Spectral Evidence: Poems

Knopf. Jan. 2024. 128p. ISBN 9781524731786. $28. POETRY
Drawing parallels between early American witch trials and contemporary racism, Pulitzer winner (for Digest) Pardlo’s third collection explores the concept of self-knowledge by applying a kind of critical self-theory that considers how “spectral evidence”—dangerously false impressions conjured from fear of the Other—influences societal and individual perceptions of gender and race (“stand your ground against a black/ body and the courtroom says amen”). While his social criticism can be sharp, Pardlo recognizes that systemic injustice also requires personal complicity, unconsciously or not (“Just as I own my American way of/ leveling the playing field by separating others from their histories. Not all lives matter in this great republic.”) Unlike much activist poetry, Pardlo’s is infused with a scholar’s deep knowledge of literature, art, and history (“The Marion Devotions”) and a flair for unusual imagery (“With tango arms/ we hold the wedding knife”).
VERDICT Complex, linguistically rich, and unsparing in its analysis of both the current national psyche as well as the poet’s own, Pardlo’s poetry dares to ask: “What if we didn’t define ourselves according to our ability to know ourselves, but by our capacity to relate to others?”
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