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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1877

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...

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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 11 establish her as an adolescent dreamer hoping for a “gold half-god” to rescue her. Brooks believes in the power of the imagination and uses the ballad stanza in “the ballad of late Annie” and “throwing out the flowers” to introduce a mythical quality to the collection. Her flights of fancy, however, are always tempered by harsh reality. The theme of life truncated is reiterated once more in the final stanza of “throwing out the flowers”:

Forgotten and stinking they stick in the can,And the vase breath’s better and all, and all.And so for the end of our life to a man,Just over, just over and all.

Despite such ominous foreshadowing, the first part of Annie Allen ends with two positive affirmations and hints of the heroic “Anniad” to follow. In “pygmies are pygmies still, though percht on Alps,” Annie celebrates the excellence and independence of pygmies who can see better and laugh at all the giants wallowing below. Poem 11, “my own sweet good,” implies Annie’s appreciation of her goodness and worth; yet it ends with her anticipation of a golden promise from a dimpled gold god.

Part 2, “The Anniad,” is a forty-three-stanza mock heroic celebrating Annie’s everyday life in a technically grand style. Unusual for modern poetry, the mock heroic provides Brooks with a means of social criticism that does not seem to take itself too seriously. “The Anniad” begins with

Think of sweet and chocolate,Left to folly or to fate,Whom the higher gods forgot,Whom the lower gods berate;Physical and underfed Fancying on the featherbedWhat was never and is not.

She dreams of a knight who will rescue her from her parents’ home. By the end of “The Anniad” Annie has been courted, married, separated from her husband during the war, has suffered his infidelity, and has reconciled with him, and, finally, she is deserted permanently. Her “knight” loves neither her color nor her womanhood. He sees her as a mere trophy and “Leads her to a lowly room./ Which she makes a chapel of./ Where she genuflects to love.”

“The Anniad’s” self-conscious form and grandeur structurally convey Annie’s satirical, lifesaving wit and imagination, while its content carries the daily frustrations, pain, and struggle. This contrast and resulting tension echo the earlier conflict between Annie’s internal emotional complexity and her restrictive, “pinchy” room. When her “tan man” returns from war, he, like other black men, suffers from a lack of respect; he rejects her and pursues affairs with exotic, light-skinned women. While Annie tends the children at home, he revels with “wench and whiskey,” trying to escape the overseas disease, tuberculosis, that stalks and finally kills him. The final stanza is a sad salute to Annie’s survival and imagination:

Think of almost thoroughlyDerelict and dim and done.Stroking swallows from the sweat.Fingering faint violet.Hugging old and Sunday sun.Kissing in her kitchenetteThe minuets of memory.

The “Appendix to the Anniad” contains two poems, “leaves from a loose-leaf war diary” and “the sonnet-ballad,” each challenging the romantic illusions created by “The Anniad.” The first begins coldly with the line “thousands-killed in action” and goes on to suggest that to endure the horror of war and death (“untranslatable ice”) people need superhuman powers. In the second stanza of the first poem, Brooks admits that the thought of heaven is no solace now. Instead, she longs for a return to life with all its sensual exuberance, “lips, lax wet and warm,/ Bees in the stomach,/ sweat across the brow. Now.” Perhaps the second poem is most poignant, written without fantasy or myth, asking one simple postwar question: “oh mother, mother, where is happiness?”

“The Womanhood,” Brooks final section of Annie Allen, returns to the ordinary yet important aspects of black life. Its first five-part poem, “the children of the poor,” is a mother’s dramatic monologue:

People who have no children can be hard:Attain a mail of ice and insolence:Need not pause in the fire, and in no senseHesitate in the hurricane to guard.

Brooks clearly echoes the frustration of women who want to help children survive in a hostile world but feel powerless: “What shall I give my children? who are poor,/ who are adjudged the leastwise of the land.” She questions the power of prayer in part 3 and advises in part 4 that children be taught first to fight and then to fiddle. Other poems in this section express concern for children’s physical and psychological safety. “Life for my child is simple and is good” shows daily dangers like “fingering an electric outlet” and simple joys like “throwing blocks out of a window,” while “the ballad of the light-eyed little girl” tells of sweet Sally who starved her pet pigeon and then had to bury him “down and down.”

The poems following “The Anniad” depart from the mock heroic’s traditional rhyme and meter, employing free verse and irregular line breaks to illustrate Annie’s move from romantic idealism to a clear-eyed response to social and racial injustice. Brooks confronts these issues gently but firmly in “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s” wherein an “old oaken waiter” looks amusedly at a group of whites who have ventured into a restaurant in Bronzeville expecting to be entertained. She reminds the reader “Nobody here will take the part of jester,” a far cry from “downtown vaudeville” in the early part of the book.

One of Brooks’s most powerful and black-affirming poems is “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” faintly echoing the poetic style of T. S. Eliot in its narrative distance and its list of objects and events. Annie’s satirical remark, “We say ourselves fortunate to be driving by today” implies a clear sense of racial injustice, for she goes on to describe the privileged lives of the white-haired white people who live in the posh neighborhood with their “golden gardens”:

We do not want them to have less.But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough.We drive on, we drive on.When we speak to each other our voices are a little gruff.

Perhaps Brooks was prompted to include the beautiful poem “truth” immediately after “Beverly Hills, Chicago” because it reflects accurately the night years spent in the shade of white society. Brooks implies that blacks have waited too long to see the sun: “What if we wake one shimmering morning to/ Hear the fierce hammering/ Of his firm knuckles/ Hard on the door?” Of course, her implication is that the shock would be too much. The next poem, simply numbered “XI,” refers to the “enormous business”of racism and inequality that makes blacks wonder “if one has a home.”

The long poem “intermission” uses images of light and dark to convey Annie’s self-affirming attitude, a sharp contrast to her earlier romantic desire for a gold god. In the third part of this poem, she reflects, “there is silver under/ the veils of the darkness./ But few care to dig in the night/ For the possible treasure of stars.” In the final poem of the book, Brooks calls for black and white unity: “Rise./ Let us combine. There are no magics or elves/ Or timely godmothers to guide us./ We are lost, must/ Wizard a track though our own screaming weed.” Reading the entire collection brings the understanding that in Annie Allen Brooks undertook a struggle and a journey with life and with words. Like her character Annie, she carries many lesions from her experience, but she experiences some triumph, too.

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