It’s National Poetry Month!

Every April I challenge myself to read one poetry book per day—tackling all those books I’ve impulse-bought or been given by friends over the past year. Last year, I went all-out at the blog (see my post about Kathleen Flenniken for a great example), contacting many of the poets and asking questions about how their books were created. This year, I’m scaling down, but I still want to share with you what I’m reading, and at least a poem and some links for each poet. Rather than a review, you might think of these as “appreciations.”

And before I get started on Gregory Pardlo’s Digest, a couple house-keeping announcements for the poets looking for further NaPoWriMo inspiration:

At the blog POETRYisEVERYTHING, bookstore owner and poet Chris Jarmick is sharing a poetry prompt for every day in April.

At The Poetry Department, Judy I. Kleinberg posts poetry news daily—local, national, or international—and she has a calendar for April events:


DIGEST, Gregory Pardlo. Four Way Books, POB 535, Village Station, New York, NY 10014, 2014, 78 pages,

Here’s one you may have heard of, as not only have I blogged about this book before, but Digest was the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. On the back cover, Campbell McGrath beautifully captures some of my own thoughts about this complex and mind-blowing excursion into literature, philosophy, and the extraordinary domestic: “Gregory Pardlo’s engaged, intelligent poetry, with its exuberant range of cultural and historical reference, feel[s] a bit like stumbling out of the desert to encounter the Nile River. Smart and humane, Digest engages in lyricized textual analysis, playful philosophical exegesis, and satirical syllabi building.”

About that last—Pardlo includes a series of syllabi-like prose(ish) poems that delighted me. I thought of my days as an adjunct at the University of Washington, where each quarter we competed to come up with the most stunning (and increasingly obscure) paragraph describing our upcoming courses.

Ghosts in the Machine: Synergy and the Dialogic System

Self-effacing, the number zero stands austere, a window onto Nature’s
abhorrent force, a hyperborean rebuke to the tropic heat of being. We
might say zero is the perfection of affect, round as a pucker it dallies,
dispassionate, for a kiss. In this course, we will observe our stalwart
and lonely hero, zero, and its intercourse with the number one or,
what Nietzsche refers to as “Dionysiac rapture,” the “vision of mystical
Oneness” symbolizing the root assertion of self-surrender: yes. And
we will study how this primordial union begets the mystery of Zeno’s
arrow stitching the sky across a battlefield, or begets the way sweet
nothings from a random-dialing jailhouse phone might morbidly
prick the pulse. we will consider the connotative spark rattling like a
pinball in the void between two bumpers of denotation, overloading
the light bulb above our heads, or worse, animating anxieties strapped
to the gurney within. That one hand clapping, for example. For
example, the call is coming from inside the house.

The book begins with riffs on home and a lens that tilts both toward childhood and parenthood, and (I admit) those poems were my favorites. The publisher, too, highlights this aspect, ending its description with family:

From Epicurus to Sam Cook, the Daily News to Roots, Digest draws from the present and the past to form an intellectual, American identity. In poems that forge their own styles and strategies, we experience dialogues between the written word and other art forms. Within this dialogue we hear Ben Jonson, we meet police K-9s, and we find children negotiating a sense of the world through a father’s eyes and through their own.

—from the publisher

But. It’s saying far too little about Digest to let you think the book smacks of domestic harmony. A long poem with  numbered sections digs deep into philosopher Louis Althusser’s murder of his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, evoking a deeply troubling intimacy. In another poem, “Copenhagen, 1991,” Pardlo writes, “As adversaries we made good / lovers, made heat where there was little / to hold…” I could go on, but instead, in closing, a few lines more from the poet himself:

from Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora

…Once upon a time means once and for always
and for wherever you are and now I’m singing blues
in a bar revealing as much skin as you should
be willing to reveal when you pouring your seed
into the electric element. We are given two names:
one to work like witness protection, and one to carry
mechanically to the grave.


For links to videos, interviews, and more, go to

Written by Himself

One of the beauties of my pandemic-long poetry practice has been finding a poem by a different poet each week to use as a model—sometimes more of a jumping-off point—for my own work. This week it’s a poem by Gregory Pardlo who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for his book, Digest. After reading this NYTimes piece, and having a look at him at Poetry Foundation—“The Pulitzer judges cited Pardlo’s ‘clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought, ideas and histories public and private’”—I’d like to read more.

In the NYTimes, Stephen Burt calls his style, “deliberately elegant in a modernist kind of way,” and Pardlo admits trying to lampoon academic language. It’s another vein that intrigues me:

But he also writes intensely personal poems—with scenes that describe shopping for groceries with his daughter or unpack his anxieties about fatherhood—and delivers funny and poignant dispatches from the front lines of gentrifying Brooklyn.

“He’s interrogating the everyday,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith said. “Another poet might be afraid to draw on so much of the true stuff that a life is made of.” (New York Times, April 22, 2015)

So here’s our poem:

Written by Himself 

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet

whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;

I was born across the river where I

was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,

broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though

it please you, through no fault of my own,

pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.

I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.

I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.

I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,

air drifting like spirits and old windows.

I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;

I was an index of first lines when I was born.

I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying

ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born

to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was

born with a prologue of references, pursued

by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing

off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.

I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;

I walked a piece of the way along before I was born.

—Gregory Pardlo, from Digest p. 3

Find a recording of Pardlo reading “Written by Himself” here.

I want to know if this is the poet speaking, the “supposed person of the poem,” or is it a digest of voices, rising together?

I admit that I’m struggling with what I’ll write in response to this assignment. I mean, how do you follow, “I was born in minutes in a roadside skillet,” or “I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry”? How about “I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves”?

But I’m about to open my notebook and see what will happen.