Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998
Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–
American poet, novelist, children's writer, editor, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Brooks's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 15.
A powerful voice of black consciousness and social protest in mid-century America, Gwendolyn Brooks is among the most distinguished African-American poets of the twentieth century. With the publication of her second volume of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), she became the first black American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Noted for her mastery of traditional forms and poignant evocation of urban black experience, Brooks emerged as a leading black literary figure during the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing upon both European models and African-American folk tradition, her lyrical poetry addresses racial injustice, poverty, and the private struggles of young black women with exceptional precision, psychological depth, and authenticity. In addition to Annie Allen, Brooks is best known for A Street in Bronzeville (1945), The Bean Eaters (1960), In the Mecca (1968), and her only novel, Maud Martha (1953). During the late 1960s, Brooks embraced the Black Power and Black Arts movements, marking a dramatic shift in her poetry toward increasingly polemical declarations of black pride and African cultural nationalism.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks was raised in the poor South Side section of Chicago by devoted parents; her mother abandoned teaching for marriage and motherhood and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, gave up his ambition to attend medical school to work as a janitor. Out of the loving security of her home, Brooks early experienced racial prejudice in grade school, where other black students ridiculed her for her dark skin and lack of social or athletic abilities. Brooks found solace in reading and writing, which her parents enthusiastically encouraged; after reading her seven-year-old daughter's precocious poetry, Brooks's mother proclaimed to her, "You are going to be a poet." Brooks published her first poem at age thirteen in American Childhood magazine. At age sixteen she met Langston Hughes, who read her poems and offered encouragement after a poetry reading. Brooks's early poetry reflects her interest in William Wordsworth, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, and Percy Bysshe Shelly. After graduating from an integrated high school in 1934, Brooks continued to devote herself to writing and even corresponded with Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson, who commented favorably on her poetry and suggested that she read modern poets. Brooks was a regular poetry contributor to the Chicago Defender beginning in 1934. After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she briefly worked as a maid and as a secretary for a spiritual charlatan who managed a massive slum tenement known as the Mecca. Brooks later recalled both of these painfully degrading job experiences in her poetry. In 1938 Brooks joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely II, whom she married the next year; their son was born in 1940, and daughter in 1951. From 1941 to 1942 Brooks attended a poetry workshop with Inez Cunningham Stark, who helped hone her technical skills. Brooks won the Midwestern Writers Conference prize in 1944 with the "Gay Chaps at the Bar," and again in 1945 with "the progress." Both poems appeared in her first volume of poetry A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was named one of the ten most outstanding women of the year by Mademoiselle magazine in 1945 and received several prestigious honors, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1946, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1946, and Guggenheim fellowships in 1946 and 1947. Brooks's next volume of poetry, Annie Allen, won a Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine in 1949 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. During the 1950s, Brooks published her only novel, Maud Martha, and a book of children's verse, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Her third volume of poetry, The Bean Eaters, heralded Brooks's growing social and racial consciousness at the height of the civil rights movement. Her Selected Poems (1963) received a Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award and Thormod Monsen Literature Award in 1964. In 1967 Brooks attended the Second Fisk Writers Conference, where she was captivated by younger black writers such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Don L. Jones (Haki Madhubuti), whose message of black solidarity Brooks embraced as her own, marking a decisive turning point in her career. Brooks hosted poetry workshops for members of the Chicago gang the Blackstone Rangers, traveled to Africa twice in the early 1970s, and supported black publishing ventures by having her subsequent work published by Broadside Press in Detroit and Third World Press in Chicago. She also served as editor of several Broadside Press anthologies. In 1968 Brooks received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca and succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois. In 1971 she received the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award. During the 1970s and 1980s Brooks published additional small volumes of poetry, her autobiography Report from Part One (1972), children's verse in The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974), and the writing manuals Young Poet's Primer (1980), A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975), and Very Young Poets (1983). A noted teacher and mentor for young poets, Brooks has sponsored numerous poetry contests and workshops, often financed at her own expense, and taught at many colleges and universities since the early 1960s. In 1985 Brooks was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. She has received numerous additional honors, including the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, and a National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement in 1994.
Brooks's poetry in A Street in Bronzeville reveals the formal accomplishment, colloquial rhythms, and social concerns that characterize most of her work. The first section of the volume presents a realistic montage of everyday episodes and scenes in Bronzeville, the poor Chicago neighborhood of her childhood and early marriage. Drawing upon a variety of poetic styles, including the sonnet, ballad, blank verse, and blues, Brooks relates the frustrated hopes, economic deprivation, violence, and racial prejudice experienced by ordinary Bronzeville men, women, and children. In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie" the title character is jilted by her boyfriend for a light-skinned girl: "The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith" depicts one man's futile effort to escape poverty and racism through flamboyant dress and sex. The second section of the volume, consisting of the sonnet series "Gay Chaps at the Bar," deals with the unsung heroism of black soldiers during the Second World War. Brooks continued these social themes in Annie Allen, which focuses upon the maturation of its young, black female protagonist. Divided into several sections, including "Notes from the Childhood and Girlhood," "The Anniad," "Appendix to the Anniad," and "The Womanhood," Brooks chronicles Annie's home life, youthful innocence, growing self-awareness, and romantic relationships amid the same grim, poverty-stricken setting of A Street in Bronzeville. The centerpiece of the volume is "The Anniad," a long mock-heroic epic whose title alludes to Homer's The Iliad. This complex poem juxtaposes Annie's idealism with the stark reality of her limited circumstances as a black woman, wife, and mother. Brooks elaborated upon similar themes in Maud Martha, an autobiographic novel comprised of thirty-four vignettes that chronicles the childhood and emotional development of an unhappy, self-conscious black woman who struggles to find dignity and confidence despite poverty and racial discrimination from both blacks and whites. In The Bean Eaters Brooks moved away from personal subjects to address the mounting alienation and despair of African-Americans during the late 1950s. The title of the collection alludes to Vincent van Gogh's painting The Potato Eaters. Many of these poems relate the failed efforts of those in the black community to escape hopelessness through materialism, religion, racial integration, and reckless living. This volume includes Brooks's much anthologized poem "We So Cool," which mimics the self-defeating defiance of pool hall drop-outs. In another poem, "Ballad of Rudolph Reed," Brooks describes the tragic result of a black man's attempt to move his family into a white neighborhood. Brooks also linked the experiences of Chicagoans with national events in several poems, including "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," which deals with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed for allegedly whistling at a white girl. Brooks's Selected Poems contains several new poems which further evince her commitment to social causes. In one poem, "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," Brooks extols the activities of the Freedom Riders and others involved in the civil rights movement. In the Mecca marks a transition in Brooks's poetry, reflecting a turn away from the humor and irony of earlier volumes toward the overt political tone and subjects of her subsequent work. The long title poem, written in free verse and replete with literary and biblical allusions, is set in the dilapidated Mecca apartment complex of Brooks's earlier employment. The narrative revolves around Mrs. Sallie, a single mother of nine children, and her frantic search to locate her missing child, Pepita, within the sprawling residence. While searching for Pepita with the police, Mrs. Sallie encounters other inhabitants of the Mecca, most of whom are too preoccupied with their own obsessions to offer assistance or compassion. Pepita's body is eventually discovered under the roach infested cot of Jamaican Edward, who has raped and murdered the young girl. In the Mecca also contains an elegy for Malcolm X and slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The evolution of Brooks's political and racial consciousness is documented in Report from Part One, an assemblage of interviews, reviews, and autobiographic prose that recounts her visits to Africa and new black aesthetic. Brooks's poetry in Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971) and Beckonings (1975) reflects her revolutionary perspective and black pride. For example, "The Third Sermon of the Warpland" in Riot deals with Chicago street disturbances after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and "The Life of Lincoln West" in Family Pictures presents a white man's derisive view of dark-skinned blacks. Brooks collected and republished many of these poems in to disembark (1981).
Brooks is highly regarded as a major contemporary American poet and preeminent African-American literary figure. Consistently praised for her technical skill and intimate portraits of black personalities and urban life, she has won both critical and popular admiration among her readers. As many critics note, Brooks possesses an uncanny ability to transmute commonplace subjects into the extraordinary, especially those seemingly insignificant events in the lives of the poor and dispossessed in her native Chicago. According to Cheryl Clarke, "Brooks's entire oeuvre has been studies of black subjectivity, of African-American oral and written traditions, sources of knowledge and faith systems; of the psychic and physical effects of racism on the lives of black and white people; and of the richness of the lyric." Critical analysis of Brooks's work is focused primarily upon her poetry in A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, In the Mecca, and her novel Maud Martha, together considered her most accomplished works. Brooks's poetry after her 1967 racial awakening has received mixed reaction. While some critics disapprove of the ideology and polemical tone of her poetry from In the Mecca forward, others continue to appreciate the impressive force and universal appeal of her work. Brooks has also received both praise and criticism for the complexity and ambitious themes of her work. Despite her identity as a "New Black" poet during the late 1960s and 1970s, Brooks is recognized as a prescient commentator on race and female oppression for her work that predates the civil rights, Black Power, and women's movements. As Kathryne V. Lindberg writes, "Brooks has always addressed and continues to address difficult issues, including those often decorously silent intimate traumas of abortion, color caste, domestic abuse, alienation, and motherhood in poverty. Defiant in the face of a painful history of racist lies and false consciousness that refuses to yield a 'useable past,' she has actively fashioned models of personal and communal dignity as poetic blueprints for 'cultural survival.'"
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179
A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945
Annie Allen (poetry) 1949
Maud Martha (novel) 1953
Bronzeville Boys and Girls (juvenilia) 1956
The Bean Eaters (poetry) 1960
Selected Poems (poetry) 1963
In the Mecca (poetry) 1968
Riot (poetry) 1969
Family Pictures (poetry) 1970
Aloneness (poetry) 1971
A Broadside Treasury [editor] (poetry) 1971
Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1971
The World of Gwendolyn Brooks [includes A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca] (poetry and novel) 1971
Report from Part One (autobiography) 1972
The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or, What You Are You Are (juvenilia) 1974
Beckonings (poetry) 1975
A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing [with others] (nonfiction) 1975
Primer for Blacks (poetry) 1980
Young Poet's Primer (nonfiction) 1980
Black Love (poetry) 1981
to disembark (poetry) 1981
Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago, the "I Will" City (poetry) 1983
Very Young Poets (nonfiction) 1983
The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems (poetry) 1986
Blacks [includes A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, Maud Martha, A Catch of Shy of Fish, Riot, In the Mecca, and most of Family Pictures] (poetry and novel) 1987
Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (poetry) 1988
Winnie (poetry) 1988
Children Coming Home (poetry) 1991
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SOURCE: "The Poet-Militant and Foreshadowings of a Black Mystique: Poems in the Second Period of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 10, Fall, 1977, pp. 37-45.
[In the following essay, Hansell examines political themes and aspirations in the "second period" of Brooks's poetry. According to Hansell, Brooks "dramatically portrays the black poet's role in the revolution which is intended to bring about a rededication to American ideals."]
Gwendolyn Brooks, in a 1976 interview at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said that her work falls into three periods which correspond to "changes" in her perspective. A study of her work seems to reveal strong grounds for agreement with her. My criteria for making the division derive from changes in her portrayal of the role of the poet and of the function of art, and her gradual adoption, beginning in the poems of the second period, of attitudes which foreshadow a mystique of blackness. Works of the first period are A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949), and The Bean Eaters (1960). The second period is represented by the "New Poems" section of Selected Poems (1963) and by two uncollected poems, "The Sight of the Horizon" (1963), and "In the Time of Detachment, in the Time of Cold" (1965). Her most recent collections mark the third phase in her development; they are In the Mecca (1969) and Riot (1969/1970), Family Pictures (1970), and Beckonings (1975).
In the second period, which finds the author wholly committed to the idea that art has a political function, Miss Brooks advocates militancy for both poet and layman. She dramatically portrays the black poet's role in the revolution which is intended to bring about a rededication to American ideals. In this period also appears the first definite signs of a black mystique.
A significant theme in poems of the second period is Miss Brooks's explicit declaration of the political function of art, an attitude consistent with her belief that the immediate environment is what the artist knows best and must deal with if he is to retain his integrity and authenticity, and more especially with her belief that the most valid and meaningful art has direct relevance to the lives of the people from which it arises. Since Afro-Americans everywhere in this country, as much in urban ghettoes as in Southern farm communities, were in a ferment of political activity, Miss Brooks, in response to this influence on her milieu, increasingly introduced politics into her work. Events, as Miss Brooks said herself in 1969, caused her to see new things: "Many things I'm seeing now I was absolutely blind to before…."
The "New Poems" section of Selected Poems (1963) is truly transitional in that it contains poems in her earlier manner and poems which forcefully state her new concern with the artist as political militant; and for the purposes of this discussion as well as to sharpen the contrast, I have grouped the poems accordingly. Poems typical of her earlier work are discussed first. "Old People Working," for example, is closer to her earlier concern with the personal experiences of her characters. It portrays an elderly couple who have only very slight awareness of anything beyond their immediate concerns. These two preserve their dignity, despite the trivial tasks required of them, by making their labor an expression of their love and gesture of defiance:
Old people working. Making a gift of garden.
Or washing a car, so some one else may ride.
A note of alliance, an eloquence of pride.
A way of greeting or sally to the world.
Their "garden," their "gift" of beauty and love, is their welcome or challenge to the world. The couple have little enough to work with, and the physical product of their work is for "some one else"; but the spiritual capacity which generated the work and is sustained by it belongs to the couple alone. Other "New Poems" dealing with subjects and themes similar to her earlier work are "To Be in Love" and several very short poems in the sub-section entitled "A Catch of Shy Fish."
A somewhat ambiguous poem about two artists, "Spaulding and Francois," contrasts the "Art-loves" of artists to the demands of their audience. The artists who speak in the poem long to portray "Things Ethereal," "spiritual laughter," "the happiness / Of angels," but, as the final section states.
Will not let us alone; will not, credit, condone
Art-loves that shun
Them (moderate Christians rotting in the sun.)
Obviously, from the point of view of the artists, what the people want seems contemptible, as "moderate Christians rotting in the sun" is a description full of contempt. Taken on its own, "Spaulding and Francois" seems a conventional artistic outcry against the demands of an insensitive, unimaginative, even materialistic audience. Yet, in view of Miss Brooks's constant concern with commonplace individuals and experience, it is difficult to reject the feeling that the artists, in their abstraction and otherworldliness, are also being mocked. In any case it is certain from other poems in the "New Poems" section that Miss Brooks remains very much committed to the idea that the commonplace and practical are legitimate, and perhaps necessary concerns of the artist.
"Big Bessie Throws Her Son into the Street" seems to have as its primary theme the necessity of dealing with reality, with actual conditions, as opposed to indulging oneself in the contemplation of beauty. The mother, "Big Bessie," commands her son to give up his "beautiful disease," which seems to be like the desire of "Spaulding and Francois" to contemplate "the happiness / Of angels." Big Bessie's son is not told he must totally abandon all concern with beauty and with dreams ("candles in the eyes"); he is told those things "are not enough." Her command to him, therefore, is to engage life directly, to "Go down the street." As Miss Brooks portrays the situation, the son could represent an individual who would prefer to remain aloof from practical affairs. His mother's urging is that he must participate. By extension, Miss Brooks affirms in this poem her belief that individuals must take a vital and direct role in affairs.
Poems dedicated to Robert Frost and Langston Hughes imply a similar artistic attitude. In "Robert Frost" she stresses his capacity for balancing the desire, to borrow from another poem, for "Things Ethereal" with the demands of "the common blood." More abstractly stated, her comment on Frost seems to emphasize his success at balancing contraries. Her tribute to Langston Hughes stresses different qualities. She celebrates his love of life and his contribution to racial pride; but she also stresses Hughes's apparent belief that art should not be an end in itself when the times demanded a different kind of activity. Rather, as Miss Brooks describes those times in the final lines of the poem, it is clear that the function of a poet like Hughes, as "helmsman, hatchet, head-light," is to direct events and provide whatever weapons are necessary.
"Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath" is perhaps the most explicit portrayal of Miss Brooks's new sense that the political militant and the poet who writes about militant themes share identical roles. Each brings closer the time when authentic "Democracy and Christianity" will prevail. The poet seems as much an actor, a participant, as the militant in the street. In this longest of the "New Poems," a woman narrator declares that her illicit sexual relations with a man show that she is "waiving all witness" with conventional attitudes toward love. She dismisses objections of the tradition-minded; for she evidently believes her own behavior is appropriate. By breaking with "ancestral seemliness" and shamelessly believing in this new "excess," she affirms a new style of life, which cuts her and her lover off from those who dwell in the past and who fear the future. The girl's new allegiance is to those who confront reality and who militantly participate in the effort to bring about the Afro-American's full participation in American life. The newness of the narrator's values, I believe, lies primarily in her belief that authentic American ideals have never significantly determined behavior. There has been only pretense both on the part of whites and of blacks.
The second section of "Riders" makes it immediately evident that this "renegade" behavior is not simply a rejection of conventional sexual mores. The narrator announces:
The National Anthem vampires at the blood.
I am a uniform. Not brusque. I bray
Through blur and blunder in a little voice!
Metaphorically the narrator states that it is American ideals which have permeated her being and now drive her to protest against national practices. Her protest, although seemingly insignificant, is nonetheless "a tender grandeur," which must no longer be concealed:
Under macabres, stratagem and fair
Fine smiles upon the face of holocaust,
My scream! unedited, unfrivolous.
We are told that the woman has suffered intensely from the suppression of the desire for vengeance, and that her self-control prevented her from accepting rewards she felt deserving of:
… meriting the gold, I
Have sewn my guns inside my burning lips.
In the third section of the poem it would appear that despite her restraint, the narrator suspects her pain and rage may have been prematurely detected. "Did they detect my parleys and replies?" she asks, and then relates the events which might have revealed her true feelings:
My Revolution pushed his twin the mare,
The she-thing with the soft eyes that conspire
To lull off men, before him everywhere.
Apparently personifying overt actions as male and the necessary disguises she has employed as female, the narrator tells us that the "she-thing" (black submissiveness as well as the narrator's feminine submissiveness?) has beguiled "them," beguiled and misled those she is rebelling against. Her disguise "in mottles of submission" has both concealed her true nature and uncovered "sedition" in the enemy.
The narrator remains confident, moreover, that the enemies are ignorant of certain qualities in her character, as of her ability to endure and to contain her rage but not to feed on it.
They do not see how deftly I endure.
Deep down the whirlwind of good rage I store
Commemorations in an utter thrall.
Although I need not eat them any more.
The narrator, and Afro-Americans generally have not been reduced to feeding only on their grief and rage, literally, are not consumed with bitterness. The lines also state that the rage is good, because justifiable; it is rage aroused by undemocratic and un-Christian practices which violate American ideals.
With section five and the explicit references to the African and slave heritage, the narrator clearly begins to speak for the entire race and reveals a major inspirational source for the decision to break with discredited practices. She is sustained by an ancient tradition neither passive nor pacific. Africa provides a testimony to a rich cultural past of wealth and power, a testimony to a warlike heritage.
After Africa, the narrative introduces events which led to enslavement in America, especially the "middle passage," during which the captors and captives established inextricable bonds. Then the period of slavery is recalled, and memories of the cruelty and labor revived. The Afro-American's entire condition, the narrator states, was the artifice, the creation of the master.
Continuing, the narrator reads in the racial experience a lesson of international significance:
But my detention and my massive stain,
And my distortion and my Calvary
I grind into a little light lorgnette
Most sly: to read man's inhumanity.
The "little light lorgnette" seems to be the poet-narrator's phrase for her poetry, which disguises its true revolutionary intentions. She goes on to reveal her awareness that "she" (her race) has not been the only victim of war and injustice:
And I remark my Matter is not all.
Man's chopped in China, in India indented.
From Israel what's Arab is resented.
Europe candies custody and war.
Recognizing that suffering and persecution observe no racial or national boundaries, the narrator announces her love and her duty to "esteem" all men:
Behind my expose
I formalize my pity: "I shall cite,
Star, and esteem all that which is of woman,
Human and hardly human."
Hardly here seems to mean "inhuman" rather than "barely"; but Miss Brooks seems to have meant that she loves even those responsible for slavery and other inhumanities.
Having pledged her faith in all mankind, the narrator now announces her mission. Her rejection of past evils and her affirmation of universal ideals which have failed to sufficiently effect practices, mark her effort as a rebirth and rededication:
Democracy and Christianity
Recommence with me.
Although the black experience is the immediate provocation, and its relationship to inhumanities everywhere the general one responsible for inspiring the narrator to a rededication, it is important to observe that the ideals are "American ideals." In later poems, for example, in all three "Sermons," "In the Mecca," and Riot, the rededication will be to "blackness" or "black integrity," rather than, as explicitly stated here, "Democracy and Christianity." The Afro-American's "continuing Calvary," in any event, is no longer to be a passive victim, or object of charity or good intentions, but to be the militant, perhaps violent, agent in the attempt to achieve liberty and love for all:
And I ride ride I ride on to the end—
Where glowers my continuing Calvary.
My fellows, and those canny consorts of
Our spread hands in this contretemps—for—love
Ride into wrath, wraith and menagerie [.]
Those who are fully dedicated to "this contretemps—for—love" and those who are simply "canny consorts," perhaps meaning the opportunists, nonetheless contribute.
The positive significance of black militancy as here portrayed cannot be overstressed. Brotherhood, equality, and love are the impelling forces. Despite whatever furious resistance, and without confidence of victory, as the final lines state, the black man is dedicated to his mission of truly initiating the rule of democracy and Christianity:
To fail, to flourish, to wither or to win.
We lurch, distribute, we extend, begin.
Therefore, beyond "Good rage," the Afro-American is sustained by the African heritage, by the acknowledgment, however painful, that the fate of the white and black races is irrevocably linked, by the recognition that blacks have ties with all peoples subjected to persecution and oppression—thus are linked to all men—by the realization that the black preserves the highest values and ideals, which in this poem are combined under the rubric "Democracy and Christianity," and, finally, by the conviction that it is the Afro-American's mission to try, with whatever allies he finds, to bring these ideals into practice. Although "Riders" portrays a black militant dedicated to American ideals, the importance Miss Brooks ascribes to the "warrior" heritage, to the strength and former greatness of African forebears, and to the lessons learned during slavery and afterwards foreshadows a black mystique.
Two uncollected poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, which were published in a period between the Selected Poems (1963) and In the Mecca (1968), further illustrate developments already noted in "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath" and can be included with work of her second period.
"The Sight of the Horizon" (1963) repeats the determination and qualified optimism of "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," but there is much less emphasis on the potential for violence in the struggle. In fact, the poem seems primarily concerned to ask what course can be trusted to carry blacks most directly to the long-denied goal. Miss Brooks does not appear to advocate any particular strategy; her insistence is that the effort be predicated on achieving total participation. It is the only "Horizon," the only "Garden," which will at the same time redeem both blacks and America.
Alluding broadly to the history of postponed equality, the first stanza states the continuing uncertainty as to the course to be taken.
After such mocks—what Motive?
What certain Spur? (To find
Among all nervous rebels that bewitch
The melancholy capitals of the mind.)
But if the strategy to follow is doubtful, shadowed by "melancholy" possibilities, the goals seem attainable and fairly certain. These are the fulfillment of an ideal and the attainment of a vital necessity for life. There is something more, too. I believe the third and fourth lines just quoted state the narrator's awareness that traditional attitudes must change. The black man, in this sense, can no longer accept the identity and role determined by "white" society.
The Sight of the Horizon.
Possession of our breath:
Possession of our vagrant vision; even
The legendary mammoth of our death.
Of course, the lines might also suggest her awareness that if "Possession" of the vision is demanded, the consequence could be fatal reprisals. Just as in "Riders," however, the imperative seems to be "To wither or to win."
The last two stanzas state clearly that nothing short of full achievement of their vision will satisfy Afro-Americans. An America free of racism and oppression, therefore a society for the first time fully American in practice, is the goal. The twofold aspect of the black man's mission is thus carried over from "Riders," for as blacks enter fully into their proper share, America for the first time fulfills its ideals.
