Completely Subjective: Gregory Pardlo’s “Wishing Well”
New York City happens to be one of my favorite places on this earth; I have a certain fondness for cities in general. While I love the atmosphere cities provide though, there are some negatives when it comes to the people themselves. Cities, especially New York City, tend to get a bad reputation considering the issue of human relations and how interactive the people are with one another. The problem is: they’re not very interactive with one another. City streets are filled with people rushing to get to wherever they are going, pushing past strangers with their heads down, looking at their phones, picking up their paces when they pass anyone trying to hand out flyers because they don’t want to be bothered by another human. This issue seems to resonate with others as well, including Gregory Pardlo, author of “Wishing Well”, a poem which succeeds in capturing this lack of human interaction and highlights the isolated space that we have allowed to grow and settle around us.
Originally published in the 86th issue of Drexel University’s, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gregory Pardlo’s “Wishing Well”, although republished in the 2014 edition of Best American Poetry, is one of Pardlo’s relatively unknown poems. Searches for Pardlo show titles such as “Written by Himself”, “Double Dutch” and “For Which it Stands”, but no mention of “Wishing Well”. I found this odd because as soon as I read it, I was impacted. I felt as if Pardlo had discovered exactly what it meant to be alone and distant from the contact of others––that he just knows, and can tap into that unconscious yearning for the missing human interaction.
What impacted me initially was the imagery used by Pardlo that painted pictures of New York City in my mind, creating a sense of urban comfort. I feel at home in New York City, and like most people in Darien, I refer to it as “The City”, assuming everyone knows which city I am talking about. After doing some research, I discovered that Pardlo was born in Philadelphia, and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children. The memories that he created living in these large cities have transferred into the poetry he writes. As I read “Wishing Well”, I could see the Metropolitan museum––standing tall in the upper east side, especially since I just visited it on a rainy day over this past summer––the sand from Rockaway beach, specifically mentioned by Pardlo, and the autumn breeze blowing through Central Park. No reference to the city felt forced, but I could tell that that was the picture Pardlo wanted and needed the reader to see in their minds as they read his writing. Without the specifics of the city environment, the poem would lose its personal meaning to Pardlo. Poetry Foundation describes his language as “simultaneously urban and highbrow”, including “snapshots of a life that is so specific it becomes universal”. I could tell that Pardlo needed the urban setting to come across to his readers in order to feel the full effect of his writing. As I continued to read, I felt that I was becoming part of the story that he wanted to tell, a story that took place in New York City––a place that clearly meant a lot to him.
Although cell phones are not mentioned by Pardlo, we can get the sense that the way technology has advanced in New York City, has inflicted detrimental damage upon the people. The speaker sits alone at the foot of a fountain at The Met, smoking an ecigarette, avoiding any contact with anybody. The places Pardlo uses to set up the poem’s environment work well to contrast the idea of what these places once were, to the idea of what they have become. Central park, once a place where strangers talked to strangers, sitting on quaint, wooden benches while watching the autumn leaves fall off the trees, now became a place where people could hide and avoid this human interaction, and so did The Met, Rockaway Beach, etc.
Human interaction is what I believe, Pardlo’s “Wishing Will” is really about. At first glance, this poem feels like something ordinary, and almost gives off an air that it is trying too hard to be ‘mainstream’ with its mention of hotboxing, and ecigarettes, but in actuality, this poem hit me in a powerful way. The poem consists of two men, who by chance, interact at the fountain outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At first, the speaker sees this stranger approaching him, and he is quick to size him up and judge based on his appearance. He makes note of his “heel-chewed hems” of the man’s pants, and assumes that he is either out to ask him for a smoke, or 50 cents. The speaker is quickly proved wrong, when the stranger decides to make a wish in the well outside the Met, and includes a wish for the second man as well. They clasp hands, and in that moment, the first man who had previously been sitting by the well by himself, judging this stranger, finds himself unable to let go of his hand. We spend so much of our lives trying to hide from and avoid human interaction, even though that is what we crave deep inside, because we are afraid to be hurt. We are vulnerable creatures, but humans like to pretend to be things they are not, and so we continue sitting by wells, judging others from a distance, until someone reaches across, touches our hand, and makes us realize how hard it is to let go.
When I came to the closing sentences of “Wishing Well”, I felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. I sat there breathlessly staring at my hands, which were shaking slightly, confused at my reaction. It felt painful, when the strange man with the ragged pants says “let go” and the man sitting outside of the met can only tighten his grip. With a simple union of their hands, they form an otherworldly bond that leaves the speaker literally coughing up “daylight”, as if he has been traveling through the dark alone up until this moment. Because of the mention of “hotboxing” at the beginning, I got the sense that maybe the speaker is high. If he is high, this experience holds more value because it is literally pulling him out of his drug induced haze, and bringing him into the real world where he actually has to interact with other human beings. For the speaker, this interaction is too much, and leaves him aware of his lonely state and only wanting more. We also see that “[he] hotbox[es] alone” to “cozy the truculence”. When I looked up “truculence”, I discovered that it was defined as a state of harsh or destructive aggression. Is the speaker trying to get at the fact that he smokes to dull the sense of pain he felt alone, a pain that could be self imposed due to his isolation as well as self-destructive? As I came to to like this interpretation, I came to think of the stranger as an eye opener to the speaker, who shows him what the world can be like when you’re not alone, and his touch, an antidote to this sense of truculence.