“It Is Deep” is a short dramatic monologue of free verse divided into five stanzas of irregular length. The title, beginning with the indefinite pronoun “it,” suggests the slang meaning of “deep”: a highly abstract, intellectually profound idea lying beneath layers of superficial meanings. In Carolyn M. Rodgers’s poem, the superficial layers stem from the conflicting realities that typically exist between a mother and her adult daughter as the daughter asserts her independence and individuality.
The poet, commenting on her mother’s recent visit, notes how different her and her mother’s views are on issues of religion, politics, and lifestyle. This difference is particularly noted in their attitudes toward racism. The poet regards her mother, “religiously girdled in her god,” as having endured racial oppression by a delusion of heavenly deliverance and meek acquiescence. The poet, however, rebels against racism by stripping the “god” myth away and engaging in revolutionary rejection of the political ideology and lifestyles of white America. The opening of the poem makes the point that the mother, in her dogged role of “religious-negro,” cannot appreciate the daughter’s racial progress. Thus, when the daughter refuses to use the “witch cord” and gets her telephone disconnected, the mother can only suppose “that her ‘baby’ was starving” for lack of money to pay bills and buy food. The mother, “gruff and tight-lipped/ and scared,” comes to the rescue—uninvited and barely tolerated by the daughter.
The mother’s presence only reminds the daughter how little attention her mother pays to things important to her daughter. The mother does not know who “the grand le-roi (al)” is, and she has not seen her daughter’s book of poems, which the speaker interprets as a denial of the relevance of black liberation and concludes how much, in “any impression,” her mother “would not be/ considered ‘relevant’ or ‘Black.’” However, upon recalling the painful memories of her mother’s humiliating encounters with racism, the daughter begins to empathize with her mother’s perspective and feels compassion rather than contempt for her mother who is, nonetheless, “here now, not able to understand, what she had/ been forced to deny, still—.”
The poet tells of her mother’s visit in the first person. With this point of view, the poet/narrator requires only that the reader listen to her complaint about her mother’s intrusion. As the conversation recounts this visit, the reader inevitably shares in the poet’s discovery of the more profound meaning of the event. “It Is Deep” begins as a simple retelling of the mother’s visit, and, as the daughter tells the story, the reader hears not only the details of the visit but also the poet’s self-righteous judgment of her mother. Initially, the daughter regards her mother as out of sync with the times. However, by the time she arrives at the end of the conversation, she realizes that there is a connection, after all, between her mother’s world and her own. The last stanza and the subtitle, “(don’t ever forget the bridge/ that you crossed over on),” express that connection.
The language of Rodgers’s poem is rich in its imagery and use of black speech forms. The poet’s use of rhythmic speech lends cultural authority to her voice as she speaks the language of black culture with all of its irony, humor, and depth. Characteristic of black speech are its complex linguistic forms, the repetition of which create a musical, polyrhythmic style much like that of rap music. Several of Rodgers’s descriptions hinge on long phrases consisting of heavily subordinated and...
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embedded sentence elements. For example, the first stanza consists of two long, complex phrases that introduce the main clause, which begins in the next stanza. Rodgers frequently violates conventional syntax to push the rhythm of her words forward. In the line “blew through my door warm wind from the south/ concern making her gruff and tight-lipped,” Rodgers juxtaposes the sentence’s obvious subject, “My mother,” with the “warm wind from the south,” leaving the reader to judge whether the mother or the wind blew through the door. Rodgers’s irony is that the southern wind intruding through the door is both a real breeze and her mother, who represents the passé lifestyle of the old South with its stereotypically submissive “religious-negro.” The inconsistency of conventional punctuation between these complex sentences creates an ambiguity of subject and action, oddly resulting in the poem’s structural coherence. This coherence justifies the narrative pattern as the poet develops and reveals a perspective that, in the end, allows her to resolve the ideological conflict with her mother through love.
Along with the rhythm created by carefully crafted sentences, Rodgers uses the conventional devices of alliterative and figurative language. Many of her phrases depend on the colorful imagery of slang for their simple, yet vividly concrete, images: The telephone is a “witch cord” and a “talk box”; “the cheap j-boss” is her mother’s Jewish employer; and her mother “slip[s] on some love” and “[lays] on [her] bell like a truck,” while the mother gets upset when the daughter talks “about Black as anything/ other than something ugly to kill it befo it grows.” The reference to contemporary poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) as “the grand le-roi (al) cat on the wall” plays with both the French term le roi (“the king”) and the jive word “cat” from the Beat generation. The ultimate wordplay, however, is on the word “disconnected,” which is explained as being the result of “non-payment of bills.” The mother presses fifty dollars into her daughter’s hand to pay for her daughter’s food and utilities—to get her nourished and reconnected. Likewise, the daughter, seemingly disconnected from her mother’s past, gets reconnected to her in the end: Through the mother’s past struggles, the daughter receives spiritual nourishment and pays the necessary dues to get reconnected to her cultural past.