We seek no clue of green.
We seek a Garden: trees,
The light, the cry, the conscience of the grass.
In this most social of all centuries.
We seek informal sun.
A harvest of hurrah.
We seek our center and our radius.
Profound redemption. And America.
The second uncollected poem from the middle period comes the closest to accepting the necessity of violence to "repair … a ripped, revolted land" and make possible love and unity between men in this country. "In the Time of Detachment, in the Time of Cold" (1965) is a tributary poem to Abraham Lincoln and was included as the first of seven dedicatory pieces by various authors in A Portion of That Field. In tone and theme it is closer to "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath" than to "The Sight of the Horizon." Lincoln is addressed as the only one who can lead the way in a gravely troubled time.
The opening lines invoke "the good man" who could still act as the "renouncer" of the present time's "Grave grave legalities of hate…." The narrator describing the contemporary situation, with its betrayals ("bogus roses") and violence against advocates of equality and justice ("demondom") speaks not for a race but for all Americans. Lincoln is beseeched to restore the unity and love in a "ripped, revolted land." But because the unity may not easily be achieved, Lincoln's spirit is invoked, finally, as the possible inspiration for violent changes in ideas and attitudes:
Singe! smite! beguile our own bewilderments away.
Teach barterers the money of your star!
Retrieve our trade from out the bad bazaar.
In the time of detachment, in the time of cold, in this time
Tutor our difficult sunlight. Rouse our rhyme.
The allusion to the biblical episode in which Christ performed the single act of violence in his recorded life is very appropriate in this context. He drove money-lenders from the Temple, charging they corrupted the law and holy places; and Lincoln, of course, accepted the use of violent means to halt what he believed was an erroneous and harmful misinterpretation of the Constitution. It is also interesting to note that the final phrase, "Rouse our rhyme," seems intended to imply that "rhyme," poetry, is an appropriate form for the expression of militant and idealistic political attitudes. Rhyme is here the proper accompaniment of whatever actions are necessary to restore America to its ideals. The poet, then, complements the work of the politician-statesman.
The "New Poems" in Selected Poems, therefore, are most notable for their portrayal of black artists as the militant leaders in the effort to accomplish a revolution in white attitudes toward blacks. The tribute to Hughes, to the courage of Big Bessie, and to the narrator of "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath"—these essentially resolve the conflict of the artist in choosing between abstract beauty and practical good in favor of the latter. The first evidence of Miss Brooks's acceptance of a mystique of blackness is revealed, I believe, in her portrayal of the black artist's special role as literally that of remaking America in the image of what formerly had been merely professed ideals. Perhaps Miss Brooks is saying that the black artist is suited to his apocalyptic function because he—his people—has chiefly been the victim and seldom the offender. For example, the narrator of "Riders" states that the Afro-American's cooperation in the distortion of American ideals has been a disguise, a self-protective mask. The works of the second period announce that the masks, which were often as destructive as they were protective, are coming off in order to end tacit cooperation in "demondom" and to allow Afro-Americans full participation, even leadership, in the work of taking America closer to its ideals.
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SOURCE: "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 233-44.
[In the following essay, Spillers examines the form, language, and unassuming subjects of Brooks's poetry. "The style of Brooks's poetry," writes Spillers, "gives us by implication and example a model of power, control, and subtlety."]
For over three decades now, Gwendolyn Brooks has been writing poetry which reflects a particular historical order, often close to the heart of the public event, but the dialectic that is engendered between the event and her reception of it is, perhaps, one of the more subtle confrontations of criticism. We cannot always say with grace or ease that there is a direct correspondence between the issues of her poetry and her race and sex, nor does she make the assertion necessary at every step of our reading. Black and female are basic and inherent in her poetry. The critical question is how they are said. Here is what the poet has to say about her own work:
My aim, in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully "call" all black people: black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in mines, on farms, on thrones: not always to "teach"—I shall wish often to entertain, to illumine [Emphasis Brooks]. My newish voice will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which I so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's G. B. voice.
Today's G. B. voice is one of the most complex on the American scene precisely because Brooks refuses to make easy judgments. In fact, her disposition to preserve judgment is directly mirrored in a poetry of cunning, laconic surprise. Any descriptive catalog can be stretched and strained in her case: I have tried "uncluttered," "clean," "robust," "ingenious," "unorthodox," and in each case a handful of poems will fit. This method of grading and cataloguing, however, is essentially busywork, and we are still left with the main business: What in this poetry is stunning and evasive?
To begin with, one of Brooks's most faithfully anthologized poems, "We Real Cool," illustrates the wealth of implication that the poet can achieve in a very spare poem:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz june. We
The simplicity of the poem is stark to the point of elaborateness. Less than lean, it is virtually coded. Made up entirely of monosyllables and end-stops, the poem is no non-sense at all. Gathered in eight units of three-beat lines, it does not necessarily invite inflection, but its persistent bump on "we" suggests waltz time to my ear. If the reader chooses to render the poem that way, she runs out of breath, or trips her tongue, but it seems that such "breathlessness" is exactly required of dudes hastening toward their death. Deliberately subverting the romance of sociological pathos, Brooks presents the pool players—"seven in the golden shovel"—in their own words and time. They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight (could be nonstop) lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.
Brooks's poetry, then, is not weighed down by egoistic debris, nor is her world one of private symbolisms alone, or even foremost; rather, she presents a range of temperaments and situations articulated by three narrative voices: a first-person voice, as in "Gay Chaps at the Bar."
We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen….
an omniscient narrator for the ballads:
It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates
And Mabbie was all of seven
And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar
And Mabbie thought life was heaven….
And then a concealed narrator, looking at the situation through a double focus. In other words, the narrator ironically translates her subject's ingenuousness. To this last group of poems belongs "The Anniad," perhaps one of the liveliest demonstrations of the uses to which irony can be put.
A pun on The Aeneid or The Iliad, the title of this piece prepares us for a mock heroic journey of a particular female soul as she attempts to gain self-knowledge against an unresponsive social backdrop. At the same time, the poem's ironic point of view is a weapon wielded by a concealed narrator who mocks the ritualistic attitudes of love's ceremony. The poem is initially interesting for its wit and ingenuity, but eventually G. B.'s dazzling acrobatics force a "shock of recognition." Annie, in her lofty naiveté, has been her own undoing, transforming mundane love into mystical love, insisting on knights when there are, truly, only men in this world. Annie obviously misses the point, and what we confront in her tale is a riot of humor—her dreams working against reality as it is. We protest in Annie's behalf. We want the dream to come true, but Brooks does not concede, and that she does not confirms the intent of the poem: a parodic portrayal of sexual pursuit and disaster.
Shaped by various elements of surprise, "The Anniad" is a funny poem, but its comedy proceeds from self-recognition. Brooks gives this explanation:
Well, the girl's name was Annie, and it was my pompous pleasure to raise her to a height that she probably did not have. I thought of The Iliad and said: 'I'll call this "The Anniad."' At first, interestingly enough, I called her Hester Allen, and I wanted then to say "The Hesteriad," but I forgot why I changed it to Annie … I was fascinated by what words might do there in the poem. You can tell that it's labored, a poem that's very interested in the mysteries and magic of technique….
From the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning volume, Annie Allen, "The Anniad" may be read as a workshop in G. B.'s poetry. Its strategies are echoed in certain shorter poems from A Street in Bronzeville and The Bean Eaters, particularly the effective use of slurred rime and jarring locution in "Patent Leather" and "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith." In narrative scope and dramatic ambition, "The Anniad" anticipates In the Mecca, written some twenty years later.
Forty-three stanzas long, "The Anniad" is built on contradictions. Locating their "answer" or meaning constitutes the poem's puzzle and reward. Here are the two opening stanzas:
Think of sweet and chocolate,
Left to folly or to fate.
Whom the higher gods forgot
Whom the lower gods berate;
Fancying on the featherbed
What was never and is not.
What is ever and is not.
Pretty tatters blue and red,
Buxom berries beyond rot,
Western clouds and quarter stars,
Fairy sweet of old guitars
Littering the little head
Light upon the featherbed….
After saying all we can about the formal qualities of these stanzas, we are still not certain about the subject of the poem. By means of slurs and puzzles of language, the action is hustled on, and circumlocution—"tell all the truth, but tell it slant"—becames a decisive aspect of the work's style. This Song of Ann is a puzzle to be unraveled, and the catalog of physical and mental traits deployed in the first fifteen stanzas becomes a set of clues. Not unlike games or riddles played by children, the poem gathers its clues in stanzas, and just as the questioner in the child's game withholds the solution, the speaker here does the same thing, often to the reader's dismay. However, once we know the answer, the game becomes a ritual where feigned puzzlement is part of the ceremony. In a discussion of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Northrop Frye points out that the "riddle or oblique description of some object" is one of the oldest and most primitive forms of poetry. In "The Anniad" the form gains a level of sophistication that is altogether stunning.
The dilemma of Annie is also that of "Chocolate Mabbie": the black-skinned female's rejection by black males. The lesson begins early for the black woman, as it does for young Mabbie. A too well-known theme of black life, this idea is the subject of several G. B. poems, but usually disguised to blunt its edge of madness and pain. With Mabbie's experience in mind, then, we are prepared for the opening lines of "The Anniad" and their peculiar mode of indirection.
The color theme is a crucial aspect of the poem's proposition and procedure, posing light skin and dark skin as antagonists. The question is not merely cosmetic, since hot combs and bleaching creams were once thought to be wonder workers, but it penetrates far and sharp into the psychic and spiritual reaches of the black woman's soul. I know of no modern poet before Brooks to address this subject, and as she does so, she offers the female a way out not only by awaking the phobia, but also by regarding it as yet another style of absurdity. The point is to bury inverted racism in ridicule and obscure reference, but not before contemplating its effects.
In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," the situation goes this way:
Out came the saucily bold Willie Boone.
It was woe for our Mabbie now.
He wore like a jewel a lemon-hued lynx
With sandwaves loving her brow.
It was Mabbie alone by the grammar-school gates.
Yet chocolate companions had she:
Mabbie on Mabbie with hush in the heart.
Mabbie on Mabbie to be.
An interesting contrast to Mabbie's ballad is "Stand Off, Daughter of the Dusk":
And do not wince when bronzy lads
Hurry to cream-yellow shining.
It is plausible. The sun is a lode.
True, there is silver under
The veils of the darkness
But few care to dig in the night
For the possible treasure of stars.
If metaphor is a way to utter the unutterable, then "cream-yellow shining" and "veils of darkness" hint at It, but both are needlessly quaint, drawing attention away from the subject. Not one of her best or most interesting poems, it does articulate the notion of rejection without preaching a sermon about it. In "The Anniad," by contrast, the mood is sardonic and words are ablaze with a passion to kill, both the situation and one's tendency to be undone by it.
The male lover's ultimate choice to betray "sweet and chocolate" leads Annie's "tan man" to what he would consider the better stuff:
… Gets a maple banshee. Gets
A sleek-eyed gypsy moan.
Oh those violent vinaigrettes!
Oh bad honey that can hone
Oilily the bluntest stone!
Oh mad bacchanalian lass
That his random passion has!
Clever synecdoche works here for the poet rather than against her, as it does in "Stand Off," and its comic distortions are reinforced by slant rhyme in the last two lines of the stanza. "Bad" honey is the best kind in colloquial parlance, "bad" having appropriated its antonym, and in the midst of "vinaigrettes" and "bacchanalian lasses," it is a sharp surprise.
"Tan man" himself gets similar treatment:
… And a man of tan engages
For the springtime of her pride,
Eats the green by easy stages,
Nibbles at the root beneath
With intimidating teeth
But no ravishment enrages.
No dominion is defied.
Narrow-master master calls;
And the godhead glitters now
Cavalierly on his brow.
What a hot theopathy
Roisters through her, gnaws her walls,
And consumes her where she falls
In her gilt humility.
How he postures at his height;
Unfamiliar, to be sure,
With celestial furniture.
Contemplating by cloud-light
His bejewelled diadem;
As for jewels, counting them,
Trying if the pomp be pure….
Rodent, knight, god, by turn, "Tan man" is seen from a triple exposure: his own exaggerated sense of self-worth, the woman's complicity with it, and the poet's assessment, elaborated in the imaginative terms implied by the woman's behavior. Given the poem's logic, the woman and the man are deluded on opposing ends of the axis of self-delusion. As it turns out, he is not the hot lover "theopathy" would make him out to be, but Annie denies it, fearing that to say so would be to evoke an already imminent betrayal:
… Doomer, though, crescendo-comes
Surrealist and cynical.
Garrulous and guttural.
Spits upon the silver leaves
Denigrates the dainty eves
Dear dexterity achieves …
Vaunting hands are now devoid
Hieroglyphics of her eyes
Blink upon a paradise
Paralyzed and paranoid.
But idea and body too
Clamor "Skirmishes can do.
Then he will come back to you."
This scene of "ruin," brought on by sexual impotence, gains a dimension of pathos because it anticipates the woman's ultimate loneliness, but this judgment is undercut by the caricature of the male.
In order to fully appreciate the very pronounced contrast between other G. B. poems and this one, we should note the quality of images in "The Anniad." The dominant function of imagery here is auditory rather than visual, because Brooks, as well as the reader, is so thoroughly fascinated with the sound of words: for example, "Doomer, though, crescendo-comes / Prophesying hecatombs." This heavy word-motion is sustained by the most unlikely combinations—"surrcalist and cynical." "garrulous and guttural," etc. The combinations are designed to strike with such forceful contrariness that trying to visualize them would propel us toward astigmatism. We confront a situation where the simple image has been replaced by its terministic equivalent, or by words which describe other words in the poem.
Brooks's intensely cultivated language in "The Anniad" appears to rely heavily on the cross-reference of dictionaries and thesauri. Lexis here is dazzling to the point of distraction, but it is probably a feature of the poem's moral ferocity. It is clear that the poet, like others, has her eye on the peculiar neurosis that often prevails in sexual relationships. Rather than dignify it, she mocks its vaunted importance, exaggerating its claims nearly beyond endurance. In effect, exaggeration destroys its force, desanctifying hyperbolean phallic status. At the same time, it appears that a secondary motivation shadows the primary one—the poet's desire to suggest a strategy for destroying motives of inferiority in the self. This psychological motif in Brooks's early poetry is disturbing. At times it appears to verge on self-hatred, but style conceals it. "Men of Careful Turns" offers an example, I think, by depicting an interracial love affair corrupted by racism and certain intervening class loyalties. To conceal her disappointment, the black female narrator claims moral superiority over the white male, but in this case, as in "The Anniad," the literal situation is carefully disguised.
In the hands of a lesser poet Brooks's pyrotechnics would likely be disastrous, but G. B. achieves her aim by calibrating the narrative situation of the poem to its counterpart in the "real" world. Grounded in solidly social and human content, the poem is saved from sliding off into mere strangeness. The mischievous, brilliantly ridiculous juxtapositions achieve a perspective, and we gain thereby a taste for, rather than a surfeit of, exaggeration toward a specific end: to expose the sadness and comedy of self-delusion in an equally deluded world.
By contrast, a poem whose principle of composition is based on continuity of diction is another of the sonnets, "Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity." A model of precision, the poem reworks a single sentence to elaborate its message:
Each body has its art, its precious prescribed
Pose, that even in passion's droll contortions, waltzes,
Or push of pain—is its, and nothing else's.
Each body has its pose. No other stock
That is irrevocable, perpetual
And its to keep. In castle, or in shack.
With rags or robes. Through good, nothing, or ill.
And even in death, a body, like no other
On any hill or plain or crawling cot
Or gentle for the lilyless hasty pall
(Having twisted, gagged, and then sweet-ceased to bother),
Shows the old personal art, the look. Shows what
It showed at baseball. What it showed in school.
This concentration on a single notion is essential to the working out of the poem, and the qualifying phrases, which establish momentum, create the effect of the poem's being made in front of us. The careful structuring of the body's lines, imitated in time and space, is inherently strategic.
In its directness of presentation, "Still Do I Keep My Look" (like "Gay Chaps at the Bar") may be relegated to the category of what might be called G. B.'s "pretty" poems: the sword has been blunted by a closer concession to the expected. An excerpt from "The Old Marrieds" provides another example:
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say
Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side streets.
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets….
The opening poem of A Street in Bronzeville, "The Old Marrieds" belongs to G. B.'s early career. Its tender insistence is matched elsewhere: for instance, "In Honor of David Anderson Brooks, My Father" and "The Bean Eaters," both from the volume The Bean Eaters. An aspect of the poet's reality, this compassionate response to the lives of old people has its complement in her version of the heroic. Two poems from In the Mecca, "Medgar Evers" and "Malcolm X," are celebratory:
The man whose height his fear improved he arranged to fear no further. The raw intoxicated time was time for better birth or a final death.
Old styles, old tempos, all the engagement of the day—the sedate, the regulated fray—the antique light, the Moral Rose, old gusts, tight whistlings from the past, the mothballs in the love at last our man forswore.
Medgar Evers annoyed confetti and assorted brands of businessmen's eyes.
The shows came down: to maxims and surprise and palsy.
Roaring no rapt arise-ye to the dead, he leaned across tomorrow. People said that he was holding clean globes in his hands.
A poem for the slain civil-rights leader of Mississippi, "Medgar Evers" reconciles celebration and surprise. G. B. has not exaggerated a feature of reality—Evers' heroism—but has invested that reality with unique significance. A similar notion works for "Malcolm X," with a touch of the whimsical added:
He had the hawk-man's eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.
And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
beguiled the world.
He opened us—
who was a key,
who was a man.
In these two poems, as well as others from the later volumes, Brooks explores various kinds of heroism by means of a shrewd opposition of under-statement and exaggeration. From The Bean Eaters, "Strong Men Riding Horses" provides a final example:
Strong men riding horses. In the West
On a range five hundred miles. A thousand.
From dawn to sunset.
Rested blue to orange.
From hope to crying. Except that strong men are
Desert-eyed. Except that strong men are
Pasted to cars already. Have their cars
Beneath them. Rentless too. Too broad of chest
To shrink when the Rough man hails
To redirect the challenger, when the Challenge
Nicks; slams; buttonholes. Too saddled.
I am not like that. I pay rent, am addled
By illegible landlords, run, if robbers call.
What mannerisms I present, employ,
Are camouflage, and what my mouths remark
To word-wall off the broadness of the dark
I am not brave at all.
This brilliant use of familiar symbols recalls the staccato message of movie advertisements. It conjures up heroes of the Western courtly love tradition from Charlemagne to Gawain to John Wayne and Superman. Counterpoised against this implied pantheon of superstars is a simple shrunken confessional, the only complete declaratives in the poem. That the speaker pits herself against the contrived heroes of a public imagination suggests that the comparison is not to be taken seriously. It is sham exactly because of the disparity between public idealism and the private condition, but the comic play-off between the poet's open, self-mocking language (a pose of humility) and the glittering, delirious "dig-me-brag" of the "strong men" is the demonstration, more precisely, of the opposing poles of reality—exaggeration and under-statement. In the world of Gwendolyn Brooks, the sword is double-edged, constantly turning.
Only a fraction of the canon, the poems discussed in this essay represent the poet's range of strategies and demonstrate her linguistic vitality and her ability to allow language to penetrate to the core of neutral events. The titles of Brook's volumes, from A Street in Bronzeville to In the Mecca, suggest her commitment to life in its unextraordinary aspects. Reworking items of common life, Brooks reminds us that creative experience can be mined from this vast store of unshaped material. To see reality through the eyes of the clichéd or the expected, however, is not to revisit it but to hasten the advance of snobbery and exclusion. In her insistence that common life is not as common as we sometimes suspect, G. B. is probably the democratic poet of our time. That she neither condescends nor insists on preciousness is rewarding, but, above all, her detachment from poetry as cult and cant gives her access to lived experience, which always invigorates her lines. By displacing the familiar with the unfamiliar word, Brooks employs a vocabulary that redefines what we know already in a way we have not known it before. The heightened awareness that results brings to our consciousness an interpenetration of events which lends them a new significance.
Some of Brooks's poems speak directly to situations for which black women need names, but this specificity may be broadened to define situations that speak for other women as well. The magic of irony and humor can be brought to bear by any female in her most dangerous life-encounter—the sexual/emotional entanglement. Against that entanglement, her rage and disappointment are poised, but often impotently, unless channeled by positive force. For women writers, decorum, irony, and style itself are often mobilized against chaos. Thus, women don't cry in Brooks's poetry nor does she cry over them, but the poet is remarkably alive and questioning in the dialectical relationship she poses between feeling and thinking. Hers is a tough choice of weapons because it has little use for the traditional status of woman—connubial, man-obsessed. The style of Brooks's poetry, then, gives us by implication and example a model of power, control, and subtlety. No idealogue, Brooks does not have to be. Enough woman and poet, she merges both realities into a single achievement. Comedy and pathos, compassion and criticism are not estranged integers in this poetry, but a tangled skein of feeling, both vital and abstract, imposed on a particular historical order. With a taste for the city and an ear for change, Gwendolyn Brooks restores the tradition of citizen-poet.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5761
SOURCE: "'Taming All That Anger Down': Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 453-66.
[In the following essay, Washington discusses the critical reception of Maud Martha and the suppressed rage, self-loathing, and reticence displayed by Brooks's autobiographic heroine.]
Then emotionally aware
Of the black and boisterous hair,
Taming all that angêr down.
When Gwendolyn Brooks' autobiographical first novel, Maud Martha, was published in 1953 it was given the kind of ladylike treatment that assured its dismissal. Reviewers invariably chose to describe the novel in words that reflected what they considered the novel's appropriate feminine values. The young black woman heroine was called a "spunky Negro girl" as though the novel were a piece of juvenile fiction. Reviewers, in brief notices of the novel, insisted on its optimism and faith: Maud's life is made up of "moments she loved," she has "disturbances," but she "struggles against jealousy" for the sake of her marriage; there is, of course, "the delicate pressure of the color line," but Maud has the remarkable "ability to turn unhappiness and anger into a joke." Brooks' style was likened to the exquisite delicacy of a lyric poem. The New York Times reviewer said the novel reminded him of Imagist poems, of "clusters of ideograms from which one recreates connected experience."
In 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.
This autobiographical novel is about silences. Maud Martha rarely speaks aloud to anyone else. She has learned to conceal her feelings behind a mask of gentility, to make her hate silent and cold, expressed only in the most manipulative and deceptive ways. When she is irritated with her husband, Paul, who pinches her on the buttocks, trying to interest her in the activities of the book he is reading, Sex in the Married Life, she rises from the bed, as though she is at a garden party, and says "pleasantly", "'Shall I make some cocoa?'… 'And toast some sandwiches?'" That she is aware of this pattern and its destructiveness and of her need to change is clearly part of the novel's design:
There were these scraps of baffled hate in her, hate with no eyes, no smile and—this she especially regretted, called her hungriest lack—not much voice.
But the silences of Maud Martha are also Brooks' silences. The short vignetted chapters enact Maud Martha's silence. Ranging in length from one and a half pages to eighteen pages, these tightly controlled chapters withhold information about Maud just as she withholds her feelings; they leave her frozen in an arrested moment so that we are left without the reactions that are crucial to our understanding of her. With no continuity between one chapter and the next, the flow of Maud's life is checked just as powerfully as she checks her own anger. The short, declarative sentences, with few modifiers and little elaboration, are as stiff, unyielding and tight-lipped as Maud Martha herself.
An example of Brooks' tendency to check Maud's activity (and thus her growth) is chapter five, ironically entitled, "you're being so good so kind." As the teen-aged Maud awaits a visit from a white schoolmate named Charles, she begins to feel embarrassed by the shabbiness of her home and worried that her house may have the unpleasant smell that "colored people's houses necessarily had." It is a moment of pure terror. She is the whole "colored" race and "Charles was the personalization of the entire Caucasian plan" about to sit in judgment on her. Charles never actually materializes. The chapter ends with a freeze frame of Maud hiding in the bathroom, experiencing an emotion worse than fear:
What was this she was feeling now? Not fear, not fear. A sort of gratitude! It sickened her to realize it. As though Charles in coming gave her a gift. Recipient and benefactor. It's so good of you. You're being so good.
