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A Poet’s Memoir Explores Race, Addiction and a Fraught Father-Son Dynamic

The topic of race is never far, though Pardlo appears conflicted. He asserts he isn’t a “practicing black,” but also says: “I don’t want to be considered American to the exclusion of my African-Americanness. I don’t want to be considered post-black or ex-colored.”

Those statements beg deeper explication. And there are other moments that would have benefited from a more sustained investigation. For example, he reveals he wants to “reinvent America … forgive us our history of slavery, and the crackpot invention of race.” Later, he mentions a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but doesn’t expound on the role it may have played in his personal trials. The lack of reflection and omissions often seem calculated, as if Pardlo plans to revisit these subjects in future work.

One hopes too that he’ll come to terms with the emotional legacy of a proud and overbearing father who could never find it in himself to offer his son unconditional praise. When Pardlo won the Pulitzer, his father texted him, “When a Roman general conquered a town, Cesar [sic] would send a slave to ride alongside the general in the victory parade, and remind the general that he was only human.”

Pardlo is perhaps most vulnerable and incisive on the topic of addiction. He acknowledges his grandparents’ struggle with alcoholism, reflects on his father’s and brother’s fights with substance abuse and his own decades-long battle. To save Pardlo’s brother, Robbie, the family once appeared on the docudrama “Intervention.” At the time of the taping, Pardlo was drinking himself to blackout. The intervention didn’t work on his brother, but did inspire Pardlo’s sobriety. “Because it is eternal,” he writes, “alcoholism is the closest thing I have to religion.”

A runner-up might be literature, or, in a broader sense, art. “Somewhere in the rusty catacombs of my mind lies the belief that great art requires great sacrifice, and a hope that there are artists presently on earth capable of making such sacrifices,” he writes.

His father died in 2016, and never read the most recent art Pardlo made about their lives. Had he lived long enough to read “Air Traffic,” one hopes he could have seen past his hubris and their strained relations to offer what might be Pardlo’s most coveted review: Well done, son. You did good.

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