Pulitzer Prize Poet’s new memoir both disturbing and exciting

By Ron Wynn
Nashville Voice

Only a select number of poets have ever won the Pulitzer Prize, and the list of black winners is even shorter.

When Gregory Pardlo won in 2011 for his poetry volume “Digest,” he triggered a fresh wave of interest among readers and poetry lovers worldwide.

But his new book, “Air Traffic – A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America” (Penguin/Random House) focuses as much of the spotlight on his father as on the author.

“Air Traffic” is both a sometimes disturbing, always insightful coming-of-age chronicle and a look at how sudden misfortune can overwhelm and destroy lives and families.

It’s also a tale of the sometimes edgy and uncomfortable relationship between a father and a son, especially when things have been affected by a stunning fall of grace by either party.

Lastly, it also reveals the devastating impact of drug addiction, both on an individual family and on many communities overall, especially in black neighborhoods.

Pardlo’s father was highly intelligent and at one point very popular among his co-workers.

The elder Pardlo was a labor organizer and air traffic controller, a man who defied the odds regarding what blacks weren’t supposed to be able to do in the ’60s and ’70s and had become a very successful figure within the world of aviation.

But that all came crashing down in 1981 when the air traffic controllers gambled that President Reagan wouldn’t dare risk public safety in the air and actually de-certify their union if they ignored the law and went on strike.

The union did and Reagan promptly de-certified them, later allowing only a small number to reclaim their jobs.

The action not only stunned Pardlo’s father, but it also led to a mental and physical breakdown, as well as a descent into drug addiction and the subsequent damage to family finances that is often triggered by the selfish behavior an addict.

The younger Pardlo encounters his own troubles, some caused by the turbulent relationship with his father, and the others immaturity and uncertainty about what direction he should take in life.

The younger Pardlo struggles and scuffles with everything from trying to be a Marine to traveling around the world, then later becoming the manager at a jazz club.

But it’s not until he finally discovers the joys of writing and poetry that e finds something that he both enjoys and gives his life new distinction and quality.

It also helps him navigate increasingly thorny barriers regarding race and class, and decide what paths he wants to follow for the remainder of his life, both personally and professionally.

“Air Traffic” has plenty of troubling, disturbing segments and sequences. It is probing, extremely candid and sometimes controversial in that Pardlo has no problems taking issue with orthodox positions regarding racial identity, gender politics, writing techniques, educational values and other areas.

But it is also rewarding and valuable as it details the eventual triumph of a gifted writer over personal and family demons, and one man finally finding his place in the world after years of turmoil.

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