These last three lines, set off from the rest of the text, are a commentary by a black consciousness more aware and more removed from the event than the teen-aged Maud. While the commentator's indignation is reassuring, we can only imagine how the visit would have affected Maud: whether Charles continues to have such power when he appears, or whether Maud is as truly defeated in the encounter as her position behind closed doors intimates.
In all the chapters covering Maud's girlhood on the south side of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s, there are powerful oppositions to her freedom. In chapter one, for example, "description of Maud Martha," she decides on a personal metaphor for herself: she is a dandelion, a sturdy flower of demure prettiness, but just as a puff of wind can destroy it, so her belief in its—and her—power to allure is easily shaken, for,
it was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements—if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary—was as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty.
Maud's wish to be alluring is dashed in the last two sentences of this chapter by a sudden shift to a description of her prettier sister, Helen, who is described in a gasp of pure pleasure at the thought:
… her sister Helen! who was only two years past her own age of seven, and was almost her own height and weight and thickness. But oh, the long lashes, the grace, the little ways with the hands and feet.
Once, at age ten, when she is trying to appear more daring than she feels, she calls out "'Hi handsome'" to the little boy Emmanuel riding by in his wagon. He scowls back, "'I don't mean you, old black gal'" and he offers the ride to her sister Helen. In this chapter Maud tries to account for the mysterious, implacable design which has determined her inferior status and the greater worthiness of light-skinned beauties like Helen. In the short, staccato sentences that characterize much of the novel's narration, she tries to be nobly superior about her family's preference for Helen:
It was not their fault. She understood. They could not help it. They were enslaved, were fascinated, and they were not at all to blame.
Yet is not her nobleness we feel in these sentences, but her anger. These broken utterances, as Anna Julia Cooper called them, are evidence of a woman denied expression of powerful feelings.
The painful awareness of herself as an undesirable object whose worth cannot be gauged by eyes accustomed to dismissing the commonplace mystifies the child Maud. She is disdainful of her family's failure to see that she is smarter than Helen, that she reads more, that old folks like to talk to her, that she washes as much and has longer and thicker (if nappier) hair. But from the age of seventeen to the birth of her first child (chapters ten through nineteen) her own self-perception is dismissed while she abandons herself to the obligatory quest for a man. When she is finally chosen by one of "them," or, in her words, when she "hooks" Paul, her language and attitude shift. She now sees herself entirely through Paul's eyes. In the chapter called "low yellow," Maud engages in a grotesque act of double consciousness in which she fantasizes about Paul's negative view of her:
He wonders as we walk in the street, about the thoughts of the people who look at us. Are they thinking that he could do no better than—me? Then he thinks. Well, hmp! All the little good-lookin' dolls that have wanted him—all the little sweet high yellows that have ambled slowly past his front door—What he would like to tell those secretly snickering ones!—That any day out of the week he can do better than this black gal.
Rewarded for her pains with marriage, Maud settles down to "being wife to him, salving him, in every way considering and replenishing him." In chapter sixteen "the young couple at home" we perceive how Maud is the one who's been "hooked," who feels hemmed in, cramped, and "unexpressed" in this marriage. Though she is as disappointed as he in their life together, she evades her feelings. Once, in a classic example of self-abnegation, she worries that he is tired of her:
She knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam's, tired of his two suits…. He had no money, no car, no clothes, and he had not been put up for membership in the Foxy Cats Club…. He was not on show…. Something should happen…. She knew that he believed he had been born to invade, to occur, to confront, to inspire the flapping of flags, to panic people.
Maud's lack of voice and indirection become more troubling for us when, as a grown woman confined to a small apartment and to being Mrs. Paul Phillips, she seems to have become an accomplice to her own impotence. Maud's passivity in the face of the persecutory actions of others inhibits her growth and reflects her resistance to facing her anger. When Maud and Paul are invited to the Foxy Cats Club Ball, where acceptance requires sophistication and good looks, Maud is once again up against the image of the "little yellow dream girl." Thinking about how she will forestall her old feelings of inferiority, she prepares for the event in language we know will defeat her:
"I'll settle," decided Maud Martha, "on a plain white princess-style thing and some blue and black satin ribbon. I'll go to my mother's. I'll work miracles at the sewing machine."
"On that night, I'll wave my hair. I'll smell faintly of lily of the valley."
The words she uses to refashion herself—white, princess, wavy, lily—all suggest how complete a transformation she imagines she needs in order to be accepted. At the club, Paul goes off with the beautiful, "white-looking" curvy Maella, leaving Maud on a bench by the wall. Maud imagines how she might handle the interloper:
I could … go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back. I could scream. "Listen," I could scream, "I'm making a baby for this man and I mean to do it in peace."
Instead of asserting herself, however, Maud chooses to say nothing. The scraps of rage and baffled hate accumulate while she resists the words of power as though she has subjected her language to the same perverted standards by which she judges her physical beauty. In one of the early chapters she describes the "graceful" life as one where people glide over floors in softly glowing rooms, smile correctly over trays of silver, cinnamon and cream, and retire in quiet elegance. She imagines herself happy and caressed in these cool, elegant (white) places, and she aspires to the jeweled, polished, clam lives the people live there. This life, as she imagines it, is like a piece of silver, silent and remote and behind bright glass. The black world, as symbolized by the Foxy Cats Ball, is, by comparison, hot, steamy, sweaty and crowded. Far from caressing her, this real world batters her until she retreats into her imagination, refusing to speak in it because it does not match the world of her fantasies. She conceals her real self behind the bright glass of her strained gentility.
All of this pretense, this muted rage, this determination to achieve housewifely eminence—the feminine mystique of the 1950s—the desire to protect herself, "to keep herself to herself," masks so much of Maud's real feelings that we are compelled to consider what is missing in Maud Martha. Are there places in the novel where the real meaning of the character's quest is disguised? Are there "hollows, centers, caverns within the work—places where activity that one might expect is missing … or deceptively coded"?
Something is missing in Maud Martha, something besides the opportunity to speak, something we have the right to expect in Maud's life because Maud herself expects it. She has already—in the first chapters—begun to chafe at the domestic role, and yet Brooks suggests that Maud has no aspirations beyond it. When Maud asks in the last chapter, "'What, what, am I to do with all this life?'" she is expressing the same sense of perplexity her readers have been feeling throughout the novel. How is this extraordinary woman going to express herself? She claims not to want to be a star because she once saw a singer named Howie Joe Jones parade himself before an audience foolishly "exhibiting his precious private identity" and she has vowed that she will never be like that: "she was going to keep herself to herself." The artist's role, she says, is not for her. But the fact that she has considered and dismissed the possibility is revealing:
To create—a role, a poem, a picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.
What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.
Everywhere in the novel, however, Maud's artistic intentions are indirectly revealed. She perceives the world sensuously, she responds to the complexity of beauty.
What she wanted to dream, and dreamed, was her affair. It pleased her to dwell upon color and soft bready textures and light, on a complex beauty, on gem-like surfaces. What was the matter with that? (italics mine)
What indeed is the matter with a woman having such subversive ideas? In an article on the sexist images of woman in modernist texts, Joyce Carol Oates maintains that by aspiring to art women violate the deeply conservative and stereotypical images of men. The autonomy of the artist is considered unnatural for women, unfeminine, and threatening. Maud uses the language of the artist as she surrenders her claim to be an artist; her language betrays her. Maud's gifts are words, insight, imagination. She has the artist's eye, the writer's memory, that unsparing honesty which does not put a light gauze across little miseries and monotonies but exposes them, leaving the audience as ungauzed as the creator.
It is natural to wonder why Brooks, in her "autobiographical novel," did not allow Maud the same independence and creative expression that she herself had as a writer. After all, Brooks was her own model of a black woman artist in the 1950s. In her autobiography, Report From Part One, she describes the exuberance she felt as she waited for books she would review to arrive in the mail, the "sassy brass" that enabled her to chide Richard Wright for his clumsy prose, and her eager sense of taking on the responsibility of a writer. But Maud, who craves something "elaborate, immutable, and sacred," who wants to express herself in "shimmering form," "warm, but hard as stone and as difficult to break," is never allowed to fulfill these cravings.
Novelist Paule Marshall has pointed out that women writers often make their first woman protagonist a homebody, as if to expiate for their own "deviance" in succeeding in the world of men. There is, she says, some need to satisfy the domestic role, and so they let their characters live it. Maud Martha ends with a pregnancy, not a poem; but if Maud has no life outside of marriage, she has a child, through whom she begins to hear her own voice.
The pregnancy actually becomes a form of rebellion against the dominance of both her mother and her husband. She screams at Paul in the midst of her labor pains, "DON'T YOU GO OUT OF HERE AND LEAVE ME ALONE! Damn! Damn!" When her mother, who is prone to faint over blood, comes in the door, Maud sets her straight about who's important in this drama: "'Listen, if you're going to make a fuss, go on out. I'm having enough trouble without you making a fuss over everything.'" In that one vital moment of pulling life out of herself, Maud experiences her own birth and she hears in the cries of her daughter Paulette something of her own voice:
a bright delight had flooded through her upon first hearing that part of Maud Martha Brown Phillips expressing herself with a voice of its own. (italics mine)
Shortly after the birth of her child, Maud speaks aloud the longest set of consecutive sentences she has so far uttered. For a woman who has hardly said more than a dozen words at one time, this is quite a speech:
"Hello, Mrs. Barksdale!" she hailed. "Did you hear the news? I just had a baby, and I feel strong enough to go out and shovel coal! Having a baby is nothing, Mrs. Barksdale. Nothing at all."
Pregnancy and the birth of a child connect Maud to some power in herself, some power to speak, to be heard, to articulate feelings.
Yet however powerful the reproductive act is, it is not the same as the creative process: a child is a separate, independent human being, not a sample of one's creative work. Without the means to satisfy her deeper cravings for her own inner life, Maud's life remains painfully ambiguous. Brooks must have felt this ambiguity in Maud's life, for when she imagined a sequel to Maud Martha, she immediately secured some important work for Maud and dispensed with the role of housewife. In a 1975 interview, Brooks was asked to bring Maud Martha up to the present day, With obvious relish, Brooks eliminates Maud's husband:
Well, she has that child, and she has another child and then her husband dies in the bus fire that happened in Chicago in the fifties. One of those flammable trucks with a load of oil ran into a street car and about thirty-six people burned right out on Sixty-third and State Streets. So I put her husband in that fire. (italics mine) Wasn't that nice of me? I had taken him as far as I could. He certainly wasn't going to change. I could see that.
Brooks insists that Maud feels some regret at the loss of her husband, but returning from the funeral Maud is "thinking passionately about the cake that's going to be at the wake and how good it's going to be." Having safely buried Paul, Brooks proceeds to explain how Maud Martha will get on with her own adventures. She will be chosen as a guide to accompany some children on a trip to Africa, and will use her slender resources to help them. She will live her life with herself at its center.
Brooks' tone as she describes the sequel to Maud Martha—so freewheeling and aggressive and self-assured—reveals by comparison the uncertainties and the tensions of the 1953 version. Maud needs a language powerful enough to confront life's abuses. Maud's polite, precious and prim little rhetoric is no match for the uncouth realities she faces as a poor black woman. Rhetoric and setting seem to be at odds with each other just as they are in Brooks' 1949 epic poem Annie Allen in which, using the language of the tradition of courtly love, she tries to tell the tragic love story of a poor black woman named Annie Allen. There is power in yoking together the diction of chivalric, religious, and classical traditions and that of a woman born into a world of "old peach cans and old jelly jars," but the power of Annie Allen derives from the poet's ironic perspective. Maud's life is told in her own words and thoughts and so the poet's perspective is not available. Maud needs more access to the vernacular.
One wonders if Brooks also denies Maud a more dynamic role in the novel because of her own ambivalence (understandable in terms of the restrictions on women in the 1950s) toward women as heroic figures. In her poetry all the heroes are men, from the dapper hustler Satin-Legs Smith to the renegade Way-out Morgan or the soldier in "Negro Hero" or the armed man defending his family against a white mob, Brooks selects the heroic strategies of men and the ritual grounds on which men typically perform. Even a plain man like Rudolph Reed has a moment of glory as he runs out into the street "with a thirty-four / And a beastly butcher knife." He dies in defense of his family, while his wife, who has been passive throughout the entire ballad, stands by mutely and does nothing "But change the bloody gauze."
Brooks, in her poetry, seldom endows women with the power, integrity, or magnificence of her male figures. The passive and vulnerable Annie Allen, the heroine of her Pulitzer Prize winning poem, is deserted by her soldier husband and left pathetically mourning her fate in her little kitchenette, "thoroughly / Derelict and dim and done." Sometimes Brooks' women manage to be "decently wild" as girls, but they grow up to be worried and fearful, or fretful over the loss of a man. They wither in back yards, afraid to tackle life, they are done in by dark skin; and like "estimable Mable," they are often incapable of estimating their worth without the tape measure of a man's interest in them.
Brooks does allow Maud to grow in some ways, to become more in control of her life and to speak out against the racist violence of her life. When Maud moves away from the domestic sphere of her little kitchenette apartment and out into a larger social and political world she feels more urgently the need to speak. There are three racial encounters leading up to Maud's self-affirmation. Each encounter involves a change in the language Maud has available to her; each moves her closer to experiencing and expressing her rage. In the last of these three encounters Maud makes the longest speech of the novel: she tries to explain to her child, Paulette, that Santa Claus loves her as much as any white child.
A large downtown department store in the 1940s, a place where black women were generally allowed to work only as "stock girls" or kitchen help, is fundamentally alien territory for Maud, and yet it is on this hostile ground that she finally asserts herself. On the traditional Christmas visit to see Santa Claus with Paulette, Maud notices that Santa is merry and affectionate with the white children but distant and unresponsive with Paulette, looking vaguely away from her as though she is not there. As Maud sees her own child learning the lessons of inferiority and invisibility she speaks up to him in a clear and uncompromising statement that forces him to recognize Paulette:
"Mister," said Maud Martha, "my little girl is talking to you."
Maud suddenly experiences her anger as powerful enough to lead to physical violence. She yearns to "jerk trimming scissors from purse and jab jab jab that evading eye." Now there is no desire to cover up her rage, to feign cold indifference:
She could neither resolve nor dismiss. There were these scraps of baffled hate in her, hate with no eyes, no smile, and—this she especially regretted, called her hungriest lack—not much voice.
Ironically this chapter, where Maud regrets her lack of voice, is the one where she does the most talking. In the longest speech of the entire novel she tries to make Paulette believe that Santa Claus did like her:
"Listen, child. People don't have to kiss you to show they like you. Now you know Santa Claus liked you. What have I been telling you? Santa Claus loves every child, and on the night before Christmas he brings them swell presents. Don't you remember, when you told Santa Claus you wanted the ball and bear and tricycle and doll he said 'Um-hm?' That meant he's going to bring you all those. You watch and see. Christmas'll be here in a few days. You'll wake up Christmas morning and find them and then you'll know Santa Claus loved you too."
From Maud Martha, this is a veritable torrent of words, but the problem with her words is that they are still part of her subterfuge: She denies Santa Claus' rejection of Paulette and insists that Paulette deny her own perception of Santa's cold indifference.
The honest voice in this chapter is Paulette's. She persists:
"Why didn't Santa Claus like me?"
"Baby, of course he liked you."
"He didn't like me. Why didn't he like me!"
"It maybe seemed that way to you. He has alot on his mind, of course."
"He liked the other children. He smiled at them and shook their hands."
"He maybe got tired of smiling. Sometimes even I get—"
"He didn't look at me, he didn't shake my hand."
In the chapter "a birth" Maud has said that her daughter's voice is part of her own. Mother and child are locked in a conversation that forces Maud out from behind the bright glass of her pretense. Now Maud admits rage, laments her lack of voice, speaks aloud, and bites back the tears as she looks down at her child's trusting face, knowing she cannot keep for her a fairy tale land where no Santa Claus ever hates a black child. Brooks does not leave Maud frozen in this chapter; we do see her acting and speaking. But perhaps the most important change is that Maud is given her most aggressive role when she confronts the racism of that cool, elegant, white, fantasy world.
If Brooks' novel seems fragmentary and incomplete, undoubtedly it is because the knowledge of one's self as a black woman was fragmented by a society which cannot imagine her. I am thinking specifically of the 1940s and 50s, those post World War decades which enshrined the Great American Domestic Dream of a housewife and a Hoover in every home. If the housewife in that dream was a white woman, the servant was always a black woman—simple and unsophisticated, as the reviews called Maud Martha. The leading black magazines of those years—Ebony, Negro Digest, Crisis—contributed their share of images of black women as idealized child-like creatures and assumed that their basic role was to satisfy the male imagination. The magazine Crisis alternated pictures of cute babies and "cute" women on its covers, while the covers of Negro Digest featured bathing beauties, tennis beauties, homecoming queens, and pin-ups in various stages of undress. In contrast to these pictures of black women, the back page of the Digest spotlighted "Men of Achievement," so that back to back with the smiling faces and exposed bodies of black women were mini-stories about the first black man to enter a prestigious college, to excel in athletics or to perform valiantly in some war. The August 1947 issue of the Digest featured on its back page the bravery of Negro volunteers (all men) during the Civil War; on the cover there is a picture of a fan "girl" whose partially nude body is coyly hidden behind a polka dot umbrella. Beneath the fan girl's picture is the title of the opening article by Era Bell Thompson, "What's Wonderful About Negro Men."
The articles about black women in these magazines range from condescending to obscene. The titles themselves reveal extreme hostility: "What's Wrong With Negro Women?", "Are Black Women Beautiful?", "The Care and Feeding of the Negro Woman." This last article, based on the metaphor of cultivating a really fine pet, claims that a properly trained female will develop the loyalty of a German Shepherd and the cleverness of a Siamese cat and will provide many hours of diversion and relaxation for her owner. The article "What's Wrong With Negro Women?" lists among the many shortcomings of black women their lack of cultural interests, their sense of inferiority to white women and their lack of militancy: "Where are the Negro women of self-sacrifice and courage in the cause of the race?" the writer Roi Ottley wonders. "There is not one woman to rank with the distinguished Harriet Tubman."
If we consider the way Maud Martha was received in 1953 by the literary community (black and white males), then we can clearly see another example of how black women were silenced in the 1950s. Despite Brooks' stature as a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, no one in 1953 had more than 600 words to say about the novel. The reviewers of Ellison's Invisible Man, (published just the year before, when Ellison was relatively unknown), suffering no such taciturnity, devoted as many as 2,100 words to Ellison's novel. The New Republic, The Nation, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic contained lengthy and signed reviews of Invisible Man. Wright Morris and Irving Howe were called in to write serious critical assessments of Ellison's book for The New York Times and The Nation. In contrast, The New Yorker review of Maud Martha was unsigned, suggesting that the real "invisible man" of the 1950s was the black woman. Brooks' character was never held up for comparison to any other literary character. Ellison's nameless hero was not only considered "the embodiment of the Negro race" but the "conscience of all races;" the titles of the reviews—"Black & Blue," "Underground Notes," "A Brother Betrayed," "Black Man's Burden"—indicated the universality of the invisible man's struggles. The titles of Brooks' reviews—"Young Girl Growing Up" and "Daydreams in Flight"—deny any relationship between the protagonist's personal experiences and the historical experiences of her people. Ellison himself was compared to Richard Wright, Dostoevsky and Faulkner; Brooks only to the unspecified "Imagists." Questions about narrative strategy, voice, and methods of characterization that were asked of Invisible Man were obviously considered irrelevant to an understanding of Maud Martha since they were not posed. Most critically, Ellison's work was placed in a tradition; it was described as an example of the "Picaresque" tradition and the pilgrim/journey tradition by all reviews. Maud Martha, the reviewers said, "stood alone." Not one of these reviewers could place Maud Martha in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy (1948), or Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928). Is this because no one in 1953 could picture the questing figure, the hero with a thousand faces, the powerful, articulate voice, as a plain dark-skinned woman living in a kitchenette building on the south side of Chicago?
The supreme confidence of Ellison's text—its epic sweep, its eloquent flow of words, its historical significance—invites its greater critical acceptance. By comparison the Maud Martha text is hesitant, self-doubting, mute, retentive. Maud is restricted, for the most part, to a domestic life that seems limited and narrow. At the end of the novel, poised on the edge of self-creation, at the moment we expect the "illumination of her gold," she announces that she is pregnant again, and happy.
My initial reaction to this ending was critical of Brooks for precluding any growth beyond the domestic life. But that disappointment ignores the novel's insistence that we read Maud's life in tone, in images, and in gestures. Released from an incapacitating anger, Maud becomes exhilarated and full of energy. In the last chapter she is out of doors with her daughter on a glorious day. She is outside of all the spaces that have enclosed her—the bedrooms, the kitchens, the male clubs, the doctors' offices, the movie theatres, the white women's houses, the dress shops, the beauty parlors; out of the psychic confines which left her preoccupied with her "allurements" and presumed deficiencies. Free from destructive self-concern, Maud thinks of the people around her, of the glory and bravery in their ability to continue life amid the reality of city streets, lynchings in Mississippi and Georgia, and the grim reminder of death as the soldiers, back from war, march by with arms, legs, and parts of faces missing. Maud says she is ready for anything. So this catalog of evils (include the Negro press' preoccupation with pale and pompadoured beauties) has to be seen as Maud's growing sense of relation to the social and political problems of her world. Even Maud's pregnancy can be seen as a powerful way-of-being in the world. For, in the midst of destruction and death, she will bring forth life.
Brooks then re-introduces the raised arm image of the first chapter, when Maud at age seven longed to fling her arms rapturously up to the sky. In the final chapter the raised arms are like "wings cutting away all the higher layers of air." There is the suggestion of flight and transcendence; her arms, purposeful and powerful, directing her up out of a dark valley. In sharp contrast to the child whose dearest wish was "to be cherished" as a yellow-jewelled, demurely pretty dandelion, this Maud thinks of the common flower as an image of survival and self-possession:
for would its kind (like her) come up again in the spring? come up, if necessary, among, between, or out of—the smashed corpses lying in strict composures, in that hush infallible and sincere….
Still, in spite of all the victorious imagery in this last chapter, there is a sense of incompleteness about Maud's quest; some exploration not undertaken, some constriction of the blood. Brooks does not solve the problem of Maud's anger or of her silence. Part of this lies in the privateness of Maud's story. Her constant self-analysis and self-consciousness emphasize her solitariness. She lives alienated from the two blood-related women in her life—the fussy, domineering mother and the vain sister. She has no women friends. Though she succeeds through heroic individual effort in rejecting others' definitions of her, she is still unable to express the full meaning of her growth. True, the presence of another "woman-in-embryo" allows her a first move towards freedom but she does not have the advantage of Zora Hurston's Janie who can tell her story to an eager, loving listener whose life is changed by hearing the tale. I only wish Brooks had found a way for Maud to know that someone in the community had grown ten feet higher from listening to her story.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
SOURCE: A review of Beckonings, in Black Scholar, Vol. 15, no. 6, November-December, 1984, pp. 63-4.
[In the following review, Brown offers positive evaluation of Beckonings.]
This special edition of Gwendolyn Brook's Beckonings can be found on the local library shelf in a beige and chocolate cover. The poems will have private meanings for most poets. In 1975, I was writing the poems which were published in Lightyears. Gwendolyn Brooks was one of those distant ethereal figures whose works I stood in line to buy at bookstores. Her volumes were curiously hard to obtain. Fortunately, for me and about twenty-five other people, the Poet Laureate of Illinois and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize read at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania on April 26, 1983. Her reading was sponsored by Dr. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations as well as the President and Provost of the University. Before the reading, the endowers of Dr. Baker's chair were introduced, and the establishment of the Albert I. Greenfield Intercultural Center on the campus. This was truly an auspicious occasion!
