Self-Inventory: On Gregory Pardlo’s “Spectral Evidence”

By Katie BertaFebruary 1, 2024

Self-Inventory: On Gregory Pardlo’s “Spectral Evidence”

Spectral Evidence by Gregory Pardlo

SPECTRAL EVIDENCE (2024), Gregory Pardlo’s exceptional third collection of poems, brilliantly explicates the way the mind is culturally programmed to deal with otherness by projecting racist and sexist fears onto that other. In the book’s intro, he describes Freud’s “Wolf Man” case study, in which his patient “dreamed of ‘six or seven’ white wolves in a tree outside his window […] Why six or seven? Freud wondered, as if his patient should know exactly how many wolves there were in that dream-tree.” Freud, who seemed so certain of his objectivity, feels quaint to us now (his literalistic interpretations of dreams and his need to prove that his field was scientific, not subjective, are anachronisms in the field he helped birth). Dreams, for Freud, are evidence for what he believes exists in the mind of the Other. Encountering the Other, Freud would interpret that evidence—but from his own perspective, and wildly. What “evidence,” asks Pardlo, do we treat that way now?

Spectral evidence, Pardlo’s central metaphor, was a legal term that referred to, he explains,

witness testimony that [an] accused person’s spirit […] appeared to [the] witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location. It was accepted in the courts during the Salem Witch Trials […] on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits […] to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.

As in Freud’s practice, dreams were interpreted by colonists with pseudoscientific precision. “Wake up in a cold sweat?” Pardlo quips:

That was the devil dragging a chilly finger down your spine while you slept. […] Even if that did look like your father on horseback in your dream chasing you across the high-school football field cracking a leather belt like a whip […] it was actually the devil. Unfortunately, back then, this also would have meant that your poor benighted father had sold his soul to the devil and, to be on the safe side, you should probably press charges.

Pardlo argues that we are still inventing evidence in contemporary contexts. Specifically, he is concerned with two forms of projection central to the past and present of American life. First, he considers patriarchy’s projections onto women, as in the witch trials, but also in the context of broader historical and present-day objectification of women. Second, and more centrally, Pardlo considers the projection of racist assumptions, especially fears, onto the minds, bodies, even faces of Black Americans. He offers the example of Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown, before Wilson killed Brown: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.” The spectral “evidence” of the witch trials and the emotional “evidence” of a police officer’s fear are used to move the extrajudicial judgment of the prejudiced individual into the purview of the law.

As Pardlo writes, “This book is about 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.” But it’s also about how the mind works—specifically, the way we externalize our beliefs, expectations, and biases about others naturalistically. That is, we externalize them in ways that are invisible to us, that hide that those projections are products of the “unproductive mental habits that exist in [us] like colonies of bacteria.” Projection, an idea originally introduced by who else but Freud, is a defense mechanism—one in which the projector deals with alterity, otherness, by making what’s inside outside. What, then, are white Americans defending against when they see the face of the other as “aggressive,” “demonic”? What we dream of the other, we see on their face.

Pardlo introduces these ideas in poems that span the systemic and the personal. For instance, in “[Sonnet],” he presents a table titled “Racial bias in pain assessment,” which catalogs misbeliefs of white laypersons, medical students, and residents, including many beliefs that must substantially affect Black patients’ medical treatment, like “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites’” or “Blacks’ skin is thicker than whites’.” In another “[Sonnet],” the Council on Science and Public Health describes “excited delirium,” a “widely accepted entity in forensic pathology” that explains “the sudden in-custody deaths of individuals who are combative and in a highly agitated state.” The phenomenon is not acknowledged by the medical establishment, and notably, though the report describes those with excited delirium exhibiting both “great strength” and “imperviousness to pain,” it fails to explain how the sufferers could report on their experience of pain after their “sudden in-custody deaths.”

These sonnets are presented without comment; the reader is left to understand them based on context. They are reflections of the white imagination codified, medicalized, and inscribed onto Black bodies. They reveal not just the effects these comments have on the rights and self-determination of women and Black people but also the dangerous ways that one sees as one is primed to see—and how these words prime others to see the same way. Both these medical texts show us the systemic manifestations of the intimately described encounters with white imaginations that Pardlo’s speaker experiences at other points in the collection.

Race itself often becomes what is spectral in these encounters, set, as they are, in a country shaped by its citizens’ relationships to race, but which requires those citizens to ignore race’s ghostly presence. In “Question and Answer,” for instance, Pardlo details a post-reading Q and A during which a man asks him whether he feels guilty “exploiting former selves for poems.” Pardlo hears “former slaves”: “The present is enslaved to the past, I said […] / It’s the past that runs the plantation.” The man responds, “Does this have to be about race? I mean, / it’s like […] your story was never yours to tell.” What the poem’s speaker wants to pull out of subtext, the questioner wants to tamp back down.

