Sweatshop of the Eye

Perception shapes fear and desire in Gregory Pardlo’s Spectral Evidence.
A painting of Black figures arranged on a chessboard that is covered with various objects, including a pink globe. A rural landscape stretches behind them, leading to a hill from which rays of light beam.

In her celebrated book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), Isabel Wilkerson argues that race is to caste as skin is to bones. This isn’t an entirely new idea. As early as Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon proposed that we think of race as a process of epidermalizing underlying social processes so as to make them legible on the skin—to ultimately be skin. These accounts elaborate a mathematics of Black life, conceptual relationships related to the ledgers, account books, police blotters, charts, graphs, and maps that have made Blackness at once abstract and deadly real since Africans were first kidnapped and transported to the New World in the 16th century.

Poetry, however, gets at something akin to what Audre Lorde called the “marvelous arithmetics of distance,” which, in a 1992 interview, she described as “pragmatic actuality” and “the basic ways in which you combine numbers.” In those combinations—words with words and, if one is lucky, hands in hands, lips with lips, lives with lives—is the very stuff of living. In his recent essay collection Dark Days (2023), Roger Reeves describes the desire to see “something good” that         

could not be accounted for, measured, borrowed against, traded for, sold short, chained, marched from port to pesthouse, coffled, rented out, quartered, sliced, enclosed, leveraged, loaned out, compounded, bought, reduced, spoiled, shuttered, stunted, remanded to the margins, exploited, extracted from, “mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized,” mined, or dynamited into oblivion.

Reeves refers to the film Something Good (1898), which captures what may be the first onscreen kiss between African Americans. That film, preserved by the Library of Congress, engenders an arithmetic of proximity, bound to a fixed time and place in the same way a short poem might be.

The impulse to tend to either the abstract mathematics or local arithmetic of Black life and living are not mutually exclusive. To understand the joy of an embrace between two Black people requires thinking of the tremendous work both had to do to stay unjailed and unkilled on top of the familiar impediments that keep any couple apart. Those two tendencies come together in Spectral Evidence, Gregory Pardlo’s compelling new poetry collection and his first since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Digest (2015). In between, he published Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America (2018). As much as I admire that book, I’m happy to see him return to verse. “My canvas is time,” he writes in his memoir, “and I can’t—don’t want to—approach the thing using its own logic, through the pretense of a single discrete, authoritative position.”

The thing in Spectral Evidence, he writes, is “the legal means by which fear is used to rationalize the persecution of people imagined to be in league with and possessed of supernatural forces.” See, for example, official statements from the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland that ascribed to them supernatural abilities—the strength to run through bullets or the power to disappear. The “social similarities between the violent oppression of Black men and white women at different points in history form an archetypal intersection haunting the mind of Western patriarchy” whose ideal intersection, Pardlo suggests, is “Black women.” Black women, however, appear rarely in this book that’s so concerned with the twin forces of fear and desire evoked by the juxtaposition of Black men and white women.

This would be a significant problem for a book of social theory, but Pardlo’s métier is still the digest—a short report distilling a longer story and the process of converting a story (or food) into usable components. The ways race and gender intersect haunt every incident in the book, and the collection is the better for demurring from larger overarching claims—mathematics—in favor of delighting in and puzzling over the particulars that never quite add up. The opening poem is “The Essay on Faith,” an eight-part suite whose section titles (“exordium,” “narratio,” “propositio,” “partition,” “confirmatio,” “confutation,” “digression,” and “peroratio”) mimic early attempts to make the written work function analogously to a mathematical proof. The exordium, a sonnet, enjoins “Let what interest death’s elbow grease won’t erase / compound” and gathers “my student IDs, my employee / discounts, my almost-winning scratch off,” a list that moves increasingly into the ephemera of tantalizing bourgeois security. It ends on a more ambiguous command: “stay memory, / time’s plagiarist. Stay poem, spare tire for memory.” With commas following “stay,” the command asks the poem to be what remains. Without it, the imperative is to restrain, but given the nautical metaphor that opens the poem—which refers to a life both “sound and seaworthy”—stay could also mean to hold upright.

All of these meanings are at work in subsequent poems that touch on topics ranging from the German physician Franz Mesmer and Brooklyn’s Lafayette Memorial to questions about the nature of perception:

Like the ancient Scythians I believe to see is to send spittle-
like rays that grapple an object’s cosmic
elements and resemble them in the sweatshop
of the eye a process not unlike tasking with
the nose

That the Scythians were fabled equestrians recalls the posture of the Marquis de Lafayette and James Armistead Lafayette, the horse groomsman speculated to be an “enslaved hero spy.” The eye becoming a sweatshop suggests the acknowledged and unacknowledged labor through which the modern republic was formed by and around the prerogatives of capitalist accumulation and value production. But the eye perceives, and perceptions give access to both the beautiful and the conceptual. In “confutation,” Pardlo writes, “No one would body // slam a child, but stand your ground against a Black / body and the courtroom says amen” because the jury doesn’t see a child there at all. After describing a slave code that made imagining the enslaver’s death “a crime / punishable by death,” the speaker of “digression” declares, “I’ve stopped looking for fear // my looking might hurt someone by accident.”