Ms. Brooks' reading marked a turning point in several careers. In fact, she seemed to charm everyone who came into her presence. She spoke slowly and patiently. In fact she is the most cautious public, reader of the Afro-American poets, perhaps, of all poets. She read from a spectrum of her works, pausing to explain the legal controversies and critical battles that have surrounded her publication. Gwendolyn Brooks is not now associated with poetic licenses, yet it is difficult to imagine how closely her legacy parallels that of our outstanding political leaders. Present at the reading was Daniel Hoffman, an expert on Carl Sandburg, whose job Ms. Brooks now holds.
The reissue of Beckonings features a pencil drawing of the poet by her brother, Raymond Brooks, on the back cover—her broad nose, set grimace, soft eyes. The critical comment is by the late Hoyt Fuller: "The aching loveliness of these poems is sometimes close to unbearable. Through the magic of Gwendolyn Brooks' words, we hold in our souls' eye a vivid image of our beauty, we glimpse what we might yet be. An incredible woman, this poet: she would urge us into our ultimate, our transcendent humanity, with her love."
A dozen poems begin with a tribute to her brother's memory, "Raymond Melvin Brooks": "He knew how to put paint to paper—/made the paper speak and sing. / But he was chiefly a painter of days and the daily, / with a talent for life color, life pattern: / a talent for jeweling use and the usual, / a talent for practical style." The ordinariness which she brings to the extraordinary rescues the simplicity seen in the ornamentation of objects and events. It is with no small solemnity one reflects on the eight years that have passed since the publication of the poems, with their nuances of swagger in speech, the acknowledgment, abruptly, as poetry tends to do, of more awesome horizons. For example, this poem, "To John Oliver Killens in 1975":
look at our mercy, the massiveness that it is not.
Look at our "unity," look at our
Dim, dull and dainty.
Ragged. And we
grow colder; we
You were a mender.
You were a sealer of tremblings and long trepidations.
And always, with you, the word kindness was not
a jingling thing but an
Therefore, we turn, John, to you.
Interrupting self-raiding. We pause in our falling.
To ask another question of your daylight.
These poems have an amazing informality, not at all like the preachments of epic Annie Allen or the looming sermons of In the Mecca. They pop with humor, invade the speech with warning, paint a too familiar horror. Gwendolyn Brooks has become, in some sense, unbelievable. Her poems stand at the crossroads between "we live" and "we used to live." She has always spoken with a kind of musical understatement. In Beckonings, she blends the Homeric meter which qualifies her heir to the throne of Carl Sandburg with the bending, flattering tones of a Duke Ellington trumpet.
After her reading at Pennsylvania, Ms. Brooks shook hands, autographed books, and gave advice. Surrounded by benefactors, professors, filmmakers, poets, and the ever-present admiration of youth, she appeared to carry the responsibility of her position in the world of poetry with a bowed, respectful mien.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6331
SOURCE: "Nuance and the Novella: A Study of Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha," in Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 127-41.
[In the following essay, Christian examines the social context and presentation of Maud Martha. According to Christian, Brooks's "emphasis on the black girl within the community is a prefiguring of black women's novels of the sixties and seventies, which looked at the relationship between the role of women in society and the racism that embattled the black community."]
Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks's only novel, appeared in 1953, the same year that Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin's first novel, was published. By that time, Brooks had already published two books of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and Annie Allen (1949), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. But although she was an established poet, Brooks's novel quietly went out of print while Baldwin's first publication was to become known as a major Afro-American novel. Brooks's novel, like Baldwin's, presents the development of a young urban black into an adult, albeit Brooks's major character is female and Baldwin's is male. Her understated rendition of a black American girl's development into womanhood did not arouse in the reading public the intense reaction that Baldwin's dramatic portrayal of the black male did. Yet Paule Marshall (whose novel, Browngirl, Brownstones (1959) is considered by many critics to be the forerunner of the Afro-American woman's literary explosion of the 1970s, would, in 1968, point to Maud Martha as the finest portrayal of an Afro-American woman in the novel, to date, and as a decided influence on her work. To Marshall, Brooks's contribution was a turning point in Afro-American fiction, for it presented for the first time a black woman not as a mammy, wench, mulatto, or downtrodden heroine, but as an ordinary human being in all the wonder of her complexity.
Why is it that Maud Martha never received some portion of the exposure that Baldwin's novel did, or why is it still, to this date, out of print, virtually unknown except to writers like Marshall and a small but growing number of black literary critics? Even within the context of Black Studies or Women's Studies, Brooks's novel is unknown or dismissed as "exquisite," but somehow not particularly worthy of comment. One could say, of course, that Maud Martha was not significant enough to receive such attention. However, comments such as Marshall's tend to nullify that argument. Or one could say that Brooks's accomplishment as a poet overshadowed, perhaps eclipsed, her only novel, although the novel shares so many of her poetic characteristics that one would think that it would attract a similar audience. I am inclined to believe that, ironically, the fate of the novel has precisely to do with its poetic qualities, with the compressed ritualized style that is its hallmark, and as importantly, with the period when it was published.
George Kent tells us in his essay "The Aesthetic Values in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," that her pre-sixties poetry was published at a time when the small number of blacks reading poetry expected that it be "the expression of interest in the universal, but without the qualifications or unstated premises or doubts regarding Blacks' humanity." And that the larger white audience "reflected happiness when they could assure the reading public that the artistic construct transcended racial categories and racial protest … and yet paradoxically insisted upon the art construct's informative role, by asserting that the Black artist was telling us what it meant to be a Negro." These observations would, I believe, also apply to the anticipated reading audience of Maud Martha, a poetic novel of the 1950s without any of the sensationalism that characterized popular novels about blacks—a novel that would be considered art. But although Maud Martha certainly does have these perspectives, it provides another dimension, in that it focuses on a young black girl growing into womanhood without the employment of Afro-American female stereotypes found previously in the novel. While poetry was expected to transcend racial boundaries and aspire toward universality, the novel, by definition, dealt with a specific individual's interaction with her society. The type of interaction that even this small literate audience was used to in the "Negro Novel" was not at all present in Maud Martha.
In the novels written by black women in the first half of the century, most featured tragic or not so tragic mulattas, as in the Harlem Renaissance novels of Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset, or the oppressed and finally tragic heroine, as in protest novels like Ann Petry's The Street (1945). Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy (1949), the closest in time to Brooks's Maud Martha, focuses on a central protagonist who resembles the heroines of the Renaissance period, in that an almost histrionic investment in social mobility and decorum is her principal value. And even in that innovative novel of the 1930s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston imbues her major character with an extraordinary life. However, Brooks's major character is neither an aspiring lady, the Major's wife, nor a necessarily beautiful and doomed heroic figure. She lives, like so many of us, an ordinary life, at least on the surface. An excerpt from the novel distinguishes its stance from its predecessors.
On the whole, she felt life was more comedy than tragedy…. The truth was, if you got a good Tragedy out of a lifetime, one good ripping tragedy, thorough, unridiculous, bottom-scraping, not the issue of human stupidity, you were doing, she thought, very well, you were doing well.
In its insistence on examining the supposed "trivia" that makes up the lives of most black women, their small tragedies and fears notwithstanding, Maud Martha ran counter to the tone of "the Negro Novel" that both blacks and whites would have expected in 1953. For Brooks replaced intense drama or pedestrian portrayal of character with a careful rendering of the rituals, the patterns of the ordinary life, where racism is experienced in sharp nibbles rather than screams and where making do is continually juxtaposed to small but significant dreams.
Brooks's portrayal of a black woman whose life is not characterized as "tragic" was perhaps due partly, to two overlapping trends in Afro-American life and thought of the 1950s. One was the integrationist thrust, which culminated in the Supreme Court Decision of 1954. Arthur P. Davis points out the complexity of this thrust in From the Dark Tower. On the one hand, black writers like Wright, Hughes, Himes, and Brooks had participated through their literature in the protest movement of the 1940s against racism and poverty, especially its manifestations in the urban ghetto. To some extent, the effect of the literature was the development of an apparent climate in the country out of which full integration could develop. Emphasis on the overall black protest movement of that period had been on securing equality through the law, thus the significance of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. On the other hand, "there was surface and token integration in many areas, but the everyday pattern of life for the overwhelming majority remained unchanged. In the meantime he [the Negro literary artist] had to live between two worlds and that for any artist is a disturbing experience.
In the 1940s, black writers like Richard Wright had presented the everyday pattern of life for the overwhelming majority of blacks in as dramatically tragic a form as possible in an attempt to affect the philosophical underpinnings of America toward its black native sons. One unwanted result of this dramatization was white America's tendency to stereotype blacks as creatures entirely determined by their oppression, a tendency that undermined blacks' humanity as much as the previous attitude that they were genetically inferior. Many black intellectuals' reaction to this "protest" stereotype was to emphasize those qualities blacks shared with all other human beings. Thus, the "expression of interest in the universal" could be seen in the major books of the 1950s published by already established writers: e.g., Wright's The Outsider (1953), in which he attempted to weave together the impact of racism on the black man with philosophical issues about the existential nature of all men, or Ann Petry's, The Narrows (1953), which is set not in the urban ghetto of The Street (1945), but in a small New England city and focuses on the relationship between a black man and his white mistress. Invisible Man (1952), perhaps the most influential Afro-American novel of the period, emphasizes this double-pronged approach among blacks, for Ralph Ellison consciously weaves together motifs of both Afro- and Euro-American culture as the foundation of the novel's structure. Afro-American writers, in other words, were trying out new settings, approaching new subjects. In general, these new approaches attempted to break the image of the black person as an essentially controlled and tragic individual, as well as to dramatize the variety of his or her experience. The political tone of integration and literary striving to portray black people's many-sided experiences went hand in hand.
One aspect of these strivings was a return to the chronicle of the black family that was apparent in some of the Renaissance novels of Jessie Fauset. But while her novels were entirely about the upper middle class, whose conventions supposedly mirrored those of their white counterparts, the novels of the 1950s featured lower middle-class folk set against the background of coherent, specifically black communities. Unlike the conventional novel of the 1920s or the protest novels of the 1930s and 1940s, the novel of the 1950s put more and more stress on the black community as community. Still there were novels like Himes's The Third Generation (1954), which traced the maturation of a black boy within a family that attempts to restrict his growth.
In fact many of the novels of the late 1940s and the 1950s put some portion of the blame for the conflicts of the main characters on the black wife and/or mother, who is depicted as a powerful embodiment of white middle-class values. Variations on this theme appear not only in Himes's Third Generation but in West's The Living is Easy and The Outsider, novels that precede the infamous Moynihan Report (1966). In the popular arena, the image of the aggressive, castrating black female who is bent on making the male tow the line was made popular through Sapphire, a major character in the Amos n' Andy radio programs of the late 1940s and 1950s.
Interestingly, this image, a variant of the old plantation mammy, became current at a time when sociology, one of the major image makers of blacks, paid little attention to the black family. As Billingsley points out in Black Families in White America (1966), sociology did not discover the black family until the 1930s and by the 1950s had virtually abandoned it. The academic view of the black family, the context within which most studies of black woman were initially conducted, was, during the 1940s and 1950s represented by Frazier's The Negro Family in the U.S. (1948) and Cayton and Drake's Black Metropolis (1948). Both studies emphasized the strength of the black mother, her coping with poverty, poor housing, and desertion, which, ironically, was interpreted by many to mean that she was more powerful than the black man and therefore too powerful. And though this attitude would not be fully developed or officially authorized until the Moynihan Report, one can in hindsight see the process by which this view gained currency during the 1950s.
But just as Brooks's Maud Martha is not a tragic figure, neither is she a domineering personality. As daughter and then as a mother, she exhibits little of the willfulness associated with Sapphire or even Cleo, the major character of The Living is Easy. Her strength is a quiet one, rooted in a keen sensitivity that both appreciates, and critiques her family and culture. Brooks's portrayal of an ordinary black girl who cherishes the rituals of her community even as she suffers from some of its mores both conformed to and deviated from the family chronicles of the 1940s and 1950s. Her emphasis on the black girl within the community is a prefiguring of black women's novels of the sixties and seventies, which looked at the relationship between the role of woman in society and the racism that embattled the black community.
Yet a description of Maud Martha as a work of such grand intentions would undercut its peculiar quality. In keeping with it smallness, more precisely its virtual dismissal of the grand or the heroic, Maud Martha is a short novel. Properly speaking, it should be called a novella, not only because of its length but more importantly, because of its intention. Brooks is not interested in recreating the broad sweep of a society, a totality of social interaction, but rather in painting a portrait in fine but indelible strokes of a Maud Martha. In an interview in 1969 with George Stavros, editor of Contemporary Literature, Brooks says of her process:
I had first written a few tiny stories and I felt that they would mesh, and I centered them and the others around one character. If there is a form I would say it was imposed at least in the beginning when I started with those segments or vignettes.
And Brooks goes on to agree with her interviewer when he says that "the unity of the novel is simply the central point of view of Maud Martha herself as she grows up."
Brooks's comments emphasize two points: the centrality of Maud Martha's inner life, for the novella is a revelation of her thoughts, and her reflections on her limited world. Unlike her predecessors, with the exception of Hurston's Janie Stark, Maud Martha is not just a creation of her external world; She helps to create her own world by transforming externals through her thoughts and imaginings. This is a quality seldom attributed to ordinary folk in previous black women's novels. And yet, in illuminating Maud Martha's specific individuality, Brooks must necessarily show her in relation to other people and her physical environment, the basis for the world she knows, imagines, even extends. The other point of emphasis in Brooks's description is her use of the word tiny and how diminution affects the form of this novella, the use of segments or vignettes. In all, the 170-page novella is divided into 34 chapters, many of which are three or four pages long, few longer than ten pages, "the small prose sections fitting together like a mosaic." This double emphasis of the novella is introduced in the first vignette, the "description of Maud Martha." Immediately we are in the midst of Maud Martha's images of fancy and her sense of her own ordinariness and diminutiveness.
What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue or delicate silver) and the west sky altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions….
dandelions were what she chiefly saw. Yellow jewels for everyday studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.
As a prose piece, Maud Martha is a fusion of these two qualities, the sensitive and the ordinary, not only in its characterization of its protagonist, but also in the moments the writer chooses to include in her compressed rendition of an urban black woman's life. Yet these moments, as they form a whole, both look back to the novels of the 1940s and toward black women's novels of the 1960s and 1970s. Since the time period of Maud Martha is the thirties and the forties, it is not surprising that the impact of the Depression on black family life (e.g., in "home" and "at the Burns-Coopers") are some of the moments Brooks chooses to telescope. But there are also vignettes about a dark girl's feeling of being rejected by her own community ("low yellow" and "if you're light and have long hair"), a theme that Toni Morrison would use as the basis for her complex analyses of cultural mutilation in The Bluest Eye (1970). There are segments about the relationship between the rituals of a black culture and the development of character ("kitchenette folks" and "tradition and Maud Martha"), a structural technique that Paule Marshall would expand and refine in her novels. There are moments that are particularly female ("a birth," "Helen," "Mother comes to call"), themes that would become increasingly important to black women novelists of the seventies. And there are "universal" moments, in that human beings, whatever their race, sex, or class, muse about the meaning of existence and the degree of responsibility they must take to shape their own lives ("posts," "on 34th Street"), an underlying theme in Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970).
Maud Martha, then, is a work that both expresses the mores of a time passing and prefigures the preoccupations to come. Georg Lukas in his analysis of another novella, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1953), points out that novellas often appear at the end of a historical period or at the beginning of a new period, that often they are "either in the phase of a not yet (noch nicht) in the artistically universal mastery of the given social world, or in the phase of the no longer (nichtmehr)." His analysis of the genre is one way of locating the elusive significance of this "exquisite" novella. For in its focus on a single character or situation rather than the totality of a society and in its economy of presentation, the novella may summarize the essentials of a period that has just ended and be an initial exploration into attitudes that are just forming. Though not consciously intending to write a novella, the writer may find that in trying to express the moment of transition from one mode of interpreting reality to another, the present cannot be expressed in the novels of the past, nor is the totality of the new reality understood enough to transform it.
I think that it is important to note that the period of the 1930s and 1940s had been written about in many black novels. Wright's Native Son (1941) is set in that period as is Petry's The Street (1945). What Brooks does is to present another version of black life of that time, as she may have experienced it, but also as she could interpret it through the integrationist thrust of the 1950s. Yet she also pointed to future emphases: the sense of the black community as community and the black reaction to impose white notions of beauty, cultural nationalist concepts of the 1960s; as well as the sensitivity and specificity of the black women's experience as woman, a pervasive theme of the seventies. In effect, the seeds of these themes were sowed in the thwarted expectations of the integrationist thrust. And though Brooks could hardly foresee the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, or the Women's Movement and their impact on American literature, her experience as she described it in Maud Martha was the outline of some of the reasons for the desires and goals of these movements. When Maud Martha's little daughter, Paulette, is rejected by a white Santa Claus and asks "why didn't Santa Claus like me?" and Maud Martha must try to explain why without saying why, we are witnessing one of the "trivial" but significant reasons for the 1960s black search for nationhood. When Helen, Maud Martha's sister, proclaims to her, "you'll never get a boyfriend, if you don't stop reading those books," we hear in Maud Martha's sighs the rumblings of the redefinition of woman that would be attempted in the 1970s. Perhaps, as Arthur P. Davis pointed out, because there was an apparent climate of change but little actual change, and the Negro artist of the 1950s was living between two worlds, Brooks's rendition of Maud Martha's life would have to look backward and forward.
Yet Brooks's overt intention in writing Maud Martha was not to reinterpret the past or prefigure the future. She tells us that she "wanted to give a picture of a girl growing up—a black girl growing up in Chicago, and of course much of it is wrenched from my own life and twisted." In Report from Part I she provides us with a partial list of some of those "twists," how she used her knowledge of her specific community and her perception of her own life and culled from it the essence of "a black girl growing up in Chicago." She also tells us that the first passage she wrote for the novella became the opening of the last chapter. That passage emphasizes Maud Martha's awareness of the bursting life within her and without her; the result of which is her whisper, "What, what am I to do with all of this life?" That question, which permeates the entire novella, is both its theme and nuance, both the question of all persons in all times and the question of that specific individual in that specific time. Life was drastically limited for an ordinary black girl in the Chicagos of the 1940s, as it was for most ordinary people. And yet, like most ordinary people, there is so much life in Maud Martha. Whispering the question emphasizes its ironic truth, for to most institutions, most authorized social processes, even most literature, neither Maud Martha nor her question is at all important.
In a sense, then, the conflict of the novella is contained in its subject—that such a person as Maud Martha is seldom seen as imbued with importance. Thus, the question that permeates the entire novella is based not so much on the usual "character in a conflict" motif, but in the gradual unraveling of the life that is in Maud Martha, this ordinary, unheroic girl. The novella does not have intense dramatic rises and falls, so much as it presents a typical life as not at all typical in the flat meaning of the word. Concurrently, the novella is the embodiment of the idea that a slice of anybody's life has elements of wonder and farce, wry irony and joy. No fire and brimstone need fly. But since the hero or heroine, the exceptional person, has been extolled in most societies, Brooks's orientation is in itself a challenge to a venerated "universal" idea. In framing her intention as she did and in carrying it through in her "tiny" novel, Brooks articulated the value of the invisible Many. The social and literary black movements of the 1960s and 1970s would emerge precisely because these Many would insist on the value of their "little" lives and would ask the question: "What, what am I to do with all of this life?"
That Maud Martha is partially based on Brooks's own experience as a young black girl growing up in the Chicago of the 1930s and 1940s contributes to the authenticity one feels while reading the novel. In other words, Maud Martha is not merely a response to the social images of blacks that were current in the 1950s, but it is also a manifestation of Brooks's own philosophy about the relationship between life and aesthetics. She distinguishes a memoir from an autobiographical novel by calling the former "a 'factual' account," while the latter is "nuanceful, allowing." As is true of many novellas, Maud Martha, is economical in its presentation, but there are many styles of economic writing. What characterizes this novella is not only its precision, but its nuance, and how these stylistic elements are organic to its underlying theme: the wonderfulness of a Maud Martha.
As a poet, Brooks is known for her precision of language, for the care with which she chooses every word and that "concentration, that crush" in her work. It is not surprising, then, that Maud Martha also shares this characteristic. Brooks says of the poet's unique relationship to language that:
the poet deals in words with which everyone is familiar. We all handle words. And I think the poet, if he wants to speak to anyone is constrained to do something with these words so that they will "mean something," will be something that a reader may touch.
Her emphasis on the word as being, not as abstraction, but as sensory and concrete, underlines her choice of words in her novella as well as her poetry. Maud Martha is a compression of images from which the prose radiates. So that in the chapter "spring landscape: detail," Brooks's description of Maud Martha's school is concrete, sensory:
The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious.
Most of Brooks's adjectives are certainly concrete. But look at how they move to the words, candid, serious, words that are usually abstract but have now become concrete, something you can touch in this spring landscape. And when her description of the solid school is contrasted with the school children whom she describes as "bits of pink, of blue, white, yellow, green, purple, black carried by jerky little stems of brown or yellow or brownblack," who blow into the schoolyard, Brooks shows us more than the color or line of this landscape. She evokes the touch, the feel of a configuration of attitudes represented by the solid dullness of the school, as opposed to the vibrant playfulness of the children. Hence the words that the reader may touch moves him/her toward the nuances he/she cannot touch. The precision and the nuance work hand in hand.
Not only can one touch Brooks's words, one can hear them. Rhythm and sound are not as important to the quality of prose as they are to poetry. But even though Maud Martha is written in the form of prose narrative, Brooks employs many of the techniques she uses in her poetry. The pacing of words through her adroit use of juxtaposition, the alternation of short and longer units, the creation of emphasis through alliteration and imagery, the selection of specific sounds to evoke a certain quality—all these elements are characteristic of the prose of Maud Martha and contribute to its quality of nuance. Maud Martha's assessment of her first beau is typical of Brooks's use of rhythm and sound to advance the prose narrative:
For Russell lacked—What? He was—nice. He was fun to go about with. He was decorated inside and out. He did things, said things with a flourish. That was what he was. He was a flourish. He was a dazzling, long and sleepily swishing flourish.
The emphasis in this two-page chapter is on Maud Martha's recognition of her first beau's grand superficiality, a quality that is not enough to absorb her, though it had vanquished so many others. So that the passage quoted above is not just a description of Russell, but a process of insight for Maud Martha as well as for the reader from which we learn much about her character by feeling her reaction to Russell. Brooks gives us the nuance of Maud Martha's insight as well as the factual through her choice of words, imagery, and sounds. The dashes indicate reflection, the slowing of the pace, as Maud Martha begins her assessment. "He was fun to go about with" is followed by equally short sentences that use repetition to create a gradual quickening of pace—He was, he did things, said things, he was—until the pace slows down to the moment of recognition "That was what he was." Finally, various elements of language, repetition, imagery, alliteration, assonance, combine in the long sentence that summarizes his essence: "He was a dazzling, long and sleepily swishing flourish," in which the z's, s's, l's and i's evoke Russell as much as the meaning of the words themselves.
Because of her careful use of these poetic devices, Brooks is able to compress the prose narrative, drawing fine outlines of mood, emotions, thought, and events without having to fill in many details. By eliminating the nonessential fact, by creating nuance, we touch, see, and hear the whole much in the same way a few deft lines by an accomplished artist can suggest the entire human body. Abstraction of form is only possible because we recognize, know, what is being suggested. But even more than recognizing the mood, emotion, event, we can concentrate on its essence, without the distraction of superfluous details that can sometimes obscure rather than reveal. And because of Brooks's distillation, our experience is more focused, more intense.
