National Poetry Month 2016, Week Three: Gregory Pardlo’s “Epistemology of the Phone Booth”
April 15, 2016
When I heard that Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his poetry collection, Digest, I thought about the phrase “booty call.”
That’s right, booty call.
I had this memory of meeting Gregory Pardlo in Camden, NJ, sometime in the early 2000s, standing out front of a bar with Daniel Nester and Tom Hartman after a reading or an editorial session of Painted Bride Quarterly, which I helped edit at the time.
We were discussing the poetical possibilities of the phrase. I’m not sure where the conversation went after that; there were other phrases we thought had a natural tone and scanned well, but this was before phrases like “person of interest” and “shelter in place” became well known.
Pardlo, who was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Willingboro, NJ, earned his BA from Rutgers-Camden and later got an MFA at NYU. Somehow I missed his first collection, Totem, which won the APR/Honickman Prize and was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2007. Digest seemed to come out of nowhere to nab the Pulitzer.
So when Pardlo read at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University this past February, I had to answer the call and go hear him. I was not disappointed.
Pardlo has an engaging reading style that is part college professor, part Brooklyn stoop-storyteller. And the complexity and tenderness of his poems, what one critic called “both dense and accessible, literary yet urban,” is captivating.
In his poem “Epistemology of the Phone Booth,” a fourteen-year-old boy uses a prepaid phone card, the back pages of a local free weekly, and a phone booth to seek a knowledge of the unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. He’s on the brink of discovery and, simultaneously, on the verge of repentance only to find that the ability to acquire knowledge in this manner may be finite. It’s a kind of “booty call” about the nature of knowledge.
Here is Gregory Pardlo’s poem, “Epistemology of the Phone Booth”:
I found the scrap of City Paper
classified, the 1-900 number and photos
like candidates there, in love’s voting machine.
Discomfort station. No pissoir. Hothouse maybe for
a fourteenth-year sprig: me. Light box
to slideshow the introvert
cloaked in a prepaid identity
discreet as a shirttail in the fly.
Ma Bell’s shelter
was brutal & snug. I’d heard the ram’s horn hum.
A hymn. Just like prayer I thought. No answer.
Clack’d the splendid tongue
Salutations rose like pollen, prepped me for
the inverse of police
sketch artists, the one who would evoke so I could render,
in my mind, the enigma of the wanted; one to source
the vacuum wrenching stutters like rivets
off my tongue.
Plink. Into the sewer of the mouthpiece.
Then the universal ballad of the waiting room.
Hold (me) music.
closet. More like that other-lonely doom—the body
encapsulated, its inventory ever unknown. Dantean vestibule.
When the genderless voice beyond
began to lavish I grew ears all over,
swiveling from one tepid libretto to the next
tuning for some satin frequency the culture
promised until, I repent (forgive me father), the card went bust.
Copyright @ 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Used with permission of the author.
Read more about Gregory Pardlo and his work at http://www.pardlo.com/