The Role He Was Born to Play: Polysemy in the Poetry and Poetics of Gregory Pardlo

by Lauri Ramey, PhD

&Some of the most interesting and exciting verbal and cognitive effects in the poetry of 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo are generated by creative blends, where two or more disparate input spaces are brought into startling conjunction to reveal new meanings not found in either of the domains being compared. Important revelations about Pardlo’s poetry and poetics—as well as African diasporic representations of space, time, and experience—may be discerned from these innovative metaphorical juxtapositions. Pardlo’s poetry uses an exceptional array of forms and styles for varied purposes, including linear and sentimental personal narratives, extended philosophical meditations, ekphrastic poems and still lives, evocations of music, and literary portraits and tributes. “What is the self?” is one of the central questions of Pardlo’s poetics. He frequently uses conceptual integration, which is performed by creative blends, to both raise and try to answer that question. We find plentiful examples of polysemy, double-scope blending, counterfactuals, fictive motion, and compression, among other operations, which enable us to move from intimate to global realms, embodiment to abstraction, and within and outside of time and space.

Here I am going to focus on his talent for producing creative blends that use polysemy—playing with words that have multiple, and often quite different, meanings—as one of Pardlo’s most effective techniques to generate unstable planes of identity, location, and chronology. Creative blends are plentiful in Pardlo’s two collections, where his assymetrical and disjunctive metaphors often use polysemy—itself a type of lexical trickster figure—which can require significant interpretive work to derive sense. An example of one of his creative blends drawing on polysemy is “conjuring away his essence like some bootleg golem,” from the poem “Landscape with Intervention,” the opening poem of his first collection, Totem (2007). We start with an African survival of ghostly spirits in the phrase “conjuring away his essence,” which evokes the conjure man or witch doctor from macumba, Santeria, or voudun, who practices medicine using mystical spiritual practices. The space of this African diasporic belief system is brought into conjunction with the time and place of Prohibition in early 20th century American culture when alcohol was made illegal and the term “bootleg” was popularized. The word “bootleg” plays on the polysemous character of the word “spirits” in its meaning as banned alcoholic beverages. A third space is brought into the creative blend through the incorporation of ancient Jewish mysticism. “Golem” is a mystical anthropomorphic figure, first named in the biblical Psalms, who is mythically created from an inanimate substance. So, to selectively cross-map the relevant features of the spaces, times, and inputs of the domains brought into conjunction, we can understand the blended space to refer to human fears of unsanctioned, otherworldly, forbidden, and potent forces operating in the interstices between embodied anthropomorphism and inanimate substances—the thin line between clay and flesh—and the terror of being deprived of the human spirit through unholy means.

In Pardlo’s verse, polysemy enables us to move seamlessly between what we perceive as literal and figurative realms, which confirms the claims of Mark Turner that there are not different cognitive processes involved in accessing these realms, though we may—through what he calls folk processes—perceive them as fundamentally different. According to Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier, polysemy is “an essential manifestation of the flexibility, adaptability, and richness in meaning potential that lie at the very heart of what a language is and what it is for.” Turner and Fauconnier claim that “most polysemy is invisible,” which makes its recognition a subtle and powerful tool to understand the cognitive complexity of Pardlo’s poetry.

Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context.

By foregrounding this level of creativity which is omnipresent in language use, Pardlo ignites processes that allow us to alternately connect and disconnect time and space, stasis and movement, meaning and mystery, individualism and universalism, and other apparent dichotomies that are constantly melded and separated in the processes of cognition. Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context. The opening poems of both of his collections offer vivid examples of Pardlo’s use of polysemy to initiate and destabilize the decoding process. For two extended examples of how this process takes place, we can turn to the word “role” in “Landscape with Intervention” (Totem) and the word “born” in “Written by Himself” (Digest, 2015).

“Role” is a spectacularly polysemous word with especially important associations in the fields of sociology and theater. In sociological terms, it means one’s purpose or function—the expected set of behaviors for a person’s identity or status, the behavioral patterns that locate an individual in society, one’s set of customary duties, and relational and familial positions. In theatrical terms, it denotes the distinction between an actor and the part or character being played. These definitions gain additional layers of meaning in a racialized context, where “to perform blackness” has both sociological and theatrical implications and associations. These understandings include the racial masking that accompanies double consciousness, and the wearing or adopting of a mask to either foreground or hide blackness.