But poetic devices are not enough to make a novella. The form, by definition, involves some kind of narrative, some reflection of external as well as internal reality, some development of character, as well as a structure that shows the organic relationship between these elements. So while Brooks employed poetic devices to advantage in Maud Martha, she also had to utilize the techniques of fiction. Yet the line between her poetic and prose techniques is not a hard one, for her creation of nuance is especially critical to the overall design of the novella. Not only does each vignette evoke the essence of a specific mood, emotion, thought or event, it contributes to a composition that suggests the essence of Maud Martha's character and the pattern that is her life. Brooks's poetic sensitivity is especially apparent in the novella's structure, for she usually selects only those moments that accomplish two things: reinforce the outline of a pattern that is repeated in many other lives and is being reenacted here, while paradoxically focusing on Maud Martha's individuality. The effect is that of a ritual performed for time immemorial by different actors, who can vary the pattern only slightly—the actor this time being an ordinary girl from Chicago. The tension between these two elements, a pattern that seems prescribed and Maud Martha's transformation of it, moves the narrative.
The pattern of Maud Martha's life is presented in extremely short, condensed chapters, thirty-four in all, which are loosely divided into six phases. While Brooks's creation of nuance suggests Maud Martha's inner life, the chapter divisions are the external structure of the novel. These divisions are stages in the universal process of becoming an adult and therefore an outline of societal configurations of custom, culture, and historical forces which help to shape that individual. Thus the phases of early childhood and school, adolescence, courtship, work, marriage, the beginning of a family, the impact of the Depression of the 1930s and the war in the 1940s are a general outline of life for a young American girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. The moments Brooks selects to focus on in these divisions, however, are to a large extent a reflection of her view of that external reality. In concretizing the universal outline, she stresses both the rituals of a black family and community. She outlines the individuality of the girl-woman Maud Martha while emphasizing the impact of the particular concept of beauty, as well as the societal limits of being a woman, upheld by her community, on her personality. She focuses on the ordinary tone of Maud Martha's life while stressing the complexity of her inner character. Because we know, in general, the universal concept of growing up, because we know, in general, about family life and community, because we know, in general, the way that girls and women should be, she can evoke these configurations through nuance while emphasizing the uniqueness of Maud Martha's character and context. Thus, the "racial element is organic not imposed." So is her portrayal of womanhood and of the ordinary person.
At the crux of Brooks's composition is the development of her central actor. Of course; the chronology of the novella is its outer movement, but it is Maud Martha's sensibility, her perception of the world, that enlivens the narration. Yet Brooks does not use the "I," the first person point of view. As is her custom in many of her poems (e.g., "The Rites for Cousin Vit," "Mrs. Small"), the author creates a character for whom she cares intensely, but from whom she is clearly detached. And though the substance of the novel is told through Maud Martha's eyes, Brooks suggests, by her use of the objective third person, that other eyes see what hers see. While the reader feels intimately connected to Maud Martha he/she is constantly a ware of the world around Maud Martha as separate from and yet connected to her. Brooks use of an omniscient narrator who sees through Maud Martha's eyes emphasizes the sensibility of her central actor solidly located in a world of many others. The beginning of the vignette "Tim" illustrates how effective this technique is as a means of establishing Maud Martha's relationship to the outer world:
Oh, how he used to wiggle!—do little mean things! do great big wonderful things! and laugh laugh laugh.
He had shaved and he had scratched himself through the pants. He had lain down and ached for want of a woman. He had married. He had wiped out his nostrils with bits of tissue paper in the presence of his wife and his wife had turned her head, quickly, but politely, to avoid seeing them as they dropped softly into the toilet, and floated. He had a big stomach and an alarmingly loud laugh. He had been easy with the ain'ts and sho-nuffs. He had been drunk one time, only one time, and on that occasion had done the Charleston in the middle of what was then Grand Boulevard and is now South Park, at four in the morning. Here was a man who had absorbed the headlines in the Tribune, studied the cartoons in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post.
These facts she had known about her Uncle Tim. And she had known that he liked sweet potato pie. But what were the facts that she had not known, that his wife, her father's sister Nannie, had not known? The things that nobody had known.
Clearly, Tim and his life exist outside of Maud Martha's head, but it is her language that articulates his individuality. And it is also her language that indicates that she is a woman, is black, and lives in a certain section of Chicago. The way she chooses details that appear trivial on the surface but cumulatively communicate a feeling for and a knowledge of this man, the way she focuses on intimate details that emphasize his relationships with others, are styles of speaking that often indicate a woman's voice. The content of these details tells us that he is a working-class black man who lives in Chicago and is somewhat interested in the world beyond him. And it is typical of Maud Martha's personality that she would ask what was beneath the surface—What were "the things that nobody had known?"
The qualities of Maud Martha's language is, in fact, of considerable importance to the major theme of the novella. Brooks carefully constructs Maud Martha's voice as that of a woman. The images she uses throughout the book are often derived from the world of the home, the world of cooking, of flowers, ferns and furniture, the world of emotional relationships—worlds that have traditionally been seen as woman's domain. And much of what Maud Martha says is not said aloud; it is usually her internal conversation with herself, since her observations, critiques, and musings are not considered important. There is also a way in which her persistent attention to size (which sometimes stems from her own feeling of littleness) connotes "the smaller sex," as well as the ordinary person, a scale that is reflected in the tinyness of the novel itself. And it is often because she understands that there is sometimes so much in what appears to be so little that she gleans many insights about herself and her world.
In fact, the critical aspects of Maud Martha's sensibility are her ability to see beneath the mundane surface of things and to transform the little that is allowed her into so much more than it originally was. As Paule Marshall puts it, "In her daily life, Maud Martha functions as an artist. In that way this novel carries on the African tradition that the ordinary rituals of daily life are what must be made into art." In her adolescence, Maud Martha is able to put this insight into words in the vignette, "At the Regal."
To create—a role, a poem, picture, music a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.
What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.
She would polish and hone that.
That awareness of her own being, as valuable, unique, as created by herself yet connected to those around her, marks her personal development. So that she can refuse to be devalued by her potential employer, Mrs. Burns-Cooper, though there is only "a pear in her ice box and one end of rye bread." She can be hurt by her husband's desire to be a social somebody, understand how that is linked to his hidden dislike of her dark skin and heavy hair and yet maintain her own sense of worth, precisely because she has developed her own standards, her own concept of the valuable.
It is the articulation of this value in Brooks's unheroic ordinary black girl from Chicago, a value that is almost always celebrated in the heroic, the extraordinary, the male, that marks the distinctive language, movement, substance of Maud Martha. Through her use of nuance, Brooks is able to present this celebration in its essential form, suggesting that Maud Martha is one of any number of ordinary people, who, against the limits of the mundane life, continue to create themselves.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4788
SOURCE: "'Define … the Whirlwind': Gwendolyn Brooks' Epic Sign for a Generation," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 160-73.
[In the following essay, Miller examines the major themes and structure of In the Mecca. According to Miller, Brooks draws upon Anglo-American poetry, Judeo-Christian myth, and folklore to explore the paradox of the American Dream within the context of African-American experience.]
For twenty-three years, Gwendolyn Brooks tried to write her epic In the Mecca (1968). Her portraits of the Black community began with Street in Bronzeville (1945) and continued with Annie Allen (1949), Maud Martha (1953), and Bean Eaters (1960). But these books did not fulfill her ambition to write in the heroic genre. An epic should rank with the classics; it should portray the narrator's journey, the obstacles encountered, and the final vision of victory.
Brooks tried to write a Black epic in the title poem of Annie Allen but failed. Because the style was too lofty for the theme, an unintentional mock epic resulted. She had heeded the critics too carefully; their requests had led her to substitute Germanic mythology for the Black folk life that she knew. If Latin and Greek diction replaced the Black vernacular, the folk voice would not be evident.
Before Brooks attempted an epic again, she wrote Maud Martha. In this autobiographical novel, she practiced the technique of focusing upon the life of one woman and the characters and problems come upon. Brooks tested, too, her skill for creating an undramatized narrator, the fictional self conceived in the work, who can enter characters' minds or withdraw into objectivity. Her next book, The Bean Eaters (1960), continued some good poems, especially those concerning the fifties, yet few of these verses demonstrated majestic finish and thematic depth. The poems did not rival the fine sequences of sonnets that end her first two volumes. Once again she wanted to attempt a long poem. Could free verse and ballad succeed where rhyme royal and sonnet had not? The next book would tell. A year after its publication (1969), George Starvros, an interviewer for Contemporary Literature, would question: "Let me ask you about the character in your poetry and in your novel Maud Martha. In the Mecca, your most recent volume, portrays life in a large city building. A Street in Bronzeville gave similar vignettes of people in the city. The same, I think, can be said of all your work." Brooks replied, "It's a fascination of mine to write about ghetto people there." One can evaluate her success in this effort, first in light of the Anglo-American tradition of poetry, next in the paradox of the American Dream, and finally in some skillful use of techniques such as Christian myth, parody, and narrative distancing. In the Mecca is a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption.
Before an explication of the title poem, one needs to know some background. In her interview with Starvros, Brooks comments:
… when I was nineteen and had just gotten out of junior college, I went to the Illinois State Employment service to get a job. They sent me to the Mecca building to a spiritual advisor, and he had a fantastic practice; lucrative. He had us bottling up medicine as well as answering letters. Not real medicine but love charms and stuff like that he called it, and delivered it through the building …
Brooks's explanation here closely correlates with the description of Mecca that appears on the back of her title page:
… a great gray hulk of brick, four stories high, topped by an ungainly smokestack, ancient and enormous, filling half of the block north of Thirty-Fourth Street between State and Dearborn … the Mecca building is U-shaped. The dirt court-yard is littered with newspapers and tin cans, milk cartons and broken glass…. Iron fire escapes run up the building's face and ladders reach from them to the roof. There are four main entrances, two on Dearborn and two on State Street. At each is a gray stone and threshold and over each is carved "The Mecca." (The Mecca was constructed in 1891, a splendid palace, or showplace of Chicago).
The date of 1891 is significant because it designates the post-Darwinian world. In American history, industrialization had ended the dream of an agrarian world. The Chicago Mecca, in this light, becomes ironic when one considers the other Mecca, the holiest city of Islam and birthplace of Mohammed. Having wanted to write two thousand lines, Brooks settles for slightly more than eight hundred. She says: "This poem will not be a statistical report. I'm interested in a certain detachment, incisiveness. I wish to present a large variety of personalities against a mosaic of clarity, affairs, recognizing that the grimmest of these is likely to have a streak or two streaks of sun." The intention is to expand a dramatization of individual scene into universal type so as "to touch every note in the life of this block-long block-wide building would be to capsulize the gist of black humanity in general."
The simple plot and structure of "In the Mecca" (the poem) present an urban setting. For convenience one can divide the narrative into three sections. Part I sets forth the return home from work of Mrs. Sallie Smith, mother of nine. The focus here is on the neighbors that she encounters and on the characterizations of her children. In the second part, the shortest, the woman notices that Pepita, one of her girls, is missing. This prompts the first search through the tenement and allows for further characterization and biblical parody. Part II also concerns the paradox of American myth. The longest section is Part III, which constitutes almost half of the verse. Here the police retrace the Smiths's search. Because of its themes and styles, Part III is probably the richest. The following contribute to its power: militant declarations, interracial lovemaking, rhetorical questions, and Christian myth. The poem ends with the discovery of Pepita's corpse under the bed of Jamaican Edward.
"In the Mecca" represents opposite strains of the Anglo-American tradition. One finds a naturalistic version of Walt Whitman, by way of the industrial age, and the redemptive, if frustrated, potential that characterizes the world of T. S. Eliot. But these influences work so that the peculiarities of the Black American experience transform them into a new and creative vision. By adapting to the social forces of the sixties, the poet uses a new milieu. Her canvas is a most demanding time in American history. For this and other times, Gwendolyn Brooks holds to light the soundness of body and mind against the decline of courage and assurance, a lapse which emerged with modernity and the shadow of the holocaust. She continues to believe that imaginative and verbal power challenge and balance finally the danger which posits the insignificance of human life and the indifference to human extinction. For her generation, the defining emblem is ultimately the whirlwind, the collapse of self-confidence, the failure to transform social ill once more into epic victory and to reclaim from the time before the holocaust, and the later accusation of "reverse discrimination" in the United States, the heroic and blues-esque will of Black hope. Whereas for Margaret Walker, cleansing has been the metaphor for the perspective which woman takes on historical and cosmic evil, the depth here every bit as great as Melville's "mystery of iniquity," for Brooks the sign is medication. The artistic process itself plays out the action of healing, while the poem serves as both epic quest and sacramental liberation.
Mary Melodie, one of Mrs. Sallie's daughters, shows this turmoil. She likes "roaches, / and pities the gray rat." To her, headlines are "secondary," even though she knows that "blood runs like a ragged wound through the ancient flesh of the land." The imagery implies the naturalism of Richard Wright and others, for to such writers people are manipulated by forces beyond their control. Yet Brooks's point is not that life is crushed inevitably, it is, rather, that even the most lowly insect is sacred. Such a proposition returns a reader to Emerson's belief that each individual reflects all Being. It leads similarly to Whitman's indebted idea that a leaf of grass indicates Eternal Reality. In her description of Mary Melodie, the narrator disorients the reader. Although the imagery indicates naturalism, the statement suggests transcendentalism. To Mary, the deaths of roaches signify what pervades all Life. The naturalism after 1850 tempers the romantic vision, when the undramatized narrator withdraws from Mary's mind:
Trapped in his privacy of pain
the worried rat expires,
and smashed in the grind of a rapid heel
last night's roaches lie.
This suggestion of the post-Darwinian universe reinforces the date of 1891 on the copyright page. Similarly it recalls the imagery that helps depict Prophet Williams, an "engine / of candid steel hugging combustibles." Mrs. Sallie describes three of her children—Emmett, Cap, and Casey:
skin wiped over bones
for lack of chub and chocolate
and ice-cream cones,
for lack of English muffins
and boysenberry jam.
The ensuing question is a twentieth-century one and could suit well the wasteland: "What shall their redeemer be"? That Brooks' version has a concrete setting in Chicago adds to the intensity of her effect.
The poverty of the three children mentioned above is as real in the second part as in the first. The levels of the narrator's dramatization in verse in the second part move from the particular to the general: personal, racial, urban, and human. By giving a setting of the city, the narrator implies a need for the pastoral, since the human mind conceives by contrasts. It is striking, indeed, to find in her compressed style, resembling that of Pound and Eliot, the truth of Thomas Gray. Still it was this eighteenth-century poet of graveyards who wrote once on the same theme of death concerning the human potential and the genius that can redeem reality.
And they [the children] are constrained …
upon fright and remorse and their stomachs …
are rags of grit.
many flowers start, choke, reach up,
want help, get it, do not get it,
rally bloom, or die on the wasting vine.
From the narrator's observation, the plot reverts to a drama of poetry, where Mrs. Sallie still performs the lead. The image and tone suggest both the Old Testament and the folk ballad. "No More Auction Block." In the first part, one finds an emphasis on lost children; in the second, there is an implication of Black death, which is archetypal. The present only foreshadows Pepita's end: "One of my children is gone."
That Don Lee, a poet of the sixties, appears in "In the Mecca" recreates him as a man of its imaginative world as well as a man of history. The Lee in the poem lives at the midpoint between mimesis and reality. He wants "not a various America … a new nation / under nothing." One must remember that this Lee is a tenant in the building described, as are all of the other characters. Should the reader elect to jump from the mimetic world to the historical one, he may get into trouble. Like the real Lee (Madhubuti), he may find that only one portrait in the poem is truly distinguished:
Way-Out Morgan is collecting guns
in a tiny fourth-floor rooms.
He is not hungry, even, though skillfully lean.
He flourishes, ever, on porridge or pat bean
pudding or wiener soup—fills fearsomely
on visions of Death to-the-Hordes-of-the White Man.
Madhubuti, of course, has his own followers and his ideology. Here, however, the latter spoils his opportunity to appreciate fully the range of Gwendolyn Brooks. She does depict Morgan with the imagery and power necessary to make him real. But she portrays John Tom, too (no incidental name), St. Julia Jones, and others who have different beliefs. All live in this decaying city; only through imagination can the reader constantly sustain their opposing visions. But in Mecca sustentation is all.
The final two hundred lines show once more the influence of Eliot. The refrain, in particular, indicates a sordid world that has profaned what once was sacred: "How many care Pepita?" The prostitutes and harlots are unconcerned, as the phallic imagery shows: "the obscene gruntings / the dull outwittings / the flabby semi-rhythmic shufflings." Equally obscene are those people, young or old, who make vulgar love. Preoccupied with their own lives, past and present, the characters lack any answers, and the narrator will have to give her own. These inhabitants of the city can no more acknowledge the sacredness of procreation than Alfred, the confused poet, can see that divinity is already within him:
An agitation in the bush.
Mad life heralding the blue heat of God
snickers in a corner of the west windowsill.
Other characters inhabit this Mecca, Brooks's wasteland, though they number too many to receive more than passing attention. Among them are Dakara, the reader of Vogue; Aunt Tippie and Zombie Bell, who are undramatized; Mr. Kelly, the beggar with long gray hair; Gas Cady, a grave robber; the janitor, a political person; Queenie King, an "old poem silvering in the noise"; and Wallace Williams, proclaimer of his virility. To all, the narrator's answer to the rhetorical question applies equally: "these little care, Pepita, what befalls a / nullified saint or forfeiture (or child)."
Set against this background, the description of Alfred becomes particularly significant, for it suggests that the world has passed from hope to hopelessness. For his authorities, Alfred cites Baudelaire, Browning, and Neruda, but his best trick is to parody Whitman. To affirm the redemptive potential of the human spirit, the nineteenth-century poet wrote: "Good-bye and hail! my fancy." To deprive humankind of such belief, Alfred expresses the opposite: "Farewell, and Hail! Until farewell again." Tension separates the literary vision of the past from that of the present:
Other observations show that this is less the world of Thomas Gray and Walt Whitman than that of T. S. Eliot. Consider Aunt Dill, who wears "Tabu" perfume. Little Papa, probably her husband, has been dead for nine years, and all of her children were still-births. As a woman who loves God, she reminds the reader of St. Julia. More importantly, she illustrates the paradox that Pepita faced: to grow into a woman who should be shunned or to die in the innocence of youth. Dill
true-child-of God for are we ever to
be children? are we never to mature,
be lovely lovely? be soft Woman
rounded and darling … almost caressable …
and certainly wearing Tabu in the name of the Lord.
Usually ambivalent in attitude, Alfred hates Mecca, when he confesses,
something, something in Mecca
continues to call! Substanceless
an essential sanity black and electric
builds to a reportage and
A material collapse
that is Construction.
From Alfred, however, one will hardly get the opinion of the undramatized narrator or the implied author. Since the beginning, Brooks has portrayed him as a weak man and an inadequate intellectual. Pepita, on the contrary, is a true poet, just as Alfred is a false one. Despite her youth, she responded to life with sincerity and sensitivity: "'I touch'—she said once—'petals of a rose. / A silky feeling through me goes.'" For a brief moment the reader receives an alternative vision set against the urban chaos of squalor and hopelessness.
The urban setting reveals the paradox of the American dream. At the beginning, the narrator shifts the focus from her reader to a persona. By combining the imperative and the expository, the verse commences: "Sit where the light corrupts your face. / Mïes Van der Rohe retires from grace. / And the fair fables fall." Thomas Earl, one of Mrs. Sallie's children, loves an American folk figure. In tone, however, the narrator questions the validity of John Chapman, now transformed into American legend. She does not mention Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but its reputation for uncultivability suits well the imagery and myth:
It is hard to be Johnny Appleseed.
The ground shudders.
The ground springs up;
hits you with gnarls and rust,
derangement and fever, or blare and clerical treasons.
Characterizations in the narrative parody American myth. Melody Mary, Thomas Earl, and Briggs have "gangs rats appleseed." Examine each word within the quotation mark, first as an entity and then as a whole. Each of the first two images implies the urban experience, but the last suggests the frontier. The collectivity of the line leaves the reader with two questions. Is the idea that "gangs" or "rats," as social reality, corrupt myth and dream, "appleseed," beyond recognition? Or can myth, "Appleseed," redeem the ghetto from "gangs" and "rats"? By their very disjunction such inquiries mislead, for the purpose here is to create not a separation of perspectives but a unity composed of alternative points of view.
One must measure American ideals against the social reality of Mecca. In one scene Emmett, a daughter of Mrs. Sallie, seizes the telephone from John Tom. Considered on various levels of meaning, this incident becomes complex. In a fine wordplay on time and the American Dream, the narrator recreates the folk legend of the submissive Black: "Despite the terror and the derivation, / despite the not avuncular frontier, / John Tom, twice forty in 420, claims / Life sits or blazes in this Mecca." When the narrator intervenes, Tom has provoked already the "calm and dalliance" of law. On a second level, the narrator becomes unintentionally ambiguous. An exclamation that concerns the size of Pepita results in the American Dream ironically rendered. The twist is that one can be small in thoughts as well as in dimensions: "How shall the Law allow for littleness! / How shall the Law enchief the chapters of / wee brown-black chime, we brown-black chastity." With the arrival of the impersonal policemen begins a second trip through the Mecca, one which ends in the discovery of the dead child. The officers and the character Amos have different ideologies, since the latter is a bitter militant. He says of a personified America: "Bathe her in her beautiful blood."
"In the Mecca," the title poem, portrays the urban scene through a straight or ironic use of Christian myth and through parody. Throughout the plot, the verse changes the point of view between the narrator and her characters. The situation of Briggs, another of Mrs. Sallie's children, reworks a central motif in Maud Martha: at some point human concern passes from social reality—a difficult concept with which to deal—to religion and forgetfulness. The narrator first enters into the character's mind and then withdraws. In the initial description of the young man there comes ironic detachment, but after the reader learns about his problems with the gangs in his neighborhood, the vision comes from within: "Immunity is forfeit, love / is luggage, hope is heresy." The narrator, nevertheless, can step back from the character and speak directly; she can explain human psychology brilliantly: "there is a central height in pity / past which man's hand and sympathy cannot go."
Reviewing the first 254 lines of the poem shows that they have described, first, Mrs. Sallie's return home; second, her children; and third, Alfred, the neurotic artist. But line 255 begins the inciting incident, which both the poem and its reader must resolve. Where is Pepita, Sallie's ninth and missing child? The abrupt shift from the narrator's heightened style shocks when Sallie's children reply emphatically in the Black vernacular: "Ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er / Ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er."
Like most characters in Mecca, Loam Norton worries more about his own concerns than about Mrs. Sallie's daughter. He remembers Belsen and Dachau, the prison camps of World War II, and possibly his own children. But in a parody of the Twenty-third Psalm the narrator interrupts and holds the stage:
The Lord was their shepherd
Yet did they want.
Joyfully, would they have lain in jungles or pastures,
walked beside waters. Their gaunt
souls were not restored, their souls were banished.
Goodness and mercy should follow them all the days of their death.
For her character St. Julia Jones, the narrator parodies with equal fidelity the same passage. There the effect was less a religious cynicism than a folk joy. Sallie Smith saw Julia, who asked:
"Isn't our Lord the greatest to the brim?
The light of my life. And I lie late
past the still pastures. And meadows. He's the comfort
and wine and piccalilli for my soul.
He hunts me up the coffee for my cup.
Oh how I love that Lord."
When Alfred dreams of being a red bush "In the West Virginia autumn," the image implies the appearance of the Lord to Moses (Exodus 2:3). The narrator knows that man, by being alive, is already divine; Alfred doubts: "the bush does not know that it flames." The force of the ending comes from a repetition of this tone. Jamaican Edward "thrice denies any involvement with Pepita," just as the Peter of the New Testament (St. Matthew 26:4) refuses to acknowledge Christ. The girl lies beneath Edward's cot in the dust. Despite differences in sex and age, she resembles Jesus.