The opening suite sets in motion the weave of aesthetic, historical, and sensual concerns that undergird the whole collection. The poems deploy a broad range of forms and styles, from lyric to concrete-like poems: from “[Sonnet],” which consists largely of a table demonstrating racial bias when medical students and laypeople alike assess pain, to “[Erasure],” which presents a putatively found document from the Annals of the American Academy. One of two poems titled “[Erasure]” presents side-by-side a schematic of Notre Dame Cathedral and the hold of a slave ship, while the other presents what appears to be a report on the “Use of Tasers® by Law Enforcement Agencies.” If there’s an organizing question here, one that purposefully juxtaposes historical and artistic objects by way of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, it is: If the self is a product of historical processes that have deposited “an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory,” then what is the self I know when I know myself? Which stories are mine and which belong to someone else’s madness? And, Pardlo adds, “How can a nation heal if it believes its story is not its own to tell?”

Yet poetry must be better than the sum of its propositions. This is perhaps especially true for this collection, concerned as it is with the ways perception shapes both fear and desire. One of the book’s recurrent personae is the Spanish mystic St. Teresa de Ávila, immortalized in Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and in Pardlo’s poem “Nunsploitation,” in which she occupies a “tabernacle of shame.” The title puts “nuns” where “blax” might be expected, true to the exploration Pardlo promises of the relations between white women and Black men: ecstasy and fear. Pardlo’s Teresa is victim to a “love so consuming her inside song / reached the sistren’s ears,” a reference to her moans while being pierced by a seraph’s fiery spear—which may or may not be a phallus.

Teresa de Ávila returns for “Beauty School Wig Head: The Marion Devotions,” my favorite poem here, whose story of salvage also makes art out of “Dead leaves and papier-mâchéd junk / mail”—the detritus of a culture in which to live we must find a way to make and experience beauty. The poem’s speaker argues that beauty is “not / the muse but the regime” as “The dreamer / is the subject of the dream.” Here, the speaker, aligned with Pardlo, identifies his mother with St. Teresa Ávila in a poem that also invokes the “Shirley card” used to “gover[n] the development of every / Kodacolor print.” (Many of the collection’s enjambments are as precise and rewarding as this one, which surprises with its mundanity as others surprise with their sublimity.) St. Teresa is aligned with Lindsay Lohan and Jane Fonda as Barbarella, whose “tolerance for / ecstasy exceeds” her confessor’s “capacity / to deliver it.” How do we learn, these poems seem to ask, that our worthiness to receive love is connected to our ability to give pleasure? And if the other’s capacity to receive pleasure exceeds our own to give, does that desire (“love is nothing / but transference,” Pardlo writes in another poem) curdle into hatred or rage?

The book’s other recurrent scene is a father and daughter’s Christmastime outing to see Hamilton, the famed Broadway play. Collected under the title “Theater Selfie,” these three poems feature a persona (presumably a thinly disguised Pardlo) who offers different perspectives. The first in the series concludes “How do I prevent my specters / and dreams of childhood from upstaging the child?” This question will be familiar to many parents who both want to fulfill their own fantasies of childhood through their children while also being alert to the singularity of the children they actually have.

Most of the collection’s themes (I have not touched on the several direct references to a history of lynching) converge in a closet drama, another from the “Theater Selfie” set, in which a father and mother—Ginger and Greg—encounter Ms. Cato and Elena, two social workers conducting a home “inspection” related to concerns for Fita, Ginger and Greg’s daughter of “approximately eight years old.” It seems that the neighbors called Child Protective Services to escalate an unrelated complaint. The threat of Child Protective Services removing Black children from their homes hearkens back to an ugly history of children being separated from Black families thought to be (because of prejudice) or made to be (because of murder and incarceration) unsuitable caregivers. In the poem, Greg tells the story of taking his daughter to the opera. She misbehaves in some mundane way; he snaps at her. “I apologized immediately.” That opens out to a squabble between Greg and Ginger about the apportioning of parental responsibility between the “fun” (that is, available for lasting memories) and the mundane (creating an infrastructure of safety, security, and provision against which those memories are of joy rather than terror).

But that’s not the end of the story. Through a plot contrivance, Ms. Cato goes with Ginger and Elena ends up with Greg. She knows him, it turns out, from an A.A. meeting, during which he had told another version of the story. “I notice you left out the part about going all Alec Baldwin on your daughter and screaming at her in front of the ‘rich white folks’ by the fountain,” she says accusingly. One of the lessons of Critical Race Theory, and especially of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s elaboration of intersectionality, is that one is not Black in isolation from other social roles. Rather, Blackness, and the unwieldy history it gathers and indexes, shapes the ways one is a woman, or queer, or an emergent middle-class parent trying to create an experience for his daughter.

What holds this collection together is its quicksilver wit. Pardlo turns from St. Paul demanding that women wear a veil “to protect them from lustful angels” to “God’s extensive / digit bulbing like molten glass” that he got “from Greeks” to the startling conclusion “Thus completes, like a network / of shell companies, the history of qualified / immunity.” In that radically condensed set of associations is a history of Western patriarchal capital, linking the cultural transmission to processes of accumulation, dispossession, and subsequent policing of the dispossessed to a moral code suspended between desire and fear. Spectral evidence of the makings of our world abounds if one can only claim the story as her own and tell it.

Anthony Reed is the author of Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize of the Modern Language Association, and Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke University Press, 2021). He teaches at Vanderbilt University.