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“Gregory Pardlo . . . wants to explore the druidic function of art, the works of jazz musicians, painters, poets, and others who live imaginatively, expand reality, and make imagination free.”—Brenda Hillman, from the introduction

Totem, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, is the debut of a poet who has been listening for decades. In his youth, Gregory Pardlo heard stories of factory hours and picket lines from his father; in the bars, clubs, and on the radio he listens to jazz and blues, the rhythms, beats, and aspirations of which all of which seep into his poems.

A former Cave Canem fellow, Pardlo creates work that is deeply autobiographical, drifting between childhood and adult life. He speaks a language simultaneously urban and highbrow, seamlessly switching from art analysis to sneakers hung over the telephone lines. Deeply rooted in a blue-collar world, he produces snapshots of a life that is so specific it becomes universal.

From “Vincent’s Shoes”:

On the wall above my desk: a pen
and ink affair which I copied
from a print hanging in the sushi
bar down the block:
inflected necks of pedestrians on a bridge
in the rain and here I hung
the hightops from a power line.
It was in me to do. I felt it in my gut
the way Vincent might have felt
the wheat fields and the smoking socket
of the sun rattling, tweezed days
late into the ear of an aluminum bowl

Gregory Pardlo teaches at Medgar Evers College, The City University of New York, and lives in Brooklyn.

96 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 2007

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About the author

Gregory Pardlo

12 books53 followers
Gregory Pardlo’s first book, Totem, received the American Poetry Review/ Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate editor of Callaloo, he is currently a teaching fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University.

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5 stars
29 (50%)
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19 (33%)
3 stars
5 (8%)
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1 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews
Profile Image for Brina.
887 reviews4 followers
August 23, 2017
Over the past year I have often found myself with a volume of poetry at bedtime. I find that poetry runs the gamut of human emotions and offers a window into the writer's soul and is also a relaxing and usually fun way to wind down at night. Through my personal Pulitzer challenge, I discovered the works of Gregory Pardlo. Pardlo won the Pulitzer in 2014 for Digest, a poignant collection of poetry that left me in awe of his writing. Seven years prior to Digest, Pardlo emerged as a leading contemporary poet with his debut collection Totem. Winning the Honickman First Book Prize as a top new poet, Pardlo made a name for himself with a stunning collection of modern poems.

As a resident of Brooklyn, New York, Pardlo often writes about the people, sites, and sounds of the borough. As in Digest, the writing in Totem is so exquisite that I felt myself transported to New York. Opening with Landscape With Intervention, Pardlo speaks of himself as a young, emerging artist. Describing his life's travels to places as diverse as the American Southwest and as close as the Bronx, Pardlo paints a patchwork of his life journey. The opening work winds up back in Brooklyn as the author ends his personal daydream, speaking of "flames back onto a dusty matchsticks like magician's bouquets gasped into the wand, retract the 10-45 from the police dispatch and subsequent request for EMS," as he reenters himself into daily Brooklyn living. With opening words as powerful as these, I knew that I was in for a treat as I immersed myself with the rest of this collection.

I was also moved by some of the shorter works in this collection such as Double Dutch where Pardlo eloquently describes the jump rope so often seen on the sidewalks of urban America. He opens this poem flowy language about "girls turning double-dutch bob and weave like boxers pulling punches, shadowing each other, sparring across the slack cord casting parabolas in the air." He continues his daily walk through Brooklyn with titles as "Oils", "Family Business", and "Chapel Avenue, Rain Effect". In each poem, Pardlo provides a glimpse into Brooklyn daily life and one can sense that he is enamored with the community that he chooses to call home. With prose as descriptive as "buses kneel at the curb like Indian elephants" and "sign...for the jazz club downstairs bears inclemency in stride, rhythmic as a bed frame", Pardlo pens ode after ode to Brooklyn, and readers continue to tell that he is engaged in a love affair with his city.

Pardlo's centerpiece of the collection "Soundtrack" also speaks of the daily life in Brooklyn. Each part denotes a different time of day and the sights and sounds one can find on the street at each instance. With anecdotes as diverse as Spike Lee and Beethoven, Pardlo's opus could be set to music as varied as hip hop, jazz, or blues and still emerge with poignant meaning. He describes car stereos booming, life inside a Chinese take out restaurant, and typical Brooklyn bar and apartment scenes. All the songs make up a fabric of Brooklyn life, of which Pardlo is grateful to be a part of. He writes of the churning river, Washington square part, and continued instances of life on the streets of Brooklyn, enamoring himself with life in the community. After this centerpiece, I was concerned that the final poems would be a letdown; however, this was not the case as works as diverse as "In Canal Street Station Late" and "Restoring O'Keefe" contained the same artistry as the rest of the poetry in this volume.