If the title poem, Part I of In the Mecca, shows the callousness of the people in the ghetto, Part II, "After Mecca," offers a corrective or redeeming vision. Here Brooks takes historical figures from the sixties and elevates them to a level of myth where they transcend life. First she describes Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights leader assassinated in 1963. Never settling for a mere recording of history, she transforms fact into a tercet of prophecy: "Roaring no rapt arise-ye to the dead, he / leaned across tomorrow. People said that / he was holding clean globes in his hands." In this section, Brooks goes beyond description to symbolism. She reshapes history to make it reflect social vision, created form, and human imagination. Next she portrays Malcolm X, the Black leader slain in 1965. The emphasis, however, should fall not upon history alone but upon Malcolm's role as a political magician. Since the beginning of the volume, such a type of human being has evolved. An artist, like a magician, seeks to create a new order of reality, although the former wants to change the physical world and the latter to institute an imaginative one. By the power of words, the writer seeks to mesmerize her reader with the spell of form. Alfred was a poet, if not a great one; by her life and death, Pepita was more exemplary. The narrator of the verse in "In the Mecca" was, too, for only in her role as seer and harmonizer could she find irony and avoid despair. To envision Malcolm means to reconstruct the many types that precede, as word-maker, ironist, visionary, and prophet:
in a soft and fundamental hour
a sorcery devout and vertical
beguiled the world.
He opened us—
Who was a key
who was a man.
At the end of In the Mecca redemptive vision depends upon two poems: "The Sermon on the Warpland" and "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" (hereafter "Second Sermon"). The first demonstrates Brooks's ability to portray reality initially from one point of view and then from another, which clarifies the original. The poet reverts to her habit of coining words, as necessary. What does "Warpland" mean? If the word "Sermon" parodies Christ's speech on the Mount, "Warpland" implies not geographical place but military design—a "war planned"—and the problem of distortion, the "warpland." Yet the several strengths, the speakers in the verse, express the opposite yearnings of the human spirit: "Say that our Something is doublepod contains / seeds for the coming hell and health together." The voice of a Black militant, shortly afterward, recalls Amos or Way-Out-Morgan in the title poem. But in this world of pervasive irony and contradiction, speech must end in an oxymoron.
Prepare to meet
(sisters brothers) the harsh and terrible weather;
the bruising; the collapse of bestials, idols.
the seasoning of the perilously sweet!
the health, the heralding of the clear obscure!
To this voice, Brooks adds a corrective or balancing resonance. Perhaps her greatest gift is a talent for creating opposite viewpoints within the same poetic world. With equal adeptness she can imagine the militant and renew the meaning of Christ's words to His disciple. Peter (St. Matthew 16:18). In both instances she stresses universality within the framework of the Black American experience. To one who has read In the Mecca as an objective correlative, the narrator here becomes Pepita, resurrected and grown into womanhood. The figure is older and maternal:
"Build now your church, my brothers, sisters.
Build with lithe love. With love like lion eyes.
With love like morningrise.
With love like black, our black—
Immediately following this poem, "Second Sermon" results in a final triumph for the human imagination: "This is the urgency Live: / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind." The verse has four parts. The first gives the theme quoted last; the second emphasizes the need to give form, to "stylize the flawed utility." In the third division one discovers the chaos against which the imagination conceives. At the end (IV), comes a description of Big Bessie, who stands in the wild weed.
What a metaphor that whirlwind is. From it, one can look at various angles and see diverse personalities, including the arrogantly indifferent, inhumanely callous, and hopelessly contemplative. The narrator's voice reaches back to the end of Annie Allen. There, for the first time in Brooks's verse, a speaker possessed some intuitive truth which neither the characters in the poem nor the readers outside fully understood. The observer here is not a well-rounded character; she is, rather, the Imaginative Mind that resolves disparities:
Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
not the jumbo brigand,
not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
shall straddle the whirlwind.
The third and fourth parts show that imaginative vision can save the listeners in the world of Mecca. By perceiving this world, in its contradictions and ironies, the observer has ordered chaos. Is this the final paradox?
All about are cold places,
all about are the pushmen, and jeopardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
Live and go out
Medicate the whirlwind.
The noblest virtue of Big Bessie, the woman who concludes the volume, is imagination. Without disillusionment, she can look at life and survive. Brooks owes part of the imagery to Langston Hughes' Semple: "Big Bessie's feet hurt like nobody's business / but the stands—bigly—under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the / wild weed (emphasis added). By vision and endurance, the Big Bessies redeem the city in which the Pepitas are slain.
For twenty-three years. Gwendolyn Brooks had sought this balance of vision. In Street in Bronzeville, she had been a poet of the unheroic, but the folk religion lingered. It manifested itself at the end of Annie Allen and subsided in Maud Martha and Bean Eaters only to reappear more intensely in Mecca. By then Brooks had practiced ironic detachment and varying distance of narration. Drawing upon Christian myth and different strains of Anglo-American poetry helped her to enrich an epic in which the narrator is heroine. From a certain vision of Chicago as wasteland, Brooks moved to a double perspective of destruction and creation; from Pound and Eliot, her journey led back to Whitman. But the reason is not that Whitman is especially important. It is only that he is romantic in some way that Black folk are: rebelling against constraint, hoping for natural redemption from the depths of an industrial age. If the city corrupts the romantic vision, does it matter? Revealing the paradox of the American Dream suffices, for to show one's reader paradise is not the only way to save his soul.
In the aesthetic formulations, Gwendolyn Brooks remains the talented poet. She imposes the personal voice upon the sources and archetypes of the literary generation. Through the quest for epic form, she combines the impulse toward architectonic space with prophetic invocation, fusing at once the written and the spoken word. Often when she draws upon Judaeo-Christian, historical, and folk sources, through the ornate style or through the vernacular, she opposes the id to the superego, balancing the contradictory tensions which inform human existence. With metaphoric power and intellectual depth, she reconfigures the events of modern history into complex symbol. Whatever her invaluable contributions to the current era, especially from 1945 to 1986, her poetry still signifies two generations past. Yet her language subsumes and transcends historicity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4667
SOURCE: "Anger So Flat: Gwendolyn's Brooks's Annie Allen," in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 140-52.
[In the following essay. Tate examines the form, structure, and heroine of Annie Allen. As Tate notes, Brooks presents "an emotionally charged satirical comment about the tragedy of a woman's inactive life, a tragedy compounded by racial prejudice."]
In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks became the first black American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for literature for Annie Allen (1949), a collection of rigorously technical poems, replete with lofty diction, intricate word play, and complicated concatenations of phrases. One particular poem, "The Anniad," which constitutes the second of three sections in the collection, is especially characteristic of Brooks's fascination with "the mysteries and magic of technique." In fact, "The Anniad" seems to possess an inordinate amount of word mystery and magic. Brooks readily admits that "The Anniad" is a "labored" poem, although she also says that she derived a great deal of satisfaction from writing it: "What a pleasure it was to write that poem!… I was just very conscious of every word; I wanted every phrase to be beautiful, and yet to contribute to the whole … effect."
Perhaps the delight she took in creating "The Anniad" was responsible for her indulgence in the complicated techniques that densely pattern the poem's texture, as well as those in the other two sections of the book, "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood" and "The Womanhood."
The complicated techniques in Annie Allen produce virtual curiosity pieces of intellectual verse, which her critics consistently mention as prize-worthy. But by the same token, these critics seldom focus full critical attention on this book; instead, they discuss those collections that employ subtle social commentary and realistic depictions of urban settings. As a result, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), The Bean Eaters (1960), Selected Poems (1963), and In the Mecca (1968) receive the lion's share of critical coverage. By contrast, Annie Allen seems peculiarly abstract and extremely esoteric. These characteristics are responsible for that collection being labeled "intellectual" and "academic," and they are also responsible for its smaller allotment of critical attention.
When we examine the surface texture of the poems that map out the events in the poetic life of Annie Allen, the imaginary focal character who is the namesake for this collection, we find no explicit social statement regarding race, caste, or gender. These poems are found in the first two sections of the book, "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood" and "The Anniad," and specifically include "the birth in a narrow room," "Maxie Allen," "the parents: people like our marriage Maxie and Andrew," "Sunday Chicken," "the relative," "downtown vaudeville," "the ballad of late Annie," "do not be afraid of no," "my own sweet good," "The Anniad," and "Appendix to the Anniad." Moreover, the verbal complexity of these poems seems to work at cross-purposes with the simplicity and habitual passivity of Annie's life, in that her life reflects a virtual absence of acts of conscious volition and emotional complexity. In fact, her life seems to be comprised of her deliberate refusal both to act decisively and to reveal her emotional responses. Events in her life seem only to happen to her; seldom does she appear to be an active agent, precipitating them. Moreover, the methods used to communicate the series of incidents themselves are extremely commonplace. Hence, there is a marked disparity between the elaborate structural techniques that create the poem and the content of Annie's life that the poem depicts. This discordance constitutes curious features in the text of the poem, which compels me to ask whether the poem is simply veneered in artifice or whether the elaborate techniques that texture the poem contain interpretative significance in their own right.
I suggest that "The Anniad," as well as the poems in "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood," are not merely cloaked in elaborate surface design, but rather, that the structural formats for the poems, in and of themselves, communicate discursive content about Annie's life, specifically her emotional response to the series of events that constitute her life. Moreover, formal devices such as diction, imagery, and meter, create the mood and atmosphere for the poems. These techniques express the author's attitude toward her subject in place of her explicit comment. Brooks combines these devices with conventional forms of satirical verse. These verse forms inherently dictate how the subject is to be regarded, that is, whether the subject is to be viewed sympathetically or critically. She further blends this technique with another source of tension found between what is said and how it is said. In literary terms, she combines satirical format with the tension created between content and its communicative image. This duality between content and its corresponding imagery converges, does not fully synthesize, into a unified interpretation. The content seems to be consistently at odds with its expression, and the resulting tension contours and concatenates each poem.
For example, we frequently find that Brooks seems to be ridiculing aspects of Annie's life, but Brooks does not do so by employing explicitly critical, descriptive language. To the contrary, she employs conventional, formal, satirical techniques for expressing her attitude toward her subject. Instead of outwardly criticizing Annie's mother, we find the mother-daughter relationship depicted in "Maxie Allen" rendered in doggerel. Doggerel is a satirical form that inherently suggests ridicule independent of content. Thus, the loose meter itself informs us that Brooks is censuring the poem's narrative content. This technique of using form to communicate content is repeatedly employed in both "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood" and "The Anniad." In fact, this tension climaxes in "The Anniad," where Brooks relies on mock-heroic conventions in order to underscore the gravity of her criticism of Annie's adult life.
On first meeting Annie Allen, we find her described as an ordinary black girl, born in an urban ghetto in the early 1900s. Her parents, Maxie and Andrew Allen, are hardworking, decent, very moralistic people, who believe that their kindness, simplicity, and humility will merit them their just rewards. All they need to do is wait patiently for their receipt. Annie is the necessary product of such a union. She is a docile, well-behaved child, whose total dependence on her mother's dispensation of approval and subsequent affection shapes her life. Maxie has suppressed the possibility of disobedience in her daughter. Maxie has also eliminated the outward expression of Annie's longings in the process by insisting that she be thankful for what she has instead of yearning for what she does not possess. In most social circles Maxie would be credited with having successfully raised a daughter: however, on close observation, we notice that her maternal wisdom has stifled Annie's willfulness and driven her imagination underground.
Brooks expresses her criticism for Maxie's ultimate failure as a mother by rendering the poem in doggerel. Here, technique, rather than merely explicit comment, is the vehicle for censuring, even ridiculing the mother's inability to nurture Annie's emerging imaginative spirit:
Maxie Allen always taught her
Stipendiary little daughter
To thank her Lord and lucky star
For eye that let her see so far,
For throat enabling her to eat
Her Quaker Oats and Cream-of-Wheat,
For tongue to tantrum for the penny,
For ear to hear the haven't-any,
For arm to toss, for leg to chance,
For heart to hanker for romance.
Brooks reduces all the lessons that this mother must teach her daughter in order to promote her survival and happiness to lessons in gratitude for possessions that are not adequate to nurture Annie's emotional development—Quaker Oats, Cream-of-Wheat, and a penny. In this manner the subject is trivialized and combined with the monotonous doggerel meter. These techniques communicate Brooks's criticism of Annie's mother. Moreover, whenever desire surfaces in Annie's consciousness, her response is to suppress this desire. As a result, her anger, resentment, and guilt arise, but these emotions cannot be revealed as well. Consequently, Annie represses all of her emotional responses and denies them expression by flattening them out until only her gratitude is perceptible. These repressed emotions only resurface in her daydreams. But in this imaginary realm, her desire for adventure is transformed into the wish for someone else to enact her plans. Someone else must engage her wish, and this person, we are told, is a husband.
Brooks also describes Annie as an "unembroidered," "chocolate" brown-skin girl, who is plain in appearance and excessively complaint. Yet in the place where surface pattern would be if she were pretty or spirited is her wondrous and "stupendous" imagination that fancies a private life for which she has no outward expression:
Sweet Annie tried to teach her mother
There was somewhat of something other….
She did not know; but tried to tell.
Rather than try unsuccessfully to explain the life of her imagination and her longings to her mother, she conceals them within herself, again by flattening them out and, thereby, denying them visible surface expression. But no matter how hard she tries to suppress her imaginary world, it inevitably confronts the real circumstances of her life, and this confrontation creates a sense of vague dissatisfaction.
When we recall the first poem in Annie Allen, "the birth in a narrow room," not only do we note Annie's humility, reflected in the lower case letters of the title, but we also see that this poem foreshadows the inevitable conflict between the real circumstances of her submissive life and her imaginary projections of adventure:
"I am not anything and I have got
Not anything, or anything to do!"—
But prances nevertheless with gods and fairies
Blithely about the pump and then beneath
The elms and grapevines, then in darling endeavor
By privy foyer, where the screenings stand
And where the bugs buzz by in private cars
Across old peach cans and old jelly jars.
Annie's admission of her feelings of personal inadequacies do not incite physical activity, but they do cause her to frolic with imaginary sprites. In this way she finds adventure among embellished commonplace objects, in the recesses of her mind. Hence, the first poem in the collection foreshadows the emerging duality in Annie's character, which is composite of her outward expression of inactivity, acquiescence, and resignation (a role prescribed for her by her mother as well as by society at large) and her inner life of fantastic, willful adventure. This type of duality develops throughout the collection to poem XV in "The Motherhood," where imaginative and suppressed longings verge upon conscious assertion, ultimately to become new directives for living.
But until that time, the only occasion when Annie demonstrates filial rebellion occurs at the funeral of a relative. Here, she displays her contrary feelings, but only when no one can witness her transgression:
She went in there to muse on being rid
Of relative beneath the coffin lid.
No one was by. She stuck her tongue out; slid.
Since for a week she must not play "Charmaine"
Or "Honey Bunch," or "Singing in the Rain."
Her resentment is hidden beyond the sight of disapproval. Rather than face parental rejection for impudence, she squeezes herself into that "pinchy" space, where "[her] own sweet good[ness]" dominates her personality, and where her rebelliousness cannot be observed. Annie's behavior demonstrates that she is acutely aware of the struggle between the dual sides of her character—her external, exaggerated "sweet good[ness]" and her internal desire to create a "stupendous," autonomous self. But in order to make her dreams real, she knows she must exercise a "darling endeavor" and cast off others' expectations with the adamantly audible "no."
Brooks records Annie's attempt to say no in "do not be afraid of no." In this poem Annie admits that
To say yes is to die
A lot or a little….
It is brave to be involved,
To be not fearful to be unresolved.
But instead of enacting her decision to say "no" and live, she elects another way to say what she thinks is "no," although she does not realize the implications of her choice. Hence, not only does she not say "no," but she does not elect to be either involved or resolved in any course of action. She merely continues essentially as she had before. But instead of enacting her decision to say no and live, that is, to utter the word and externalize her internal life, she elects a new wish that is merely another way of saying yes: "Her new wish was to smile / When answers took no airships, walked a while." Rather than reply with the audible no, she smiles sweetly and sighs with the hope that her reluctance to speak would be perceived as the unuttered "no." But her choice of action is not effective. She forfeits the possibility of independence and continues to spin bits of an imaginary life in her daydreams, described as "spilling pretty cherries."
For Annie, there is only one acceptable way to escape from saying yes to her mother and to grasp a life of her own. That course is outlined in "the ballad of late Annie":
Late Annie in her bower lay,
Though sun was up and spinning.
The blush-brown shoulder was so bare,
Blush-brown lip was winning.
Out then shrieked the mother-dear,
"Be I to fetch and carry?
Get a broom to whish the doors
Or get a man to marry."
Annie's mother literally tells her to obey her orders or to get married (which is the only proper course to freedom beyond a mother's reign for a young woman in Annie's day). Because Annie cannot say "no" in an audible voice, her choice is to use her "own sweet good[ness]" in order to secure a man worthy of her fancying spirit. In this manner, she plans to flee her mother's dominion and establish her own kingdom with the help of a suitable mate. Moreover, the text of the poem itself is veiled in coded meaning, which can be explained by examining the act of sleeping, which is both the dominant event and the unifying, figurative motif in the poem. Here, the act of sleeping underscores Annie's languid, dormant, and unresisting character. The events described in this poem—her oversleeping and the resulting chastisement—both serve as a paradigm for Annie's thwarted emotional development and foreshadow the events described in the poetic discourse of "The Anniad."
We recall that Annie has not learned to say "no," but instead says nothing with a smile and a sigh. We surmise that this behavior is repeatedly misunderstood as an expression for "yes," which she has already equated with death. Then when we recall the multiple meanings of the word "late" in "the ballad of late Annie," we note that not only has Annie overslept, but also that the entire poem addresses her as if she were deceased, that is as if the poem were an elegy for the unresisting Annie. Although Annie is not, in fact, dead, her defeat is clearly predicted, and this ominous shadow of defeat falls across Annie's effort to establish her domestic kingdom in "The Anniad."
"The Anniad" is a long poem which Brooks says deliberately alludes to Homer's Iliad. Although "The Anniad" is not of book-length proportions, like its analogue, it is an episodic, narrative poem that is long by contemporary standards. Although "The Anniad" does not employ a setting that is remote in time and place, and the major character does not possess heroic stature, "The Anniad" does conform to other epic conventions. The poem focuses on a universal problem, the deteriorating relationship between men and women. Furthermore, the poem reveals the consequences of the intervention of fate, in the form of world war, on these relationships. In addition, when we refer to The Iliad, we are mindful that both poems concentrate on the activity of brooding. The Iliad depicts Achilles' physical inactivity while he externalizes his anger and refuses to fight. "The Anniad," on the other hand, depicts Annie's deliberate refusal to act with conscious volition, while she simultaneously suppresses the outward show of both her emotions and desires by relegating them to the internal region of her daydreams. The very complicated "Anniad" also recalls the somewhat legendary events surrounding the marriage ritual. The poem records Annie's anticipated courtship, its actuality, her marriage, separation because of war, her husband's return, his temporary infidelity, their reconciliation, followed by his permanent desertion. In other words, the poem recounts a series of girl wins boy episodes, and her ultimate loss.
Throughout these domestic crises, Annie remains sweet, good, and polite, believing that these virtues alone will ultimately merit her happiness. Therefore, in the face of turbulent domestic activity, Annie remains virtually inert and exhibits no perceivable emotional response. In fact, the absence of her emotions seems to work at cross-purposes with the complex expression that gives the details of her life their expression. Her life, although particularly eventful, seems peculiarly emotionally static. Moreover, her inability to say "no" seems to exaggerate the passivity of her inactive life. Events seem to happen to her, and her only response is to wait for these events to have occurred.
At the beginning of "The Anniad," Annie is described as a brown-skin girl, reclining on her bed, daydreaming about her virgin knight. He represents freedom from her parental abode:
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 featherbed
What was never and is not.
Watching for the paladin
Which no woman ever had,…
Annie endows her knight with fullness of character and the will to act, aspects that she is aware of but does not possess or seem to desire herself. Her imagined suitor is "paradisiacal and sad"; thus, he has broad expanses of emotions and intellect. In addition, he has height, breadth, and depth of moral as well as physical vigor. He is "Ruralist and rather bad / Cosmopolitan and kind." Hence, her potential mate possesses a full 360 degrees of character. He can say both "yes" and "no," whereas she is a flat 180 degrees of "yes," or silence with a sighing smile. She is described as a "thaumaturgic lass", her brilliance has been dulled, her height has been leveled, and her will has been rendered inactive by conventional codes of decorum. The only way she can hold onto some bit of her former thaumaturgy, brilliance, "stupendous" self, is by "Printing bastard roses [her ill-conceived daydreams] there" on her image in the looking glass. The anger and resentment she feels, because she cannot reveal the vitality of her internal life, is patted down, suppressed, and flattened like her unruly hair:
Then emotionally aware
Of the black and boisterous hair,
Taming all that anger down.
Again, flattening and silencing her displeasure are the ways in which she responds to the circumstances of her life. Such responses function to inhibit the possibility of her resolving to act decisively with full conscious volition.
Annie's emotional and intellectual lives, therefore, neither synthesize nor achieve autonomy. As a result these aspects of her character retain their duality. One side surfaces as contortions of virtual physical inertia, while the other side is dynamic but remains submerged in her internal life. She counteracts the possibility of the latter surfacing by tensing her face in a hard, tight smile and by flattening the unruly volume of her "boisterous" hair. In other words, she flattens the angry contours of her face into a sighing smile, and smooths the expanding height of her rebellious, voluminous hair into a composed, compressed, and compliant style.
Our expectations for the conventional, heroic character conflict with the submissiveness of Annie's life. "The Anniad"'s impelling form and erudite diction seem peculiarly inappropriate for describing her inert life. Moreover, the missing expression or exalted emotions, typically found in the epic, are startling in their absence. These aspects, in juxtaposition, function to accentuate one another, disturbing us as we try to make form and content synthesize into a unified structure. As a result, first, we are forced to look beyond the description of Annie's submissive life, as seen in the narrative content of the poem, in order to determine if her emotional life is given expression in other ways. And second, we are compelled to look beyond the surface texture of the poem in order to reevaluate the suitability of epic format for the poem.
During this reevaluation process, we recall that there has consistently been a clear separation between Annie's two selves in all of the poems in the first two sections. On one hand, Annie's internal emotional complexity appears in the textual activity in the poems that depict her life; on the other hand, her external, inert life is depicted in the narrative content of "The Anniad." Thus, a system of reversals operates throughout the poem relating to the conflict between the content and the manner of its expression. In this context, Annie is much like a landscape of fertile hills and valleys that has been leveled to ordinary starkness. Whereas she once possessed contours of character, she has now been flattened out into a smooth plane. Whereas she was once a "stupendous" being, she has now been squeezed into a too-small, restricted space. As a result her splendor has literally been choked out of her:
Now, weeks and years will go before she thinks
"How pinchy is my room! how can I breathe!
I am not anything and I have got
Not anything, or anything to do!"—
When the reader understands the results of Annie's careful maternal and social nurturing, which are described above, the anger that Annie suppresses is located. It originates in Brooks and is transferred to the reader. Brooks incites our response not only by revealing Annie's fate of unhappiness and loneliness, but Brooks also compounds our disturbance by inciting our impatience with the poem's extreme artifice and with the seeming inappropriateness of the epic format. Thus, the erudite descriptions are, in themselves, indirect expressions of Brooks's anger, which has been suppressed and flattened out into complex, static language. In this manner, Brooks supplies Annie and her readers with the missing anger. The anger, therefore, is simply not in the narrative of the poem but in the work at large, which is the product of "the convergence of the text and the reader's response."
When we read "The Anniad" in this manner, the poem cannot be regarded as an epic poem, as the allusion to The Iliad might suggest. "The Anniad" is not a poem that depicts heroic character or events. To the contrary, I contend that "The Anniad" is a mock-heroic satire, in that commonplace characters and events have been elevated in a ceremonious manner by using lofty diction and complicated techniques. It bears repeating that this literary form is, in itself, also the embodiment of Brooks's indirect expression for anger. Hence, Brooks deliberately cloaks her own anger, arising from the events she represents in the poem, in satire as the vehicle for expressing Annie's suppressed anger. By using satire, Brooks does not have to engage in a severely direct and explicit form of censorship. The form inherently ridicules; it ridicules the destructive domestic forces in the life of a young black woman as well as those in the lives of most women. By relying on this literary form, Brooks uses it to communicate not only emotional content, but also social and moral criticism.
