Winter After the Strike
if you cast wide enough
your net of want and will, something meaningful
will respond. Perhaps we are the response—
each a cresting echo hesitating, vibrant with the moment
before rippling back.
But you’re steadfast as Odysseus strapped to the mast, as you were
in ’81 when Reagan ordered you back to work. You were President
of the union local you steered with your working-man’s voice,
the voice that ground the Ptolemaic ballet of air traffic to
a temporary stop.
You used it to refuse to cross the picket line I walked
with you outside Newark International.
I miss sitting beside you at the console when you worked
graveyard shift in the tower. Mom and I visited with our
I could see the dark Turnpike for miles, the somber
office buildings winking insomniac cells, the tarmac
spread before us like a picnic blanket and you, like a jade Buddha
suffused in the glow of that radial EKG.
You’d push the microphone in front of me, nod, and let me
give the word.
I called all my stars home, trajectories bent on the weight
of my voice.
You say you miss tracking those leviathans, each one snagged
on the barb
of your liturgy. I, too, get reeled in by the hard, now rusty music
of your pipes.
I follow it back to the day of your accident in the story you tell:
you were sixteen, hurdling the railings dividing row-house porches
from one end of Widener Place to the other to impress Mom.
I imagine the way you cleared each one like a leaf bobbing
on water, catching
the penultimate, the rubber toe of your Chuck Taylors kissed
by the rail, upsetting your rhythm and you roiled in the air
arms outstretched, stumbling toward the last like one hell-bent
or sick to the stomach. The way you landed, on your throat,
could have taken your head clean off. Since then, your voice issues
like some wartime communiqué: a ragged, typewritten dispatch
which you swallow with your smoker’s cough black as a tire
spinning in the snow. That winter after the strike,
we were so poor you sold everything but the house. Tell me, Dad,
when you’d stand at the door calling me in for the night,
could you hear me speaking to snowflakes falling beneath
Could you hear me out there, imitating you imitating prayer?
BIO: Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Digest was also shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His other honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo joins the faculty of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden in the fall of 2016. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
An Interview with Gregory Pardlo by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Can you tell us a little bit about how this poem came to be? Is this a poem that was inspired or that you had in mind to write? Has it drastically changed over time? Did it start out in this form, as a sort of address to your father, or did that come with revision?
Greg Pardlo: It was definitely a poem I had in mind to write because the union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), had cast such a long shadow over my adolescence: my father’s role in the union, the strike itself, the poverty, the ostracism my family ultimately experienced as traitors of the middle class. But of course, inwardly it was a source of great pride that my family belonged to this small union, this tribe as I liked to think of it, of Americans whose sense of worth in the public life of the nation was such that permitted us collectively to challenge the nation’s highest public office. As a twelve year-old black boy, this was a powerful identification, because through it I was able to counter almost every stereotyped image of myself I saw otherwise reflected in society. So I intend the poem to be more than an address to the father.
The primary trope of the poem considers the condition of the individual voice in its negotiation with the realities we find before us, the voice in its attempt to influence or alter a cultural and natural universe that resists acknowledging us individually. Speech as protest, the simple act of articulation registering the opposition to silence. Perhaps because of my ignorance of theology, I’ve always (mis)understood prayer as a form of protest. So the poem is meant to celebrate the solitary individual occupying what I imagine to be a tradition of individuals at the mountaintop vainly submitting demands to, in the case of this poem, a secular authority among various types of authority. The poems is also self-consciously aware of the speaker’s own participation in that tradition as he performs the very thing he describes.
Most of my poems begin as prose. I just try to communicate the idea first to myself. Then I begin trying it in different verse forms. There’s a fine line between what feels "right" or organic, and what just feels obvious. This poem is one whose form, the couplets, I’m more ambivalent about in that regard. After finding a form, however, I try to find a voice or tone. Then I meticulously polish and explain and revise. Finally, when I think I have something comprehensible, I take a hammer to the whole thing and start over. That hammer might be a disrupting lyric or rhythmic pattern, an image or a secret rule I apply to the poem.
AMK: It seems that while most poems have a meaning or a number of meanings that operate on various levels, most poets have a particular meaning or artifice they wish each of their poems to take on. Obviously, "Winter After the Strike" is about your father, but what in particular (or not in particular) is it that you hope readers take away from the poem?
GP: I don’t mean to sound romantic, but I think each poem in the book is on some level either an act of resistance, if merely against its own diction, or an act of opposition. Opposition, like prayer, is also celebratory. Every time I posit an oppositional force, I’m simultaneously affirming the thing opposed. I think of it in terms of the paternal relationship: I want to stand independently of my pig-headed father, but I don’t want to stand alone. (Coincidentally, we can think of many other social relationships in this regard as well.)
For example, like many of us, so much of my thought process conforms to the narrative structures of prime time television and Spielberg films. I find this sort of grotesquely fascinating. So while it might seem more literary to claim Whitman or Hopkins as the influence I’m struggling to get from under, my influences are actually quite pedestrian. I’m also engaged in various levels of resistance: resistance to easy categorization, resistance to stereotypes and biased assumptions, resistance to participation in modes of thought that provision forms of social oppression. Resistance entails more subversive maneuvers because I really hope to destabilize the thing in question. The object here is to have the reader challenge her own assumptions about the primacy or even necessity of certain cultural beliefs. I love that moment when some essence of my world cracks open and suddenly there is a whole new spectrum of possibility. A given poem may not cause that crack, but it can certainly compromise the levee.
AMK: You have a book coming out in the fall. I'm looking forward to reading it. And while this may be a broad question, I'd be interested to know what "kind" of poems you think you write or that we might expect from this book. I say "think" because this is the sort of question that is probably impossible to answer. But I've noticed that a lot of poets can actually answer this question fairly easily, even though the answer changes over time. One of my colleagues, for example said the first thing that came to his mind, "I want each of my poems to be good enough my mother would read them."
GP: Speaking of parents, that is an interesting concern regarding the accessibility of ones poems to "Mom". I grew up in a family dominated by artists and the arts. One of my more formative memories in my relationship to art is as a child being confounded by my mother’s creative process. How does it happen, I thought, this making something from nothing? Of course now I would argue that that "something" is always already there and is simply being rearranged, but I’d have to say it is my mother, a visual artist, who taught me to believe in my own aesthetic sensibilities. Though it is something we often live by, I try not to put too much stock in approval, per se. I’m more into Pound’s idea of "commerce." I do keep in mind, however, what that other blues artist, B.B. King, says: "don’t nobody love me but my mama, and she could be jiving too."