Gregory Pardlo


Harvey, your car stereo left rhythm’s tinnitus patting
my head, a diaphanous afro, as I gathered
steam in the glancing shafts of sad and angry light
playing about the purblind alley the idling
cruiser’s fingers drumming alike
each wall, uniform and alleged offender.
An empty lot jagged with the fallout of forties
targeted along the brick glimpsed the familiar
rodeo of arrest. A plastic bag threshed snagged
on a twigged umbrella. I was momentarily
immersed in those resinous moments in a way
I still recall sharp as the pine trees from
the carwash, as if I could set a needle on the ridge
between them—not the pine trees, Harvey, but that vinyl
fermata between memories, lower my eyelids
like a dust cover and let it play. This is where
I begin again in this wasted province before
rowhouses whose dooryards are the street. A block
whited like covered wagons out the verge. A block
away, your stereo continues to train coins of car-
flung beats astride my heels’ hollow drops along the shoveled
walk. Still I’m searching for excuses to celebrate you.
Still searching for the source of the impulse to celebrate.
Yet I loved not you but your attentions thus I sing
myself. And how know the man but for his rhythms?
Your music would make me authentic. So goes the rhythm
so goes the nation. Miss Jackson notwithstanding.
Your music would make me authentic. Each bass beat
shadowed by trill richter I can still hear the car
body chattering as if it were hitting the rumble strips
approaching a toll. Still its absent pulse jacks the fish
seat of the brain where the body is taken in tow
like a Viking burial: police lights lob small
comets at my feet the ground littered with ziplock
dimebags and the origami boxes of General Tso.
I sigh submission to the tide my shoes sniffling
pebbled ice and snow. I can’t help
but keep step with the music. I’m hard
wired for the groove and am the groove the beat absent
mindedly. Harvey, I am the only address
I can reach you: both call and response you
slow the surface of my voice until it casts only
reflections. Like my image in the tinted window
of a parked car reducing to yet another prior self,
the pre-teen of me nested like a Russian doll inside
this memory, holding the shoulder-strapped
recorder with creaking spools I once when
innocent sang I Wanna Get Next To You into as if
packing a little suitcase, working the catches—the words
like shoes too big to fill I pushed them around
the cassette barely knowing what they want, singing
them like someone’s name I didn’t know
I’d gotten wrong. What escapes, the present
it loses sequence as I slip the cuffs the stir-crazed
drama of moments filled with contingency.
Music in the bones they say. In fairness
it is not that the goldfish experiences memory
loss, born to each moment anew, but that
the goldfish is aware of time no more than it is
aware of water. I know these things. I once wore black
canvass shoes with transparent soles the color
of goldfish when I hit house parties with you in 8th
grade. It hurts me to recall. But there it is: Shame
leaning against the closet door each morning whistling
tunes of limitation and regret. Still I live for days
when the metaphorical knotted string on my finger goes absent
as the glasses lost on my grandfather’s forehead and the
earth bears me in a personal surf where the ground
moves like an airport walkway and there could be a camera
on a dolly leading me as sounds of the town meeting
melodies in my head drown out the voice-over maundering
evening’s self-conscious intentions. I’d play the street life
like a ouija board, the dynamic landscape shuttling
the fragmented aural text of our past lives
together. Soundtrack a presence
pervasive as to conceal itself; native and alien
Soundtrack a vanishing point like Aum. Soundtrack
a way of sensing the me that hears me thinking
when I’m thinking ribbons of sound
adorn ash trees and poplars knuckling storm
clouds dragged in a low front. Distant sirens
and the whining muffler of your tricked
out coupe, exhaust pinched like the pitched
raspberry of a deflating balloon. You said time
drags through winter because we slow in our orbit
of the sun days like music from a departing car.
But Harvey, nothing changes when you’re in the car.
True that, you say, but nobody’s in the car there is no car.
Perspective drawing caused a revolution by arresting
the viewer at an unnatural point in reference to some
horizon, you say, but what happens when the horizon swells?
What if the surface was fluid like a river and you was
in it and the experience had no way of reflecting on itself?
Do fish notice tides change? I would think so, Harvey,
my ears pop in midtown elevators.
My neighborhood once felt immense
as a foreign language. Now familiar, it is brief
as a song. Soundtrack, you’ve said, is utter interiority, air
bubble in a field of attention otherwise
tied to the rails of memory and presentiment.
(No, he didn’t use those words. But would it really
have skipped your needle, reader, if he had?) Air
bubbles blown in the public pool having hopped
the fence after curfew. Sing it: Who could
Davy Jones the longest our lean bodies bent like mollusks
twinned in the concrete amnion of water bleaching
color from our shorts? Who could stave off the event
horizon looming inches from our heads like a silver-
paper ceiling longest? Present never was. Soundtrack a fugue
state. Soundtrack a rope-a-dope. Think of the river
a chorus of currents and time signatures, I say.
In the discourse of reason we line currents up like straws so
they appear equal. This way we can see
what happened, a gather of objects, the funereal art,
but what’s hidden is the way events were perceived.
Harvey, you warned the difference between soul and no-
soul is how one follows the beat. No-soul claps on one
and three. Soul takes two and four. It skips my needle
to think of people as haves and have-nots, to think one’s
everlasting hinges on a type of scansion. But there it is. It
don’t mean a thing
…Music and dance mean the same thing
a unity of supposition. Suppose, for instance, our taste for
harmony is just a groping after patterns. Rapture of ten
million monkeys tattooing the keys of their
typewriters symphonically like the cast of Stomp.
Must I organize life according to an alphabet
of clicks and grunts? What use is an anniversary?
What makes the sentence a complete thought and why
would anyone want one? A tune mists a window above
with the drawn and melismatic bath of soul music.