Even though Gregory Pardlo has only published two works of poetry to date, they are both pure artistry. I would not have been drawn to his work had I not established a personal Pulitzer challenge for myself. Gregory Pardlo's poetry is a thing of beauty. In his debut collection Totem he put himself on the map as a leading contemporary poet. I would not be surprised if he was named Poet Laureate one day as his work is that good. For a debut collection, Totem rates 4.5 stars, only because I have also read Digest, and Pardlo's work only gets better as time goes by.
Profile Image for Richard.
259 reviews
March 3, 2016
I ordered Pardlo's books when he won the 2015 Pulitzer. Totem is the earlier (2007) volume.

I was stunned by the opening poem, "Landscape with Intervention," five pages of surreal jump-cuts bound by delicate intricacies with broad cultural references both high and low--Rilke and Baudelaire, "Jim Crow," Magritte, graffiti, etc, etc. The poem which follows is a "Totem," one of four in the book, the second in each section. My favorite:

Totem (p 73)
Jasbro Brown

"I flashed tunes, grinning like a new hubcap.
My whistling camouflaged a kiss, riding

"a struggle-buggy up from Huntsville
bound for the Southside rain that came and wet

"puddle basins, made the flagstone finish jet.
Spunk is the surest horse this season, said she.

"And Washington bought his teeth from slaves.
He taught us: smile and the world smiles with you."

or "Sportin' Life" (p 30). Pardlo captures a scene beautifully, gives the reader the view, and, as in "Double-Dutch" (pp 36-37) lets you see and hear the girl jumping rope; it is a lovely poem, worth the book surely, but the book offers much, much more. A late stanza in "Vincent's Shoes" captures the idea:

"But what of the beautiful made thing? It is so
because through it we glimpse
the character of its maker. As in Nature.
Silly Comrade, I hear some grumble.
But the beautiful made thing achieves
utility through the illusion of utility--
through sublimity and the illusion it can be
passed through. . . ."

The book was a joy for me to read, one of those unwonted discoveries. I know I'll return to it frequently.
Profile Image for Charlotte Pence.
Author 12 books28 followers
July 29, 2008
Intelligent, rhythmic, rolling and rollicking, these poems present the unexpected in their verbal flex and force. Pardlo’s lines are physical. Imaginatively compressed. Consider this excerpt from “Suburban Noir:”
… Electric sea-water ripples rec-room windows
in the background through the compound dark
of pine-grove and sun down. Beneath a flood light,
a dog’s bark breaks across the school’s cinder block
where a goal is painted, into which a boy percusses//
an endlessly relived penalty kick.
Combining the emotional intensity of the Greek dythramb with scat singing, Pardlo’s rhythm and unusual use of language pushes the reader onward with ease.

Profile Image for Abby.
1,411 reviews178 followers
July 12, 2016
My husband and I went to hear Gregory Pardlo read his work some months ago. We bought a copy of this book and when he signed it, he wrote on the title page: "Abby & Guion -- Thanks for letting me sleep on your sofa! Gregory Pardlo." Which was amusing, because he never did such a thing. I feel like his poetry strikes much of the same humorous chord--a surprising jest, a beautiful phrase, all coming out of left field. His poem "Double Dutch" is especially memorable to me, because told of a young girl who recited it and won a poetry recitation contest with it. Also, Brenda Hillman is a big fan, so you know he's good. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kent.
Author 5 books23 followers
October 12, 2009
Each of the longer poems opening the four sections of this book are absolutely amazing. They aspire to a depth of insight, and intelligence, and character that cannot ever satisfy an eager reader. I simply wanted the book to go on the way those poems do. But the book doesn't. Aside from these four magnificent poems, the book is flat and uninspiring. These might be strong words, but the poet sets a high bar with these four poems, to the point that the remaining poems feel simply like filler.
1 review
November 9, 2020
I have recently read a poem from Totem titled, Double Dutch, and found it both beautifully written and thoughtful. This young girl has a wild imagination that can take her anywhere, and he depicts that very well throughout the entire poem. I also love the alliteration he uses. Consider this excerpt from Double Dutch:

the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water."

The way he pairs words and phrases together creates a constant flow throughout the poem. He also has an authentic way of brings the reader into the story as if they are right there watching a girl jump rope.
Profile Image for Kat Clyde.
75 reviews1 follower
December 15, 2016
Pardlo's poetry is very very hard to understand. I don't really enjoy poetry that it's absolutely necessary for me to have google and a dictionary at hand so I can interpret, or at least attempt to interpret it. I felt like he was rubbing it in my nose that he's a higher educated person in the poetry field than I every hope to be.
Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews

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