The Fulton St. Foodtown is playing Motown and I’m surprised
at how quickly my daughter picks up the tune. And soon
the two of us, plowing rows of goods steeped in fructose
under light thick as corn oil, are singing Baby,
I need your lovin, unconscious of the lyrics’ foreboding.
My happy child riding high in the shopping cart as if she’s
cruising the polished aisles on a tractor laden with imperishable
foodstuffs. Her cornball father enthusiastically prompting
with spins and flourishes and the double-barrel fingers
of the gunslinger’s pose. But we hear it as we round the rice
and Goya aisle, that other music, the familiar exchange of anger,
the war drums of parent and child. The boy wants, what, to be
carried? to eat the snacks right from his mother’s basket?
What does it matter, he is making a scene. With no self-interest
beyond the pleasure of replacing wonder with wonder, my daughter
asks me to name the boy’s offense. I offer to buy her ice cream.
How can I admit recognizing the portrait of fear the mother’s face
performs, the inherited terror of non-conformity frosted with the fear
of being thought disrespected by, or lacking the will to discipline
one’s child? How can I account for both the cultural and the inter-
cultural? The boy’s cries rising like hosannas as the mother’s purse
falls from her shoulder. Her missed step from the ledge
of one of her stilted heels, passion loosed with each displaced
hairpin. His little jacket bunched at the collar where she has worked
the marionette. Later, when I’m placing groceries on the conveyor
belt and it is clear I’ve forgotten the ice cream, my daughter
tries her hand at this new algorithm of love, each word
punctuated by her little fist: boy, she commands, didn’t I tell you?
About Gregory Pardlo
Gregory Pardlo’s first book, Totem, was chosen by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review / Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. A finalist for the Essence Magazine Literary Award in poetry, he is 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 currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at George Washington University.
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Author photo © Jay Franco. “Problema 3” © Gregory Pardlo. This poem originally appeared on the Pen American Center site and was reprinted with permission by the author.