With the publication of her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. The blackness-nourishing collection is arranged in three parts: “Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood,” “The Anniad” (which includes the long poem of that title and two short works as “Appendix to the Anniad”), and “The Womanhood.” As the titles imply, each section of the book corresponds to a stage in the life of Annie Allen.
Brooks is securely anchored in the African American literary tradition. The poet’s expertise with technical poetic forms is overshadowed only by her abiding and evident joy in words. Her work attests to an admiration for poet Langston Hughes, whose sharp comic irony matches her own. In the early 1940’s, at their Chicago apartment located in the “very buckle of the Black belt,” as Brooks describes it, she and her husband Henry Blakely gave a party for Hughes. Not long after, in 1945, Brooks’s first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, was published by Harper & Row. Four years later, Annie Allen emerged to glowing reviews for its linguistic brilliance. While her first book emphasizes community consciousness, the second focuses on self-realization; the central character, Annie, moves from the security of her parents’ home into city life, marriage, and motherhood. From her kitchenette above a real-estate agency, of which she says, “If you wanted a poem you had only to look out of a window,” Brooks creates the three-part poem that explores the artistic sensibility of a black woman not unlike herself.
Annie Allen begins with a dedication poem: “Memorial to Ed Bland,” a soldier killed in World War II. Brooks and Bland were members of a Chicago poetry-writing workshop conducted by Inez Cunningham Stark. This first poem presents Brooks’s central theme of an artistic life cut short and unfulfilled. Its structure underlines the truncated testimonial with lines of varying length and irregular rhymes and rhythms.
The first part, “Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood,” contains eleven poems. Beginning with “the birth in a narrow room,” Brooks describes Annie’s genesis in a “western country” and her early years of prancing with “gods and fairies,” a romantic sensibility that permeates her life in the years before she sadly realizes “How pinchy is my room!” Poems 2 and 3, “Maxie Allen” and “the parents: people like our marriage: Maxie and Andrew,” portray Annie’s parents and illustrate the contrast between their stable, humble lives and her dreams of “something other.” Halfway through the rhymed couplets of “Maxie Allen,” however, Annie’s mother shares some of her daughter’s dissatisfaction with the moderate, dull life that convinces them to settle for chicken and “shut the door.”
Annie’s innocent kindness comes through clearly in “Sunday chicken” (poem 4), eleven lines with three rhyming tercets and a concluding couplet. She dislikes killing the lovely “speckle-gray,” “wild white,” and “baffle-brown” chickens, comparing such actions to cannibalism. Poems 5 and 6 expose Annie once again to death and for the first time to white racism. Ironically, both poems have musical connections. In “old relative,” structurally identical to poem 4, Annie grieves for the death of an elderly uncle and a resulting restriction on playing her favorite songs for the week-long mourning period. “[D]owntown vaudeville” introduces Annie to a black performer in a show attended by hostile whites:
What was not pleasant was the hush that coughedwhen the Negro clown came on the stage and doffedHis broken hat. The hush, first. Then the softconcatenation of delight and lift,And loud. The decked dismissal of his gift. . . .
If the first six poems in part 1 reflect Annie’s childhood, poems 7 through...
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