Upon its first consideration, the task of choosing a favorite poem from Angles of Ascent seemed difficult, if not daunting. Beyond the difficulty of pinning down one poem in anthology of hundreds, this assignment came with the pressure of defending my choice beyond the simple response of “I like it.” In group discussion on Monday, Emily Pomainville so elegantly and cleverly described her process of finding a favorite as reading poems until one made her reread it. I similarly dogeared a selection that I hoped to come back to, but I didn’t make the connection that my favorites would necessarily be linked to this kind of attention. It makes sense. Zadie Smith says “time is how you spend your love” and that I gave these poems another read must say something about my adoration for them.
One such poem I came back to was Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself.” Admittedly, there have to be reasons for me to mark a poem in the first place, so what made me want to come back again? What struck me most immediately was a feeling of deja vu, a sense that I was actually coming back again even upon my first read. But it wasn’t deja vu. It was the poem’s allusions to other texts that floated in and out of my mind as I worked through the lines. The most prominent feature was the repetition of the phrase “I was born” which holds a lot of weight in the tradition of the fugitive slave narrative. Thus, this repetition speaks to the sense of familiarity one might feel if they were to read it at this point in the semester. But, the declaration “I was born,” a forging of identity as resistance, is only one such intertext that Pardlo uses to enrich the polyphony of “Written by Himself.” More immediately than the first line, the title is again a nod to slave narratives: “Written by himself” is a common suffix to titles in the fugitive slave narrative tradition. It would speak to veracity of the writer, attempting to affirm their capacity for truth-telling against a white supremacist narrative that claimed “blackness lies.” Thus, we read “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written By Himself,” or “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself.” Pardlo also tips his hat to Sojourner Truth with “ain’t I a woman” and the Black Power movement with “a brother I was born.”
The mixing of these voices together is indicative of a rich, varied history of African American literature that exceeds one voice and consists of many threads. In class last Friday, when attempting to conjure up similarities between the ostensibly disparate Charles Henry Rowell and Amiri Baraka, one item that might have been pointed out is the now obvious fact that black art is not a monolith. Though they disagree on many other points, I am sure that they would concur (just as we would) with the idea that there are multiples histories and not one history of African American literature. What makes Pardlo’s poem one of my favorites is the way in which the tensions of these histories actually create harmony. The poem sends the reader in many different directions in search of artifacts, idioms, and other poems.
These borrowed phrases don’t just come from texts in the traditional sense; some of them are colloquialisms or idioms and each one gives the poem texture and creates a richer fabric. The reference to coffee grounds and eggshells stood out as something I had heard before, but not in a literature class. These two organic materials are suggested fertilizers for gardeners which, though I am not a gardener, explains their relevance to me. “Fishes and loaves,” though I am not religious, brings in yet another tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, which adds to the complexity.
The allusions and the syllepses work together to push on the boundaries of what words can mean. To bear is used both in the context of births and burdens. “Still” could mean tranquility, but not without echoing horribly “stillborn.” The speaker is born over and over, to others and of his own creation. The myriad ways in which to use born reminds me Leontia Flynn’s play with the word “drives” in her poem by the same name.
Robert Frost said you read a poem to read another poem (thank you to Dr. Gillin for this piece of wisdom) and that’s what this poem prompts its reader to do. Though the poem is both new to me and packaged as contemporary by Rowell, it recalls so much before it. In all its newness, “Written By Himself” offers a history and a map with which to traverse that history. It makes the reader look back in order to move forward. It lets me continue to do what I love: read poems. And this is precisely why I chose “Written By Himself” as one of my favorite poems in Angles of Ascent.