Consider this excerpt from “Landscape with Intervention” in Pardlo’s strategic employment of multiple senses of the word “role” [my emphasis in the bolded phrases]:

Accordingly, among actors, fathers
encouraged the mingling of identity and act by raising
their sons in dedication

to a single role—the way craftsmen took their trade to be
their name: carpenter, tailor, the ubiquitous
smith—and stack eternal odds in their favor: that the Calvinist
god’s estimation of the man match the quality of that man’s
performance in the role he’d been given. Such piety doubling
as social currency, suggesting an audience of more than
just One. The American

actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, developed a role in the late
1820’s which he dedicated his life to performing. He covered
his white face in burnt cork and dubbed himself “Jim Crow”.
His influence was epidemic.

The first use of “role” in this excerpt—“dedication to a single role”—is sociological and abstract. It refers to an Aristotelian melding of action and identity by positing the capability to choose and perform a specific role in life to which one is dedicated. This process is genealogical and cyclical, as each generation of fathers encourages the mingling of self and performance (identity and act) by “raising their sons in dedication” to a single role. In a Calvinist sense, the successful performance of this single role defines the quality of a man.

The second use of “role”—“man’s performance in the role he’d been given”—is both sociological and theatrical. It suggests the passive receipt of an assigned task or identity, and the virtue of fulfilling that role well, in sociological and/or theatrical terms. In an African American context, where this condition could readily define the expectations for a slave, the double-voicing of this usage of “role” has ominous undertones, leading to the third appearance of “role” in this excerpt.

The third use of “role”—“developed a role”—refers to a particular theatrical part, which in this case, encourages practices of institutional racism by promulgating the minstrelsy, burlesque of black physical appearance, racist stereotyping, and perpetuation of discrimination that were performed in the context of “Jim Crow.” In the blended space, we therefore must cross-map racial, sociological, and theatrical roles to derive meaning. Filial obedience and respect are displayed by choosing a role in life to fulfill successfully. This use of “role” is juxtaposed with the historical conditions of racial discrimination that thrust generations of African Americans into performing the role of the slave, which denied them right to choose their own role in life.

We find a similar process in the opening poem of Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize winning second collection, Digest, which offers us at least fourteen different uses and senses of the phrase “I was born,” and polysemous meanings of the word “born,” in this single-stanza poem whose title alludes to the common subtitle for slave narratives, “Written by Himself.”

As a few examples of Pardlo’s powerful manipulation of the multiple senses of the word “born” and phrase “I was born,” the poem opens with “I was born in minutes” (l. 1), which suggests the physical act of the speaker’s own birth. In “I was born to rainwater and lye,” “born” refers to the life that awaited the speaker, where even the bathing practices were rough. “I was born across the river” (l. 3) describes the geographical location of the speaker’s place of birth. “I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry” [l. 12] describes the speaker’s birth as a slave in antebellum America by referring to the accounting documentation of slaves by their “owners.” The examples proliferate from line to line. As the poem develops, we make sense of the polysemy by recognizing that the speaker was born to a family legacy, a history of African American struggle, a place in American history, and an identity as a self-defining and self-articulating individual through the mechanism of language.

Through his use of polysemy, what is Pardlo blending? He employs the creativity that is integral to language to produce poems that examine multiple possibilities, foreclose few, and open what is most painfully revealed. In the context of African diasporic and African American experience, geography, identity, and history, Pardlo’s use of the words “role” and “born” provide resonant correspondence by evoking the phrases “the role one was born for” and “born for a role.” Each phrase carries with it a burden and an opportunity; we are graced by the poetry of Gregory Pardlo to be faced with the terror and beauty of both.


Notes and Works Cited

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. “Polysemy and Conceptual Blending.” In Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language, ed. Brigitte Nerlich, Vimala Herman, Zazie Todd, and David Clarke. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003, 79-94: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/turner-polysemy.pdf, accessed June 2, 2017.

Pardlo, Gregory. Digest. New York: Four Way Books, 2015.

—————. Totem. Philadelphia: The American Poetry Review, 2007.

For a helpful summary of the key processes and concepts of blending, see the entry by Gilles Fauconnier for The Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, accessed on May 31, 2017:  http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~faucon/BEIJING/blending.pdf


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompts


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Dr. Lauri Ramey is the Xiaoxiang Scholar Program Distinguished Professor at Hunan Normal University in China, and founding director of the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics at California State University, Los Angeles. Her books include What I Say (University of Alabama Press, 2015), The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1962–1975 (Routledge, 2012), Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone (2006).

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