Barking rises like an elm from a distant
yard to punctuate the beat which, after recognizing
the tune, seems somehow louder. Soundtrack a transaction.
Coin in a border territory. Like one day in seven
you return to me. I wish this were not so.
I should not have to know you as what I speak
out of me. Harvey. My inner life emancipated babushka
dolls we exist in the relation we spiral out of each other
like the street performing brothers center
stage of a boom box in Washington Square.
Harvey, I like you with your paunch-too-soon.
You’re a quiet guy. A don’t-start-none kind of guy
when you’re sober. In the car, you pointed out
the convention in Spike Lee films where he shoots
actors from the waist up as they “walk”
without moving their bodies. The actors ride
the same dolly the camera does. The background—
treetops and rooftops—recedes from the camera’s
perspective while the old friends chat unchanged,
static, fixed in our field of vision but for
their gestures of conversation, suggesting a
peacefulness that comes with submission to
nature’s rhythm, omnipresent soundtrack sealing
them safely away from the narrative’s hazards.
To know a moment, you said, we must know
how that moment’s natives appraised the weight of its
future. Was it slouched toward? feared? tedious
as a month of Sundays? Lunar or saturnine
in its gravity? You told me Richard Wright
says the African’s sense of time “oscillated
between the present and the past.” It’s as if
they feel no future you said. Somewhere inside you
must nest an essential circular self, Harvey…
which would be obvious to anyone who has ever
waited to meet you at a scheduled time.
As you spoke I wondered if you saw my lips
were moving. I know that distracts you, Harvey,
but it shows I’m listening. With my lips,
my tongue and my teeth, I beat my thoughts into syllables:
talking drum. Beat box. I make the music with
my mouth. Consider all the melodic options, the available
scales of intonation and yet no language flourishes
without some syncopation and as a result we
perceive perception as chunkified and break-
down-able bits of info affixed in infinite
combinations: the phonetic alphabet a technology
patterned like the primary colored
universe of Lego blocks. The calendar. The work of
Joseph Cornell. I am Germanic grammar cause I think
Germanic grammar where the subject is a constellation
of modifiers and articles boxcarring the way Beethoven
described his creative process: pieces of song
“flying in to attach themselves.” But think of Pound who,
instead of linguistic valences, sought a twinning
in the offing of the East. Pound sought nebulae,
Pound sought Playdough. He knew Brancusi.
He sought Soundtrack.
Money, ain’t shit about you dramatic.
Money, ain’t shit about you germanic.
Ach, du. Harvey. You cool as the piece under your seat
that interrupted me once when it whispered into memory
that moment we’d never share. I thank you for your sixth
sense and your soul-shake that sent me out of the car
before the street got hot. I had no idea, no past
record and you didn’t want to break my luck. Good looking out.
This is all slang is: a pidgin valving surfaces between fishbowls.
But it’s all pidgin, you say.
True that. And we wanted to stand before that connection
unmediated. To break with the old in order to become it.
We called it Soundtrack barely knowing what it wants.
We called it Soundtrack hoping to get ahead of time.
We worked hard at being cool because we’d mis-
defined cool as a kind of concentration, an ability
to affect the future as it occurs. Of course,
this only made us corny.
At least me, Harvey. Although in high school, you were
the A/V guy wheeling carts through the halls
like groceries. But I won’t speak on that.
I’m just saying. And I’ll leave alone the wear
on your pate-too-soon: male pattern: from the French
patron, to mock the father.
And aren’t we that very mockery in word and deed
doomed to stalk the paths they wore to ruts? Soundtrack
delivers the individual from an inherited sense of time
and self-worth, in tune, rather, with the existential swim. Delivers
the individual from the compulsory chronographies of retail
sales and telemarketing and car washes. We worked
at a car wash the summer I first dropped out of college
and I felt the condescension of the BMW driver,
my brown face footballed in his new-polished chrome.
I would imagine Ms. Levertov, from her introduction
to Baca’s Martίn, monotoning like the disembodied
voice of Obi Wan, “next time you see such a figure,
remember it is very possible he is living an inner life
at least as vivid as your own.” And I’d wonder
if she were speaking to me or the driver.
According to the liner notes, Car Wash “may have been
the first motion picture that was ever developed
entirely around the talents of a music producer.”
Imagine a vision preceded by the sound of that vision.
Soundtrack. “Norman Whitfield, the legendary
Motown producer” was that sound. Surely,
he clapped on two and four.
It’s our anniversary, Harvey. On this day in 1996
we fought like brothers in the street. On this date
it is 1996 and I am tending bar. I am on my job, Harvey.
On this day for years now I am on my job
dealing for the ever last with your drunken fisticuffs.
Because my grandfather owns the bar you want
to drink for free. But I’m sorry, Harvey. In this case
you must pay like the others. I have to draw a line,
make a distinction. You hate that, I know. And I’m sorry
I called you Falstaff. I’m a prick. But the truth is
doing the same thing it used to do and the calendar only
grids regret. It doesn’t come back, Harvey, and you’re
gone somewhere Southwest where you went to get
back some form of innocence, folly of follies, to start
over, where they tell me you instead got lost to a crank
habit in a dirty room I imagine you wearing
a pattern in the carpet singing your mother’s church
book like a slave at the wheel, your habit
claiming you frozen over.
They say some fish lay five hundred thousand eggs
and eat many of them. Some survive,
Harvey. Some dance in the sunlight
strobed off winded water and others
do something that approximates dancing
beside the snack table in Tamika’s mom’s
living room. We lived them together. The river
come to this. Sound of the frozen river sleep
shrugging crusts ashore like a floored duvet.

Gregory Pardlo
Poem, copyright © 2005 by Gregory Pardlo
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse