette, which is French for a sort of girlie warship, a chimerical twist on the Freudian cockpit. 

And from “Boethius”: 

Who needs to hurry when we have a hivemind of newsfeeds, can discern death’s thumbprint in the marrow of bone and engineer children who are elegant and fleet? In the end, James Dean couldn’t outrun a glacier. 

“The Conatus Improvisations” achieve what many of Pardlo’s poems achieve: we are shown how the intellectual life is linked to the pop-cultural. There is an interrelatedness to all aspects of culture that Pardlo understands and conveys consistently. Just as the title of the poems suggests, Pardlo’s endeavor is to show how the intellect continues on, always increasing. 

But it isn’t just Brooklyn that grounds the book. Pardlo’s role as a father and the seamless way that his reflections on fatherhood bind the book is truly powerful. “Marginilia,” the second poem in the book, incorporates several domestic stories involving his own daughters. In one scene, father and daughter are shopping at the Fulton St. Foodtown listening to a Motown song together when they encounter another pair shopping. 

        ...But we hear it as we round the rice

and Goya aisle, that other music, the familiar exchange of anger, 

the war drums of parent and child. The boy wants, what, to be

carried? to eat snacks right from his mother’s basket?

What does it matter, he is making a scene. 

The mother is flustered and she’s rough with her child. The poet places himself as a both a sympathetic part of the scene and stays disconnected from it. He writes, “How can I account for both the cultural and the inter- / cultural?” That rhetorical question fuels the poems of Digest. In many ways, the remaining poems are an exercise in Pardlo presenting a range of the “cultural” and the “intercultural.”  He explores what is American, what is African American, what is the Other, what is city, what is suburban, what is personal and what is persona. Digest offers a changing, rich landscape of verse, both haunting, funny, and rigorously intellectual. It’s an exciting second book from a poet who is quietly crafting an insightful voice and deep portrayal of Americanness and humanity.


Four Way Books, 2014