In the long poem that follows, “Know Yourselves,” Pardlo unpacks the interaction, wondering whether “‘former selves’ [is] a euphemism for something.” Could it be “another way of saying ‘imagination,’ the voice of an awareness that I’ve trained myself to ignore?” he wonders. Pardlo recounts: “Antonio Gramsci believed everybody should take a self-inventory. He said this was the starting point for developing a critical awareness of the world because history ‘deposits an infinity of traces’ in each of us ‘without leaving an inventory.’”

Pardlo uses Gramsci to think about the traces our personal histories leave, yes, but also the larger legacies of our collective history, which raises the question: “What if my former selves are neither innocent nor helpless? Apparitions, they haunt me from the open graves of people’s mouths and try to repossess me, drag me back to their old habits of mind.” For Pardlo, this self-examination, this self-knowledge, is resistance to those societal forces and white institutions that might claim to know or define him: “One of the many aspects of racism is the belief, however subconsciously, that racialized people are incapable of self-knowledge and can only be known.” Pardlo’s poems insist on acknowledging his inheritance: “The student was trying to prevent me from using my own experience as evidence,” Pardlo writes toward the end of the poem, an “American way of leveling the playing field by separating others from their histories.”

Three poems called “Theater Selfie” appear throughout the book and contain more of these unsettling interactions—microaggressions in which neither the aggressor nor the aggressed explicitly acknowledges how the interaction is racialized. In one of these poems, a disgruntled neighbor calls Child Protective Services on a family and it becomes clear that their class status won’t save them from unfair racial scrutiny. In another episode of the series, a ticket seller only just stops himself from saying that the poem’s speaker can’t afford tickets to Hamilton. The teller is mortified and fearful, but the speaker, “[a]s one trained in this hackneyed improv,” smooths over the interaction:

[…] You got kids? I asked.
He nodded […]
What are you gunna do, huh? I laughed. It’s like, what do you want
from me? Am I right? And he mirrored me, shaking his head:
The things we do. He asked if I could bring my kid next Tuesday.
Hells yeah, I said, careful to stay in character.

In each of these poems, a transparent conversation isn’t possible. Racialization must be repressed rather than acknowledged. In the case of the CPS visit, the father attempts to respond honestly, but the agent only replies, “[Y]ou have to admit things are better today than they were generations ago.” Honesty is thwarted by her inability to acknowledge that their relationship is shaped by race.

Pardlo’s vivid memory and sprawling knowledge—of history, art, and religion—means he has ample material from which to draw, deepening his observations and expanding their context. In poems like “The Marion Devotions,” the speaker scrutinizes the ways, he, too, is primed to see others through the lens of his own beliefs. He considers his own racialized relationship to beauty and femininity. What does it mean, he asks, to make art when art is concerned with beauty, and beauty is what “the majority culture calls conventional,” when beauty is “not the muse but the regime”? The long poem considers beauty and art from a variety of perspectives—by thinking about the statue of Teresa of Ávila by Bernini and its memeification as a counterpart to the 2007 photo of a passed-out Lindsay Lohan, the Shirley card (a “tuning” instrument that photo “[t]echnicians used / […] to ‘correct’ colors in the photo- / finishing process,” notorious for distorting the appearance of Black skin), and a nude photo of the speaker’s mother in which she held “a sword / gripped, tip-down in a posture/of surrender.”

“This was not my mother, / unless the staging was her / idea,” Pardlo writes, echoing the collection’s most potent theme: the self in the imagination of the other isn’t the self at all, but a reflection of that other’s imagination, a projection. As the speaker says of the photo, “women in art often / represent everything but themselves.” As the primary artist here, Pardlo the poet wonders how much of this he has inherited. “I can’t imagine / my mother’s inner life,” he writes, “not because she’s a woman, / but because the fiction / of her I have inherited / cannot imagine / me.”

This is the success of Spectral Evidence: Pardlo’s sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and insistence on an embodied (distinctly not spectral) treatment of race and womanhood. It is not just a book about racialized/gendered violence and its inheritance. It is not just about our national identity and the ways it is bound up in that violence. Spectral Evidence is about the self, the way it works, and the ways these histories are inscribed upon it. Searching the self for these histories, making a “self-inventory” of the “unproductive mental habits that exist in [us] like colonies of bacteria,” makes it more possible to reject them. As Pardlo writes at the end of “The Marion Devotions,” this is his project: to “summon my love for what,” he supposes, “by beauty I must mean / all that is woman in me.

LARB Contributor

Katie Berta’s debut poetry collection, retribution forthcoming, won the Hollis Summers Prize and will be published by Ohio University Press in 2024. Her poems have appeared in PloughsharesThe Cincinnati ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and The Yale Review, among other magazines. She has received residencies from Millay Arts, Ragdale, and the Hambidge Center; fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing; and an Iowa Review Award. She is the managing editor of The Iowa Review and teaches literary editing and poetry at the University of Iowa and Arizona State University. 


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