Although marriage, in and of itself, is not described as a destructive force in the poem, it can become the site on which the fullness of a woman's evolving character and ambitions are sacrificed. In this manner, maturity and ambitions are often exchanged for "domestic bliss." And domestic bliss is often nothing more than one spouse electing either to say "yes" or to smile in silence with a sigh. This tragic scenario is both recorded and severely ridiculed by relying on the literary form of mock-heroic satire.
The text of "The Anniad," when seen as a literary work, becomes a powerful statement about the cost of extreme forms of role-playing. Consequently, the work becomes an emotionally charged satirical comment about the tragedy of a woman's inactive life, a tragedy compounded by racial prejudice. In fact, the high epic allusion is nothing more than an inversion of the epic form, and although mock-heroic satire is normally associated with a burlesque or comic presentation of its subject, here the mockery is bitter, that is, Juvenalian, in nature. This satire operates by not only relying on the narrative content of the poem, but also and more importantly by using a literary form as a vehicle for communicating both emotional and factual content.
When "The Anniad" is seen as a literary work that must be responded to in order to attain its interpretative significance, the work becomes a powerful statement about the cost of subscribing to extreme forms of role-definition. In this way, the poem ceases merely to be a complex, intellectual exercise, but becomes a serious statement about the destructive social and domestic rituals that are unquestioningly followed. Moreover, when we heed the color codes interwoven throughout the poem, we discern that Brooks is also criticizing the color caste system that further circumscribes Annie's life within barriers of racial prejudice. The reader's response to this woman—and to the social contingencies that design her life—is anger; this anger converges with Brooks's own, and both forms occupy the place where Annie's absent emotional response should be.
When we regard "The Anniad" as a satire, not only do we see the poem as an expression of cloaked anger, but we also understand how the other poems in the collection are to be read. We see that Brooks has crowded Annie's anger back into "pinchy" obscurity of form in poem after poem, where she contends it takes a little bit of patience to see the rage.
Once we have located the rage, encoded on Annie's tightly smiling face and patted-down hair, Brooks does not abandon us. She suggests a route for her sisters in spirit to take in order to escape Annie's fate and cross the "screaming weed" of desperation, referred to in the last poem of the collection, XV in "Womanhood." Here, the unidentified speaker declares that it is all right to acknowledge openly her pain:
Men of careful turns, haters of forks in the road,
Grant me that I am human, that I hurt,
That I can cry.
She contends that after the pain has been acknowledged, she must celebrate by affirming her life in the presence of other women, despite the fact that she has arrived late both to this level of self-awareness (an internal region) and to this party of women (an external event):
Open my rooms, let in the light and air.
And let the joy continue. Do not hoard silence
For the moment when I enter, tardily,
To enjoy my height among you. And to love you.
When she is asked to sit down and be quiet, she is compelled to demand "a chair, but the one with broken straw," so that she might sit, but sit uncomfortably in order to be compelled to stand. When she is told "intelligence / Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness …," she remembers to "extend [her] hand and teeth" in a tight, sighing smile, which is an indirect expression of anger. And finally, Brooks has her speaker demand that her sisters stand and join hands to map out new expectations:
Let us combine. There are no magics or elves
Or timely godmothers to guide us. We are lost,
Wizard a track through our own screaming weed.
The word "wizard" of Gwendolyn Brooks's Annie Allen maps out the route for Annie's sisters not to take and points, instead, to another. In "wizard[ing] a track through [their] own screaming weed," they locate the untrodden course, which leads to discovering and learning how to nurture themselves.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4523
SOURCE: "'Chocolate Mabbie' and 'Pearl May Lee': Gwendolyn Brooks and the Ballad Tradition," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 278-93.
[In the following essay, Mootry discusses the appropriation of folk ballad and blues conventions in Brooks's poetry. "While, on the surface, these folk elements make her poetry more accessible to the reader," writes Mootry, "a closer examination reveals insinuations and refinements of technique that augment the complexity so characteristic of her work."]
Among the five major volumes of Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, one of the notably recurring poetic forms is the ballad. From "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," in her first volume, to "The Ballad of Edie Barrow" in her last major book, Brooks shows a continued interest in this popular or folk art form. Brooks' attraction to ballads is not unique. In their revolt against the artifice, formalism, and abstraction of eighteenth-century classicist poetry, romantic poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth often turned to folk ballads for subjects and techniques. They liked the fact that the ballad, as a folk form, focused on the outcasts of society, including abandoned mothers, prisoners, and beggars. At the same time, they valued the ballad's language and structure because it seemed to avoid the pretensions of eighteenth-century classicist poetry. In his famous preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth maintains that the language of all poetry, like the language of the ballad, should be neutral, simple, and essentially the same as everyday speech. Coleridge and Wordsworth, however, aimed merely to imitate the ballad form in order to demonstrate the value of their new theory of poetics. Brooks' use of the ballad reflects a similar desire to recover a simpler, more direct, poetic form; it also reflects her belief that the poet should "vivify the commonplace."
However, Brooks goes beyond the mere imitation of ballad themes and techniques to create more varied and complex structures. The result is that while on one level her ballads are simple and direct, on another level they are deeply ironic and complex, both in theme and technique. Thus through her use of ballads, Brooks meets the demands of two ostensibly disparate audiences: the "art for art's sake" audience with its emphasis on the poem as its own excuse for being and the "common" audience who looks for familiar structures and social or moral messages. In the process, Brooks recovers the ballad tradition by using its themes and techniques; she reinvigorates that tradition by infusing it with new themes and variations; and finally, she critiques the tradition by using parodic techniques. The overall effect, however, is the revelation of contemporary, often unpleasant, truths about Afro-American and American society.
In this essay, observations of Brooks' use of the Western folk ballad tradition in her poetry will be based on the analysis of the poems "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie" and "Ballad of Pearl May Lee," which appeared in her first volume. A Street in Bronzeville (1945). These poems were selected not only because they are literary ballads, but because, as their titles suggest, each is Brooksian in its emphasis on a "woman-identified" vision. Gordon Hall Gerould, in his study of the European folk ballad, notes that "the sorrows peculiar to women serve the ballad poets … for some of their most poignant moments." Brooks continues this thematic aspect of the European folk ballad tradition, often infusing into her own literary ballads the complex use of additional folk elements from the Afro-American spirituals and blues (sacred and secular) traditions. Before analyzing the poems, however, it may be useful to review briefly the major folk ballad conventions.
I. The Ballad Tradition
The original popular (or folk) ballad is anonymous, transmitted by oral tradition, and tells a story, often about events well known to its audience. Whatever affects the thoughts and emotions of a community may become the subject of a ballad, but the most frequent themes are unfaithful lovers, shocking murders, mysterious happenings, and political oppression. For example, the latter theme is expressed in the English ballads of Robin Hood, who defended the rights of the common people against the predatory rich. Perhaps because the story is usually well known to the audience, the ballad poet tends to present his narrative in a series of dramatically striking episodes. The audience is left to fill out the complete narrative since characterization is brief, transitions are abrupt, and action is often developed through dialogue.
The language of folk ballads is usually simple in diction and meter. However, because many ballads have been handed down from generation to generation, the diction often ranges from the Scottish or Anglo-Saxon vernacular to archaisms reflecting past poetic oral conventions or everyday usage. Inversions of syntactical structures are also common, perhaps to maintain earlier narrative conventions. Regarding stanzaic form, the typical folk ballad uses the ballad stanza, an abcb four-line stanza with alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. However, even where the ballad stanza is not employed, there tends to be the use of refrains and repetition of phrases or parallel phrasing. Often a refrain is repeated with only a slight change, creating what is called an incremental refrain.
Although many ballads begin in medias res, just as frequently the ballad employs stock opening phrases to establish its narrative structure. In any event, because of its elliptical episodic structure, colors, actions, and even dialogue are often metonymic and multifunctional. Finally, ballads often also close with some kind of summary stanza. This final stanza often continues the incremental nature of ballad repetition, as well as the simplicity with which tragic situations are presented.
These are some of the major features of the Western European folk ballad. Of course, there are many variations and exceptions to these rules, but for the purpose of this essay, these core conventions may serve as a guide in assessing how Brooks uses the folk ballad tradition and how she departs from it in two of her most powerful literary ballads.
II. "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie" and the Afro-American Sacred Tradition
In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," Brooks deals with the pathos of intraracial discrimination, one of her recurring themes. Seven-year-old Mabbie falls in love with her classmate, Willie Boone, moons over him in history class, and waits for him outside the grammar school gates. In an epiphanic scene, Mabbie's erstwhile "lover" appears insouciantly in the company of a light-skinned, long-haired beauty. At the poem's conclusion, Mabbie is left to "chocolate companions" and to her own resources.
In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," Brooks uses many of the European ballad conventions mentioned above. For instance, the poem begins with an opening phrase which establishes its narrative character: "It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates…." The use of the connective "and" reinforces both the poem's plot structure and its apparent simplicity. An almost childlike progression of sentences makes up this first stanza:
It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates.
And Mabbie was all of seven.
And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar.
And Mabbie thought life was heaven. (emphasis mine)
Repetition appears in the phrasing, "It was Mabbie … / And Mabbie was … / And Mabbie thought…." This parallel repetition recurs in the third stanza, which repeats the opening line: "It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates." The repetition becomes incremental with the closing stanza, where the opening line is again repeated with the meaningful change of one word, "without," to the word "alone," i.e., "It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates" (first stanza) becomes "It was Mabbie alone by the grammar school gates" (sixth and last stanza—emphasis mine).
Archaic or somewhat outdated usages appear unobtrusively in "Chocolate Mabbie." The word "without" in the poem's first line is clearly archaic; and certain words have an archaic aura, e.g., "saucily," "woe," and "lemon-hued" in the fifth stanza. To this suggestion of the old ballad tradition, Brooks juxtaposes modern vernacular language, particularly in the key phrase, "cut from a chocolate bar." Also noteworthy is Brook's use of predominantly Anglo-Saxon words. Often monosyllabic, often with hard consonants, and often used alliteratively, these words with Anglo-Saxon roots create a harsh if vigorous tone and reinforce Brooks' debt to the European (English) folk tradition. Examples of these key words occurring in "Chocolate Mabbie" include "without," "gates," "seven," "cut," "thought," "heaven," "school," "cool," "soon," "brow," and "alone." Also, the preponderance of "to be" verbs and pronouns reflects an Anglo-Saxon linguistic base. One of the few interpolations of an Afro-American vernacular phrasing in the poem occurs in the fourth line of the second stanza where Brooks describes Mabbie's ardor for Willie: "Was only her eyes were cool" is at once a balladic inversion and a Black English construction. The very absence of sustained Black English in the poem accentuates this line, which interestingly anticipates the masterful title of one of Brooks' most famous poems, "We Real Cool."
Turning to its stanzaic form, "Chocolate Mabbie," like the traditional ballad, uses the abcb rhyme scheme with rhythmic alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. For instance, the first stanza of the poem scans as follows:
It was, Mabbie without the grammar school gates.
And Mabbie was all of seven.
And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar.
And Mabbie thought life was heaven.
Further balladic elements include the repetition of phrases and the use of parallelisms mentioned above, particularly the incrementally juxtaposed line which opens the first and last stanzas:
It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates.
It was Mabbie alone by the grammar school gates.
Balladic epithets also appear in such phrases as "the pearly gates," "bold Willie Boone," "lemon-hued lynx" and "sandwaves." Yet while these epithets merely adorn the traditional ballad, in "Chocolate Mabbie" they become hyperbolic, a mockery within a mock-tragedy. "Bold Willie Boone" and his "lemon-hued lynx" are inflated references to school children which infuse "Chocolate Mabbie" with a satiric tone. The foreshadowing voice of the narrator deepens the sense of satire when describing Mabbie's school gate vigil in the fourth stanza:
Oh, warm is the waiting for joys, my dears,
And it cannot be too long,
Oh, pity the little poor chocolate lips
That carry the bubble of song!
If exaggerated language in "Chocolate Mabbie" mocks the ballad tradition when it is applied to these prepubescent ordinary characters, the poem's understated plot similarly burlesques another major ballad feature, the episodic, sensationalist plot. While the plot of "Chocolate Mabbie" is "cinematic" in that it offers a montage-like series of images, in actuality the story is minimal. The reader observes a love-sick Mabbie outside the gates, observes Mabbie in the history class, and observes Mabbie desolately watching Willie leave with his "lemon-hued lynx." These everyday "events" in "Chocolate Mabbie" pale before the far more shocking events of such traditional ballads as "Sir Patrick Spence," in which a heroic sailor is involuntarily sent to his death, or "Child-Waters," where a young woman's consuming love ends in an illegitimate baby and public humiliation.
In spite of her occasional parodic stance, Brooks adds to the traditional ballad conventions a theme that is at once universal and particularlized. "Chocolate Mabbie," at its core, is a poem about unrequited love. To the theme of unrequited love is added the theme of intraracial discrimination within the black community. As Arthur P. Davis has noted, this is a recurring issue in Brooks' poetry. When this theme is linked to the theme of a female child's developing identity the black community. As Arthur P. Davis has noted, this is a recurring issue in Brooks' poetry. When this theme is linked to the theme of a female child's developing identity within the black community, it may not be sensationalist, but it does take on the power of harsh revelation. The result, ultimately, is that "Chocolate Mabbie" is not only about the loss of love, but even more so, it is about the loss of innocence.
It is in addressing the theme of "innocence versus experience" that Brooks further modifies her use of the European ballad tradition by drawing on subjects and themes common to the Afro-American sacred folk tradition. The opening lines of "Chocolate Mabbie" express Mabbie's delusions of love in quasi-religious terms. To Mabbie, who "thought life was heaven," the grammar school gates have become "the pearly gates." References to "pearly gates" recur frequently in Afro-American spirituals, usually when linked to the theme of the Second Coming. This messianic theme and its attendant imagery are parodically and mockingly reconstructed in the third stanza, where Mabbie's hopes for Willie's attention are expressed in the final line: "He would surely be coming soon." Thus, in another hyperbolic strategy, Mabbie is shown as having made a religion of love. Yet, from another perspective, the folk spirituals or sacred tradition is not so much mocked as used as an analogue of secular dilemma. In a further analogy to the biblical tradition, Mabbie, like Adam and Eve, is banished from her prelapsarian state. Thus if the imagery suggests apocalyptic visions, it also looks backward to the Fall. Mabbie's "guilt" is a moot point because she, like all humans, is original sin personified, being "graven by a hand less than angelic." However, the implications are twofold. Brooks is not only speaking of original sin in a Calvinistic sense, but primarily of the social "sin" of being born black and female. In addressing this theme of loss of innocence, Brooks resorts neither to a sense of predestined fate nor to the romantic transcendence of ideal black womanhood so common to her predecessors during the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, the bitterness of Mabbie's rejection by Willie and the collapse of Mabbie's naive worldview is balanced by the implied possibility of the reconstruction of self in society. Mabbie must learn to use her personal resources, to cherish her "chocolate companions" and not to waste her personal resources, to cherish her "chocolate companions" and not to waste her time brooding over male "betrayal." As Brooks advised in her autobiography,
[b]lack women must remember … [t]hat her [sic] personhood precedes her femalehood, that, sweet as sex may be, she cannot endlessly brood on Black man's blondes, blues and blunders. She is a person in the world—with wrongs to right, stupidities to outwit, with her man when possible, on her own when not…. Therefore she must, in the midst of tragedy and hatred and neglect … mightily enjoy the readily available: sunshine and pets and children and conversation and games and travel (tiny or large) and books and walks and chocolate cake….
By infusing satire and parody into "Chocolate Mabbie" Brooks establishes the poem's distance from the simple folk ballad tradition. Despite the ballad conventions and sacred imagery, the poem has a mocking quality which gives it a complex cutting edge and reinforces its ideas. The childlike syntax of the opening stanza goes beyond balladic simplicity to a primerlike quality. It is as if an elementary school child is adding sentence to sentence with no sense of subordination. This simplicity underscores the fact that on one level Brooks is writing about "puppy-love" and humorously focusing on a transitory childish crush and its inevitable demise. Yet, in the final stanza the narrator loses her sardonic tone. Thus the reader is reminded that if this is, from one perspective, childish subject matter, ultimately it is a serious poetic statement about the dilemma of growing up black and female in America.
III. "The Ballad of Pearl May Lee" and the Afro-American Blues Tradition
"The Ballad of Pearl May Lee" shows Brooks at her grittiest—blackening and womanizing the ballad form. Through her focus on a black woman narrator, her stark descriptions of grim, racially based sexual drives and her linkage of the theme of revenge with the brutal racist act of lynching, Brooks achieves remarkable complexity both in the poem's structure and in its poetic statement.
The theme of this second, longer poem, like the subject of "Chocolate Mabbie," is the common folk ballad theme of unrequited love. "Pearl May Lee," however, is a sensational story about a lynching, told through a dramatic episodic narrative which includes several shifts in scene and the use of dialogue in its rhetorical strategy. True to folk balladry, the tale opens at a crucial point in the progression of events. The reader/listener overhears Pearl the narrator retelling her story in medias res:
Then off they took you, off to the jail,
A hundred hooting after….
Thus, in the "Ballad of Pearl May Lee" Brooks changes from the third-person narrator of the European ballad to the immediacy of a highly involved first-person speaker, which is characteristic of the Afro-American blues tradition. Pearl May, the poem's opening speaker, addresses her once derelict and now murdered lover, Sammy, and retells the gory details of his lynching. In the process, however, Pearl May becomes herself the subject of the poem; it is her emotional reactions to events and not the events themselves that Brooks brings into focus. The narrative stance in the poem fluctuates. At times Pearl is almost an objective chronicler of events, as when she recounts in the thirteenth stanza: "They wrapped you around a cottonwood tree." At other times she acts as a judgmental choric voice, as when she remarks, "You had it coming surely." But hers is primarily a lyrical voice, reflecting on her own dilemma and feelings, as when she soliloquizes; "Though never was a poor gal lorner."
As with the traditional ballad, "Pearl May Lee" contains several episodic shifts in scene. The poem opens with the speaker in her home; then the speaker dramatizes the jail cell scene following Sammy's arrest; next, in a kind of flashback, Sammy and Pearl's school days are recalled; subsequently Pearl May imagines Sammy's seduction scene on the fringe of town in the back of a Buick; next she imagines the lynching scene; and finally, she returns to her present state of mind. These abrupt shifts in scene are simultaneously balladic and also reflective of blues techniques. Sammy's incarceration recalls many "jailhouse" blues songs. Ironically, while he is held behind cell bars, Pearl May, like so many blues women, is imprisoned by her confusion and despair. She literally begs to be dug out of her depression and loneliness when she cries: "Oh, dig me out of my don't despair / Oh, pull me out of my poor-me." In so doing she echoes the paralysis expressed by Ma Rainey, the great classic blues songwriter and singer, in "Deep Moaning Blues:"
My bell rang this morning, didn't know which-a-way to go,
I had the blues so bad, I sit right down on my flo.
At the same time, structurally, Pearl's lines recall the traditional ballad lament, as seen in this concluding stanza from "Bonny Barbara Allen:"
"O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it safe and narrow!"
This lament parallels the concluding stanza of "Pearl May Lee":
"Oh, dig me out of my don't despair.
Oh, pull me out of my poor-me.
Oh, get me a garment of red to wear…."
Both of these laments contrast with the similarly structured mock, lament in the sixth stanza of "Chocolate Mabbie":
Oh, warm is the waiting for joys, my dears!
And it cannot be too long.
Oh, pity the little poor chocolate lips
That carry the bubble of song.
In the presentation of episodes the language of "Pearl May Lee" is, like ballad language, simple, idiomatic, sometimes harshly direct. Pearl May's reaction to Sammy's lamented death is to "cut [her] lungs with … laughter," but she realizes paradoxically that "never was a poor gal [herself] lorner." Many blues idioms infuse the vernacular language of this poem with a particularly Afro-American blues realism. For instance, Sammy's rejection of Pearl is phrased as the inability to "abide dark meat." Yet Brooks juxtaposes this stark sexual reference with the romantic ballad language Pearl uses when she tries to imagine Sammy at his fatal lover's tryst. In this narrative-within-the-narrative, balladic phrases appear in such lines as "The moon an owl's eye minding; / The sweet and thick of the cricket-ballad dark" (emphasis mine).
Dialogue in "Pearl May Lee" is similarly varied. It is usually simple, even crude, as when the white woman turns against Sammy with the accusation: "You raped me, nigger." However, at times the poem's diction includes balladic phrasing, as when Pearl May begs, "Oh, get me a garment of red to wear." The structure and semantics of this request are not a part of contemporary American or Afro-American language, particularly the usage of "garment" instead of "dress." The use of the word "garment" fits into the poem's patterning of words with Middle English etymology, both within and outside dialogue. Such words, which often begin with hard sounds and are often used alliteratively, recreate the forceful balladic tone of many English ballads. Other examples in "Pearl May Lee" are "cut," "laugh," "dig," and "pull."
In addition to its balladic language conventions, "Pearl May Lee" is composed of variations on the ballad stanza. While much of its phrasing comes from the blues, and while its dramatic situation is a blues dilemma, stanzaically it departs from classic blues verse form of three lines with an aab rhyme scheme. Instead, its variation on the ballad stanza relies heavily on the use of three devices; repetition, rhyme, and refrains. For example, the first stanza sets a pattern for stanzas two through five, stanzas eight and nine, and stanzas eleven through sixteen. In each, three lines are followed by a refrain which repeats the rhyme of the second line. The entire first stanza reads:
Then they took you off to the jail,
A hundred hooting after.
And you should have heard me at my house.
I cut my lungs with my laughter.
I cut my lungs with my laughter.
Stanzas six, seven, and ten, however, consist of six lines, with the opening two lines being followed by a repeated set of lines. For example, the sixth stanza reads:
At school, your girls were the bright little girls. (a)
You couldn't abide dark meat. (b)
Yellow was for to look at. (c)
Black for the famished to eat. (b)
Yellow was for to look at. (c)
Black for the famished to eat. (b)
Not only are phrases and refrains repeated within stanzas, but in a complex patterning of parallel structures, entire stanzas are repeated for incremental emphasis. Thus, the fourth and fifth stanzas are repeated as stanzas fifteen and sixteen. Only one line is altered in the process: "But you paid for your white arms, Sammy boy," in the fourth stanza, becomes "You paid for your dinner, Sammy boy," in the fifteenth stanza. However, Brooks cleverly varies her stanzaic rhymes and repetition throughout the poem by using off rhymes, hyphenated word rhymes, and even coinages, e.g., the word "lorner" in stanza two, which is a comparative of the obsolete Middle English word "lorn."
In addition to coinages reminiscent of European ballads, phrases like "white arms" and "pink and white honey" form part of the many balladic epithets used in "Pearl May Lee." Some of these epithets come from the romantic ballad tradition, such as the "cricket-belled dark" mentioned above; others from American and Afro-American vernacular. The sheriff, for instance, is "the red old thing," while Sammy hates "dark meat."
Colors in "Pearl May Lee" are used metonymically in both the balladic and Afro-American vernacular sense. References to white, red, and black thread the poem, creating multiple associations with racial hegemony (the white Southern oppressors), violence (the angry sheriff is described as a "red old thing"), life ("garment of red"), and the reality of intraracial color discrimination ("Black for the famished to eat; yellow to … look at").
The use of dialogue as a foreshadowing device as well as a dramatic element is another balladic technique in "Pearl May Lee." For example, the sheriff predicts to Sammy: "You son of a bitch, you're going to hell!." And the white woman, his erstwhile lover, promises: "My body tonight, niggerboy. I'll get your body tomorrow."
