On Gregory Pardlo’s “Allegory”
Gregory Pardlo’ poem, “Allegory” (2021) retells the story of Owen Hart’s tragic death during a live pay-per-view event in Kansas City twenty-three years ago. Hart, the youngest son a famed pro wrestling family from Calgary, portrayed several wrestler personas, both ‘bad guys’ and fan favorites, throughout his career. At the time of his death, he was wrestling under the moniker The Blue Blazer, a cheesy, masked superhero-like character. He was scheduled to fight The Godfather for the Intercontinental Championship. As he was rappelling down from the rafters, the safety harness opened. Only those present in the audience witnessed the fall. Those of us watching the pay per view heard lead announcer Jim Ross say: “…something went terribly wrong here…This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight…This is as real as real can be here.”
Mark Henry, a retired pro wrestler and Olympic gold medalist, wrote a poem for Owen after he died. There’s a YouTube video of him reading the piece whilst fighting back tears. It’s not a very good poem— “When Owen left it felt like hands around my throat / I couldn’t talk. / I couldn’t see. / The burn overwhelmed me” (Mr WildChild 01 2020). It is, however, one of the most affecting poetry readings I’ve ever witnessed. The occasion, you could say, allowed Henry to get away with a less than stellar piece of writing.
Pro wrestling, as a performance form situated at the intersection of sport and theatre (Mazer 1998), allows for practitioners to get away with a bunch of things: bad acting, clichéd tropes and storylines, which are often designed to feed off and feed into some of the worst ideological strains in American society, as pertains to race, class, nation, gender etc. The one thing, perhaps, wrestlers can’t get away with is going through the motions; appearing disengaged with the performance. Wrestlers, above anything, are supposed to act like they care about what they’re doing (Smith 2014). What they’re doing is slamming their bodies against one another, putting their hands around each other’s throat. At times, the action in the ring can look as real as real can be. But, for the most part, it looks choreographed, staged. Which is, at least for me, the point of pro wrestling: it is a performance of care, a staging of trust in a context of considerable—and ever growing—real life risk. In their motion, performers seem to ask one another: Can I trust you with my body as we will our bodies into violent, brutal contact with each other?
Part of wrestling’s allure is that because the action in the ring is coordinated [faked], audiences are accustomed to seeing their favorite wrestlers bounce back up, triumph over insurmountable odds. As such, many of us expected Owen to get up and wrestle the Godfather. Or to return in the next live television broadcast.
This is how Pardlo describes Owen’s fall:
...Like a great tent collapsing
he fell without warning, no hoverboard, no humming-
bird’s finesse for the illusion of flight, no suspension
of disbelief to hammock his burden—the birth of virtue—
in its virtual reality. His angelic entrance eclipsed
when his safety harness failed. He fell out of the ersatz
like a waxwing duped by infinities conjured in a squeegee’s
Like a great tent collapsing?
Like a waxwing duped in a squeegee’s mirage?
Pardlo’s similes leave me guessing. What do poems owe their subjects?
Though it tells a story of his death, “Allegory”—as the title would suggest—points elsewhere. The poem wants to impart a lesson about the foolishness of certain men, and of the people who file into stadiums and coliseums and school gymnasiums and bingo halls to see them do foolish things. It is a lesson, perhaps, about how gullible a man can be, or about personal revelations which, sadly, are too late to arrive—and which come at too high a cost. The poet writes of the wrestler falling: “I’d like to think / that, freed of self-hype, he realized his mask was not a shield.”
The problem is that the poem’s apparent lesson doesn’t fit within the context and circumstance its author has chosen for it. The wrestler knows what he’s in for: the work that goes into the illusion, the danger implicit in the work. The wrestler knows his mask is not a shield. The wrestler knows the only thing remotely close to a shield in wrestling is the caring its practitioners commit to. One could argue that there is no serious consideration of wrestling absent of a sincere engagement with its underlying ethos of care. And the poet, here, gives us nothing in the way of caring. To this extent, the poem is written as if there was nothing further to know about neither the performance nor the performer.
Owen was married.
Owen was a father of four.
Owen was/is considered one of the finest practitioners of his craft.
Owen was Mark Henry’s friend.
This is not how you’re supposed to write a critical response to a poem. Perhaps I am a better wrestling fan than I am a poetry critic. Still, I can’t help but wonder: What does the poem owe Owen?
A poem owes it subject—especially if the subject of the poem is another man falling—to not hold the lesson in the fall above the fact of the fall. A poem owes its subject to stick with it or to it. A poem should read, perhaps, like the body of a friend in mourning reading a poem for his dead friend. Henry’s poem, again, is not a particularly good poem, but the fact of the loss—the fact that the loss has just taken place—allows for the poem to memorably convey, in the moment of its enunciation, what its words do not, in and of themselves, communicate with any discernible mastery: “When Owen left it felt like hands around my throat / I couldn’t talk./ I couldn’t see. / The burn overwhelmed me.”
A poem, you could say, owes its subject trust in its handling. In the case of “Allegory,” this does not imply that the poem must mourn Hart. Nor does it mean that the poem must know pro wrestling. But it should not act upon a claim to know more than Hart himself knew of his craft, nor to know better than the fans crowded in the coliseum wishing—even expecting—that Hart would get up. Pardlo closes the poem:
…E.M.Ts like evangelicals huddled to jolt
the hub of Hart’s radiating soul as fans prayed the stunt
might yet parade the emperor’s threads wrestlers call kayfabe.
Kayfabe, a dialect of pig Latin, lingo for the promise to drop
at the laying on of hands. To take myth as history. Semblance
as creed. A grift so convincing one might easily believe
it could work without someone else pulling the strings. (14-20)
Parade the emperor’s threads?
Someone else pulling the strings?
If these are the images of choice in a text about a man falling to his death because the safety equipment malfunctioned, the occasion, I would argue, seems to have gotten away from the poet.
Poets can get away with a bunch of things: committing to a form or not, making sense or not, writing their own or rearranging the words of others etc. The one thing, perhaps, poets cannot get away with is—
1. For more engaged tellings of Hart’s death please see: “Long Live the King of Hearts” in W. Todd Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies. (Chicago: Curbside Splendor, 2014), 71-72. And “Owen Hart and the Finite Life of Ropes” in Brian Oliu, Body Drops: Notes on Fandom and Pain in Professional Wrestling (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 60-62.
Mazer, Sharon. Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Mr WildChild 01. “Mark Henry Recuerda a Owen Hart.” YouTube May 23, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YodsX7UY2Q
Pardlo, Gregory. “Allegory.” The New Yorker. Feb 22, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/01/allegory
Smith, R Tyson. Fighting for Recognition: Identity, Masculinity and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.