The Chronicle Review

Monday's Poem: 'Spirit of St. Louis,' by Gregory Pardlo

October 09, 2011

Ginger had to make a shaky craft of her paycheck

to bear me across the sea. This was the spring

of autobiographies, among them Lindbergh's We,

account of the pilot who trained the pinwheel

of his mind to weather every contingency, famously

nodding against the windowless dash of the cockpit,

blitz and pepper of North Atlantic drumming the flanks

that would frag like a lure in the conniptive night, Lindy

flying blind to his future. My mother-in-law disapproves

of my digressions. No wonder she dismissed the thought

her daughter's "we" might mean her and me, and not

her and her. "We" is then the story, also, of how

I found myself on a lover's get-away, early in our courtship,

with Ginger and her mother. When a grown daughter

announces, "we are going to Paris," many mothers would

wish her bon voyage. When Lindbergh announced,

"we are going to Paris," women began to gossip and jockey

until he explained he meant himself and his beloved

plane. Rather than tell Mom she couldn't go, Ginger

bought her a ticket. There I am, zombie-eyed haunt

of a boyfriend, having carried shopping bags through rues

and arrondissements, hostage and exile, contorted

to the hotel cot. A dragnet of failed assumptions, "we"

often agents the motley fonts of ransom notes.

"Crime of the Century," they called it. After truckers found

the rag and bone remains of his infant son, a spritely mote

ditched in the North Atlantic of his eye and Lindbergh

embarked on a barnstorming tour of Europe: affairs

with three women outside his marriage who collectively

bore Lindy a legion of we, his attempt to regain esprit

de corps. After Ginger's father left his wife and girls

the human male grew spectral in their eyes; a man thins

to a flickering projection when he wanders into the dense

weather of their ken. Relaying her location into a cell

phone now Ginger uses first person singular as if to say,

"We are both alone in our journeys, Mother," even when

I'm driving the car. I feel petty a pronoun makes me fear

she will walk out on the newsreel of my life to take a call

in the lobby, cupping brightness at her cheek up the aisle.

There she is, drenched in a wreckage of light the day she

kisses me beside the crepe stand desperately enough I almost

believe I matter though I know she is holding on to a ghost.

© by Gregory Pardlo. Printed by permission of the author.

Gregory Pardlo's first book, Totem, was chosen by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Nation, and Ploughshares, and in The Best American Poetry 2010.

A finalist for Essence magazine's literary award in poetry, he is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received other fellowships from The New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, the Lotos Club Foundation, and Cave Canem. Pardlo is an assistant professor of creative writing at George Washington University and poetry book review editor of Callaloo. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Chronicle Review's poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar of the University of Virginia, notes:

Gregory Pardlo, whom the poet Major Jackson calls an "American metaphysician," makes poems that are at once edgily streetwise and daringly learned, intensely solo and thrillingly plural in their preoccupations. Howard Nemerov once wrote that most poets "start out Emily and wind up Walt," but Pardlo is heir both to Whitman, afoot with his visions, and Dickinson, with her "Campaign inscrutable / of the Interior." His is a poetics of diverse and wide-ranging influences, and his mode is allusive and contrapuntal, often double-, triple-, and quadrupally-dutching ropes of history, culture (visual art, music, film—one is as likely to find echoes of Yeats in his work as the bluesman Jazbo Brown, Falstaff as Miles Davis, the poets Chris Gilbert or Michael Harper as Vincent Van Gogh or "Mister Softee on the olio"), memory, and a legion of other peeps and samplings and shout-outs, masks and personae, all sometimes anachronistically mashed up over a rich soundtrack plundering the psychological, vocal, somatic, and literary acoustics of selfhood and identity. Witty, layered, complex, Pardlo's poems take up issues of the American self: the "I" and the "You," specular and vexed.

In "Spirit of St. Louis," a new poem, Pardlo brings together biographical details from the lives of Ginger Rogers and Charles Lindbergh to further explore his fascination with cultural overlap and irony; with American and domestic and celebrity personae; and with, again, the feats by which we fabricate a sense of ourselves from our memories, wounds, and ambitions. In particular, the poem, narrated by a former lover of Rogers, entertains notions of the "shaky craft" of self in tense relation to and within its familial and public contexts.

The present tense of the poem is 1927, in a spell between the World Wars and before the Great Depression that allowed for a burgeoning of celebrity culture and of American bravado. "This was the spring / of autobiographies," the narrator proclaims (Helen Keller and Isadora Duncan also published autobiographies that year), "among them Lindbergh's We, / account of the pilot who trained the pinwheel / of his mind to weather every contingency, famously / nodding against the windowless dash of the cockpit, / blitz and pepper of North Atlantic drumming the flanks / that would frag like a lure in the conniptive night, Lindy / flying blind to his future." The "We" here refers to a self-promoting memoir, published a mere two months after Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, catapulted him into international notoriety. But the pronoun "we" is, of course, at the heart of the American project—E pluribus unum—and Pardlo's poem is a cascade, a riff, on what it means to belong to a "we" and at the same time to a self—even to an utter isolation created by fear, tragedy, and perhaps the simple fact of being bound inside a body.

Ironies abound as our narrator, hoping for a romantic tête-à-tête with Ginger in Paris, is instead relegated to the role of third-wheel luggage carrier, "hostage and exile, contorted / to the hotel cot":

My mother-in-law disapproves

of my digressions. No wonder she dismissed the thought

her daughter's "we" might mean her and me, and not

her and her. "We" is then the story, also, of how

I found myself on a lover's get-away, early in our courtship,

with Ginger and her mother.

Lindbergh, too, presents a vexing notion of "we":

When Lindberg announced,

"we are going to Paris," women began to gossip and jockey

until he explained he meant himself and his beloved

plane.

But at stake in these threaded, juxtaposed narratives of two iconic American celebrities, delivered by Pardlo's narrator in a kind of breezy tinseltown voice intensified by Pardlo's lyricism, is not just a big-screen comedy of errors or narcissistic "dragnet of failed assumptions." There are terrible subtexts, including the kidnapping and murder of a real hostage, Lindbergh's infant son, and Rogers's own embattled relationship with her father, who tried to kidnap her twice as a girl before abandoning the family altogether. These rupturing tragedies cause both Lindbergh and Rogers to lead fugue-state lives, often fleeing from America to Europe, where, after his son's death, Lindbergh fathers a number of children out of wedlock by three different women, and Rogers retreats into an illusion of family, dominated by her mother and stalked by an absent man.

Standing in for and speaking out of this absence, of course, is the poem's narrator, who feels himself a filmic, "flickering projection," effaced by the interwoven dramas he relays. Further ghosting Pardlo's text are other ironic valances—the fact, for instance, that Ginger Rogers would later date James Stewart, who portrays Lindbergh in a film called The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and that she also appears (with Stewart) in a film called Vivacious Lady (1938), in which Rogers portrays, in effect, a "secret wife."

Something marvelous and anachronistic happens at the end of Pardlo's poem; narrator and poet appear to conflate and the years to merge into a "now" of cellphones and an intensified desperation as Rogers comes off the screen and up the aisle of the poem, the imagination, threatening to leave even legend and notoriety behind. Pardlo suggests here that the fictions of self others present to us help us to cohere, even when we know them to be fantasies and projections, plural and contradictory. The lusty, hopeful "spirit" signaled by the first word of the title is transformed by the poem's last word to the haunted "ghost" that is all that we can and must sometimes be to one another. That Pardlo illuminates this truth in such vividly evoked and interpenetrating private and theatrical realms owes to the agile, intelligent connectivity and compassion of his imagination.

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