Ultimately, all of the personae in "The Ballad of Pearl May Lee" are actors in a dramatic tragedy that is at once universal in its linkage of the great themes of desire and death, but particular in its peculiarly American and Afro-American nuances. The "red old" sheriff and the "hundreds hooting after" reflect a racist Southern communal history of vigilante justice based on the principle of unadulterated Southern womanhood. While their actions parallel the actions of the seven foresters in "Johnie Cock" who gleefully dismember a virile youth for the brash "crime" of poaching, the racial motivation for the lynching of Sammy is uniquely American. Similarly, while the white woman betrayer-lover parallels the old palmer who sneaks away to tell the foresters of Johnie's crime, again the peculiar mixture of desire, shame, and racial hatred reflects a special American dilemma. Pearl May's cutting laughter and sense of justification ("You had it coming surely") reflects the painful but prescient "I told you so" attitude of characters like Johnie Cock's mother, who begged him to "stay at hame." But the fury and brutal sense of revenge felt by Pearl May is perhaps more akin to that of Lady Erskine, who, in the ballad "Child-Owlet," has her nephew dismembered because he refused her advances. Even if Pearl's ambivalence, the ambiguity of her final state of mind ("Oh, dig me out of my don't despair … Oh get me a garment of red to wear"), parallels the convention of remorse following revenge common to the ballad convention, it also parallels the Afro-American blues mixture of "meanness" and regret as reflected in these lines:
Too sad to worry, too mean to cry,
too slow to hurry, too good to lie,…. (Ma Rainey,
"Victim of the Blues")
Thus, both the ballad tradition and the blues tradition are reflected in "Pearl May Lee"'s structure, in its imagery, and in its core theme of the interrelation between sex, violence, and death. By making her speaker-heroine a semi-omniscient first-person narrator, Brooks was able to use the conventions of these two traditions to enhance her "woman-identified" stance and her art.
In conclusion, Brooks' use of folk traditions varies considerably. At times, it is straightforward, at other times parodic; and often it is a complex mixture of both. Further analysis of her use of the traditions of ballads, blues, and spirituals needs to be made before any full understanding of her art can be achieved. The relationship between the blues tradition and the ballad tradition, for instance, needs further exploration. At this point, based on two powerful examples, it can be argued that Brooks turned to folk forms—ballad, blues, and spirituals—not out of any sentimental attachment to a given tradition but to deepen her poetic structure. While, on the surface, these folk elements make her poetry more accessible to the reader, a closer examination reveals insinuations and refinements of technique that augment the complexity so characteristic of her work. In so doing, Brooks has met her own criteria expressed in this early statement for an effective black poet:
The Negro poet's most urgent duty, at present, is to polish his technique, his way of presenting his truths and his beauties, that these may be more insinuating, and therefore, more overwhelming.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2732
SOURCE: A review of Blacks, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 567-73.
[In the following review, Baker offers an overview of Brooks's poetry and favorable evaluation of Blacks.]
When a compendium of her poetry entitled The World of Gwendolyn Brooks appeared in the 1970s, the Poet Laureate of Illinois seemed fitly rewarded for a life of creative labor. The collection represented more than three decades. And its very name seemed proper and patently personal—a tribute to the genius behind its assembled offerings. "The world of Gwendolyn Brooks," one thought. "Yes, that is certainly appropriate for a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Poet Laureate, a guardian, model, and mentor in the world of American and Afro-American letters."
Yet, in 1987, with less than exultant fanfare, "the world of Gwendolyn Brooks" gave way to the unadorned, firmly bound, and privately published compendium BLACKS. Issued under her own publishing imprimatur, The David Company, the new collection bears strikingly large gold letters on its cover which spell BLACKS. Beneath, and in smaller type, the poet's name appears. From the proper "world" of Gwendolyn Brooks, we move to the common denomination BLACKS. A reading of BLACKS reveals the striking appropriateness of the retitling.
To read the new volume is to be struck once more by Brooks's genius at portraiture. A Street in Bronzeville (1945) is a series of vignettes, pithy character studies, and portraits of people who in a later volume are called The Bean Eaters (1960). Like Annie Allen (1949), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, Brooks's novella Maud Martha (1953) is an extended portrait, a lyrical evocation of days, years, people, and events in the everyday lives of Afro-American women. These early works are a kind of apprenticeship for the energetic portraits that appear in In the Mecca (1968).
What appreciative reader of Brooks's poetry can soon forget the exquisite yellow youth of Jessie Mitchell's mother; the glories of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery; the sartorial aesthetics of Satin Legs Smith; the wonders of Hattie Scott; a venomous eulogy by Pearl May Lee; the loiterings of a Bronzeville Mother in Mississippi; Kid Bruin, Mrs. Small, Sallie Smith, or a stunning Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat? Or who can fail to recall an encounter with poetical sections such as "A Catch of Shy Fish" or "Young Heroes?"
The impression left by Brooks's portraits is that of a universe crafted by an inventive artist. No, perhaps it is better described as a gallery of originals midwived into language. In "To Keorapetse Kgositsile" Brooks writes: "Art is life worked with: is life / wheeled, or whelmed: / assessed: / clandestine, but evoked." Rather than paint or clay, her own medium is a mind that evokes, names, provides common denominations in language that is clean, often spare, and wondrously economical.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
What strikes a reader about Brooks's seven "real cool" pool players at the Golden Shovel, or her pragmatic "Old Mary," or a "Bronzeville Man with a Belt in the Back" is their utter commonness. Named by the poet, they are felt always to have existed as BLACKS—as occupants of a common street—sharers of a common lean cuisine of beans.
But to see Brooks merely as a creator of portraits is scarcely to distinguish her from a host of other American writers. For the portrait, as an emergent form of Enlightenment individualism, has enjoyed a ruggedly individualistic poetic heyday in American letters. From Theodore Ward's Simple Cobler of Aggawam, through Lowell's Hosea Biglow, Whitman's democratic vistas, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River people, Sandburg's Bunk Shooter and other denizens of Chicago, to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg gallery, portraiture marks a vernacular tradition. As Brooks works the tradition, it descends directly from Sandburg and Masters. It is entirely correct to add, however, that the poet's Afro-American predecessors such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown were also within her general field of influences. A survey of Hughes's myriad volumes reveals a veritable cornucopia of urban, Afro-American portraits. And Brown's Southern Road, with its stirring pictures of Maumee Ruth, Big Boy Davis, Sister Lou, Sam Smiley, and others, offers a rural counterpart to Brooks's urban gallery.
If the poetic staple of her work is so familiar to American letters, no critical account can claim to have defined the poet simply by labeling her a portraitist. We might supplement the claim by noting that Brooks's people are of African descent and can thus be said to add a unique racial and cultural mixture to the general gallery. But this addendum runs head on into the reality of her black predecessors. Fenton Johnson, Countée Cullen, Hughes, and Brown had all provided distinctively African American portraits in advance of Brooks.
The poet's uniqueness does not reside, then, simply in her portrayal of the commonplace. It resides most decisively in another feature of her poetical world—namely, her clear rejection of glorifying ideologies of the common man. Her people have neither the blues temperateness of Sterling Brown's strong men getting stronger, nor the joie de vivre of Langston Hughes's black urbanites, who want to dig and be dug in return. They are not proponents or exemplars of obtainable egalitarian goals. They are not blessed with a consciousness of mission—a sense of manifest destiny or a surety of predestined roles in the unfolding of a mighty national enterprise. They live always at the limits of a bitterly tested tolerance. Old Mary acknowledges:
My last defense
Is the present tense.
It little hurts me now to know
I shall not go
Cathedral-hunting in Spain
Nor cherrying in Michigan or Maine.
Lester laments in "Strong Men, Riding Horses":
What mannerisms I present, employ,
Are camouflage, and what my mouths remark
To word-wall off that broadness of the dark
I am not brave at all.
So much for barbaric yawps. Whimpers are the stuff of Bronzeville, not big bangs.
The jazz singer Mose Allison intones: "It's just as well the world ended / Things weren't going that well anyway." His assessment defines the universe of Brooks's common folks. Implicit in the poet's portrayals, in fact, is a grammar of dissent. Frontal irony and subtle antagonism are directed against all romantic ideologies of progress and metaphysical salvation. Race, class, gender, and nationality are the grounds of divisiveness and conflict that put such ideologies to shame. Skin color as a sign of race in America, for example, can cause unappeasable anguish. Maud Martha thinks: "… it's my color that makes h[er husband] mad…. What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I've got for him." Class causes white women who are putative "lovers of the poor" to grow sick with fear and disgust. Philanthropically entering narrow halls of poverty, they are overcome by sights, sounds, and smells of the lower class. Nationality fosters crescendos of "Doomer"—unending war with unending destruction of "gay chaps" who serve as cannon fodder. Gender confines women to agonizing spaces; they are locked in gray rooms filled with heavy-diapered children … and vermin. One of the most sickening gender images in Brooks's poetry occurs in Maud Martha: "She could only stand helpless, frozen, and watch the slick movement [of a roach] suddenly appear and slither, looking doubly evil, across the mirror, before which she had been calmly brushing her hair." Possibilities for heroism are few in a world overdetermined by race, class, gender, and nationality. The bleakness of this universe is in part a function of Brooks's modernism. Commencing her career during "The Great War," she seems to have absorbed a healthy dose of the artistic malaise that prompted somber reveries of a Godless and irreversible universe of atomic fission. But her grammar of dissent is not entirely a by-product of the era in which she began her career.
Her antagonism to glorifying ideologies is also a product of a distinctive artistic credo—a signal aesthetics. Her creative orientation is designed, in fact, to match a world that guarantees the "commonness" of blacks through its restrictive codes of race, class, nationality, and gender. Adornment, embellishment, flamboyance, and proclamations of heroism are as anomalous in such a world as (to summon the poet's own image) "a rose in a whiskey glass." Stability, sanity, physical and mental development, and day-to-day safety survival depend upon an almost brutal refusal of self-deception and artistic idealism.
What insures and guards the day in Bronzeville is not the exalted proper name, but a common denomination. Mrs. Sallie Smith of In the Mecca instructs us: "First comes correctness, then embellishment! / And music, mode, and mixed philosophy / may follow fitly on propriety / to tame the whiskey of our discontent!" What is common is, also, proper or appropriate in the world of the Mecca. Similarly, in the world of "the children of the poor," it is necessary first to "civilize a space"—to claim and name a territory of one's own—before embellishing the air with notes of "hurting love." Again, Satin Legs Smith is the very bewitcher and bewilderer of what Brooks calls "flowers" and harmonies of a "Western field"; his is a common (communally accepted) splendor.
Two poems resonantly define Brooks's aesthetics. The first, entitled "The Egg Boiler," reads:
Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art.
You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air,
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear.
You mock it, though, you name it Not Enough.
The egg, spooned gently to the avid pan,
And left the strict three minutes, or the four,
Is your Enough and art for any man.
We fools give courteous ear—then cut some more,
Shaping a gorgeous Nothingness from cloud.
You watch us, eat your egg, and laugh aloud.
The "egg boiler" is not like Hawthorne's artist of the beautiful. He is a craftsperson of the ordinary. Rather than delicacy of inscription or grace beyond the reach of art, he longs for a weighty and nourishing creativity. As he defines the world, traditional idealistic aesthetics are laughable. While there is, surely, more than a little irony intended by the poem's speaker (after all, she is the cloudland aesthetician and creator of the "you" who mocks her), there is also a sharp critique of idealistic art. And it is the egg boiler who finally emerges as sympathetic. He (or she) is an artist of the commonplace with whom we can identify in his (or her) conversion of everyday rituals into poetry "Enough."
To bestow a common denomination within restricted economies of class, race, nation, and gender in the United States is to seize a nourishing poetic initiative. Common things commonly named have a way of surviving even the grossest human follies. The conclusion of Maud Martha reads: "… and it was doubtful whether the ridiculousness of man would ever completely succeed in destroying the world—or, in fact, the basic equanimity of the least and commonest flower: for would its kind not come up again in the spring? come up, if necessary, among, between, or out of—beastly inconvenient!—the smashed corpses lying in strict composure, in that hush infallible and sincere." These lines seem to contradict my earlier claim about the absence of celebratory ideologies in Brooks's work. Their optimism about the essentiality of the "common" is, however, intriguingly qualified by a second poem about naming and the commonplace.
Immediately preceding "The Egg Boiler" in The Bean Eaters is a poem called "The Artists' and Models' Ball":
Wonders do not confuse. We call them that
And close the matter there. But common things
Surprise us. They accept the names we give
With calm, and keep them. Easy-breathing then
We brave our next small business. Well, behind
Our backs they alter. How were we to know.
Grand occasions such as artists' and models' balls may appear as wondrous events staged by people self-defined as wondrous. These occasions sustain their wonder because they are framed as "balls," as ritual events. It is, in fact, their very separateness from everyday life that provides stability.
Items of everyday use, by contrast, are not so accommodating. Framed only by hastily uttered names and subject always to continuous exchange in the social and verbal world of common folks, they are always in circulation and never separate from hourly commerce. Hence they are the most elusive things of all. They cannot be fixed and held permanent by an ethics and aesthetics of wonder. Like the egg for boiling, the space for civilizing, or the wardrobe and Sunday seductions of Satin Legs Smith, such things are given moment only by a name. But their moment is precariously fragile. Any extension brings another name and alters their "thingness" through parlance and use.
Let me add here, however, that Brooks's own poetical naming often situates itself within a common order rather than employing the vocabularies of such an order for names. Her polysyllabic verse with its taut syntax and her grammatical substitutions of adjectives and adverbs for nouns often make her poems anything but idiomatic. Her grammatical acrobatics produce memorability and subversion. It is difficult to forget a "thaumaturgic lass," a vaudevillean of "magnificent, heirloom, and deft," or a hipster whose title is bestowed by "inamoratas, with an approbation." Subversion results from the appropriation of the full weight and heft of the King's English to portray lives of common subjects. (Classical genre watchers and style setters such as Aristotle and Boileau must cringe each time Brooks unhinges the standard in order to portray the common.)
To return to the question of alteration and the commonplace, it seems fair to say that essentialism—the belief that each "thing" has an enduring essence—has no part in Brooks's aesthetics. The speaker of "The Artists' and Models' Ball" knows, for example, that common names do not capture essence. They exist, as previously noted, as survival strategies. Against the chaos perpetuated by race, gender, class, and national ideologies they offer possibilities for a human and humane—if temporary—ordering of restrictive spaces.
A notion of the ever altering thingness of the commonplace—a shiftiness that requires and is a function of ceaseless naming—is the truly distinguishing notion of Gwendolyn Brooks's art. Her poetical portraits alter each time we call their names. They assume a different thingness each time she, as a brilliant and accomplished public reader, sets them eloquently before us. Their alteration, however, is not merely a result of our willed and continuous naming. An elusive and always expanding space called "context" also causes them to shift—to change in unaccountable ways "behind our backs."
For example, the lackluster and whimpering populace of Bronzeville that was "not brave at all" in the 1940s transformed itself, quite miraculously, in the United States during the 1960s and assumed the common name BLACKS. Thunderstruck as she was by this behind-the-back evolution of her bean eaters and garbagemen dignified as any diplomat, Brooks maintained her aesthetics of two decades' standing. She assumed that her task was to provide a common ground and denomination for these new BLACKS. "Common," of course, as Mrs. Sallie Smith has taught us, can signify appropriate. When BLACKS became bold, heroic rioters jerking the times out of joint, Brooks energetically relinquished her direct and implicit condemnations of nationalistic grandeur. She became a namer of the militant struggle that not so long ago comprised a common ground and cause for BLACKS in the United States. She came to know in her own life what she had always claimed in her aesthetics: Common denomination can sometimes be a matter of dramatic alterations. The job for the poet facing this continuing drama of transformation is to:
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-song.
Live in the along.
To live in "the along" is to inhabit the everyday. It is to confront race, class, national, and gender restrictions with a common lexicon. For Brooks it is to do exactly what she has done in offering a newly retitled volume of her work; it is to provide and share in the common denomination of BLACKS.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6840
SOURCE: "Gwendolyn Brooks: An Essential Sanity," in Kenyon Review, XIII, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 115-31.
[In the following essay, Taylor offers an overview of Brooks's poetry, artistic development, and critical interpretation.]
Gwendolyn Brooks's emergence as an important poet has been less schematic, but not less impressive, than commentary upon it has suggested. It is difficult to isolate the poems themselves from the variety of reactions to them; these have been governed as much by prevailing or individual attitudes toward issues of race, class, and gender, as by serious attempts at dispassionate examination and evaluation. Furthermore, Brooks's activities in behalf of younger writers have demonstrated her generosity and largeness of spirit, and wide recognition of these qualities has led some critics away from the controlled but genuine anger in many of the poems. Brooks has contributed to this process; in interviews, and in her autobiographical Report from Part One (1972), she speaks engagingly and with apparent authority about her own work, and many of her judgments have become part of the majority view of her career. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider whether there might be more unity in the body of her work than conventional divisions of her career suggest.
Brooks herself, as William H. Hansell has noted, indicated the divisions when, "in a 1976 interview at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, [she] said that her work falls into three periods that correspond to 'changes' in her perspective." Hansell's note: "Works of the first period are A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949) and The Bean Eaters (1960). The second period is represented by the "New Poems" section of Selected Poems (1963) and by two uncollected poems, 'The Sight of the Horizon' (1963) and 'In the Time of Detachment, in the Time of Cold' (1965). The third phase of her development is marked by her most recent collections: In the Mecca (1969) , Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970) and Beckonings (1975)."
Whether a writer's development involves improvement is highly questionable, but writers often think they are improving, because they are usually more interested in work in progress than they are in work long since completed. Since the mid-1960s, Brooks has revealed these attitudes in numerous comments on her awakening to the situation of the Black writer in America. On the other hand, when she ended her association with Harper & Row, and began to place her work with Black publishers, she retained the rights in her early work, and reprinted the bulk of it in a collected volume entitled Blacks (1987). The stark inclusiveness of that one-word title suggests that Brooks perceives unity as well as variety in the range of her concerns and voices.
Report from Part One and, more recently, the late George Kent's A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1990), provide generous insight into the origins of Brooks's art. Her own work provides a livelier evocation of her early years than Kent manages in his first two chapters, but he has made a thorough examination of the young girl's notebooks, which she kept industriously. The child appears to have taken seriously her mother's prediction that she would grow up to be the "lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." Kent finds that she was a victim of an intraracial prejudice which put very dark girls at a social disadvantage among Black people of her age. (This theme recurs in Brooks's poetry through In the Mecca.) The energy which might have gone into a more active social life was instead poured into poems and stories which show promise more in their profusion than in their accomplishment.
Though she had been publishing poems in the Chicago Defender since her high school days, she was twenty-eight when A Street in Bronzeville (1945) appeared. Concerning what was "new" about it, Kent writes:
The poet had rejected the exotic vein of the Harlem Renaissance—the celebration of unique racial values, such as defiance of social proscription through emphasis upon joy and soul. A few poems in A Street work close to this vein, allowing the reader the enjoyment of the old colorful images, but use one device or another to bring them to the court of critical intelligence. Thus "patent leather" and other poems devalue the "hipness" that the Harlem Renaissance would have celebrated.
As have all American poets, Brooks inherited the old problem of language, which in the nineteenth century divided poets into rebels and loyalists—those who knew that the central problem was to establish independence in the language of the colonizing country, and those who were content with the poetic tradition of the colonizers. This dilemma is exponentially more difficult for a Black woman; a term like "the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar" hardly needs comment on the forms of oppression it implies and, implicitly, accepts.
Still, Brooks had applied herself assiduously to the absorption of a largely white male tradition, in the apparent belief that all great poetry in English had something of value to teach her. A Street in Bronzeville introduced a poet of more technical accomplishment than was usual even in the mid-1940s. Forty-five years later, the variety of forms and tones in the collection remains impressive; Donne, Robinson, Frost, Dickinson, and even Ogden Nash seem to have left occasional marks, as well as Hughes and the blues.
But what strikes most forcibly now is the sophistication, and the Dickinsonian way in which sophistication sometimes becomes a shield, from behind which almost invisible darts fly often and accurately. Throughout Brooks's poetry, delicate satire regularly breaks through a surface which is pretending in some way to be well-behaved.
In twelve lines, for example, "The vacant lot" provides a richly populated scene, in tones modulating from apparent nostalgia and regret through sarcasm to controlled, satiric flatness:
Mrs. Coley's three-flat brick
Isn't here any more.
All done with seeing her fat little form
Burst out of the basement door;
And with seeing her African son-in-law
(Rightful heir to the throne)
With his great white strong cold squares of teeth
And his little eyes of stone;
And with seeing the squat fat daughter
Letting in the men
When majesty has gone for the day—
And letting them out again.
Throughout A Street, individual poems have lowercase titles when they are grouped under a larger heading. Despite this consistency, however, the device occasionally creates a local effect; here the suggested insignificance of the lot is emphasized by an immediate and energetic portrayal of what is not there. Among the departures is the mysterious African son-in-law, who briefly dominates the poem, his teeth packing the seventh line with stressed monosyllables, but whose "majesty," by the end of the poem, is cruelly diminished.
The gulf between imagined majesty and hard reality is a frequent theme in A Street. Its most ambitious treatment is "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," a narrative of just over 150 lines in which satire is deepened by compassion. The ironic contrasts begin with the title; the protagonist's name yokes the exotic and the ordinary. The polysyllabic opening introduces a narrator whose self-consciously elegant language is mock-heroic:
Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.
He wakes, unwinds, elaborately: a cat
Tawny, reluctant, royal. He is fat
And fine this morning. Definite. Reimbursed.
As Satin-Legs commences his morning ablutions, the speaker becomes an ironically patient lecturer, addressing a "you" who is presumed innocent of the life being unfolded here, and who may therefore be taken as white. In the following excerpt, the sentence "Maybe so" ends a passage of fourteen lines, concerning the appropriateness of Satin-Legs's choice of scents and oils, which both recalls and quietly subverts the sonnet tradition:
… might his happiest
Alternative (you muse) be, after all,
A bit of gentle garden in the best
Of taste and straight tradition? Maybe so.
But you forget, or did you ever know,
His heritage of cabbage and pigtails,
Old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails,
Down in the deep (but always beautiful) South
Where roses blush their blithest (it is said)
And sweet magnolias put Chanel to shame.
Satin-Legs has only an artificial flower, made of feathers, for his lapel; in the first of two brief asides, the speaker says, "Ah, there is little hope." Satin-Legs will have "his lotion, lavender, and oil"
Unless you care to set the world a-boil
And do a lot of equalizing things,
Remove a little ermine, say, from kings,
Shake hands with paupers and appoint them men….
But the speaker decisively returns to an inspection of "The innards of this closet." More strongly than "Maybe so" above, "innards" underscores the speaker's dualistic sense of language and class; if Satin-Legs is being satirized, so is the addressee, whose ignorance is more broadly satirized in such later poems as "I love those little booths at Benvenuti's," "The Lovers of the Poor," and "Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat."
The closet contains the gaudy accoutrements of such a dandy as Satin-Legs is, or aspires to be; colors are "sarcastic," tailoring is "cocky," ties are "hysterical." Following this exposition of his tastes, two lines in a second brief aside hover between solemnity and humor:
People are so in need, in need of help.
People want so much that they do not know.
True enough; but the idea is complicated by its placement, which suggests that Satin-Legs needs advice from a refined haberdasher. Creating himself "is all his sculpture and his art." However, after he enters the street, halfway through the poem, there is no further description of his appearance; instead, we see how things appear to him. Through the narrator, we experience his surroundings more vividly than he does. "He hears and does not hear" an alarm clock, children, a plane, voices, and the elevated train. "He sees and does not see" broken windows patched with newspaper, children in worn but decently patched clothes, and
From music and from wonder and from joy
But far familiar with the guiding awe
The music he hears is popular blues; the narrator notes the absence of strains by Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Tschaikovsky, Brahms, and questions whether he could love them if they were audible; one brings to music what one is:
The pasts of his ancestors lean against
Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity.
Hundreds of hungers mingle with his own….
From a movie, where he is reminded that "it is sin for his eye to eat of" the heroine's "ivory and yellow," he proceeds toward the goal of all his efforts. In a line that tumbles anti-climactically from faint echoes of the courtly tradition to a place where main courses are served on meat platters, he "Squires his lady to dinner at Joe's Eats." The "lady" is different every Sunday, but there are constant characteristics, most of them supplied by the overstated dress and makeup that Satin-Legs could be expected to admire. The ending of the poem subtly suggests that this is a kind of death-in-life. Remarking that the food is plentiful at Joe's Eats, the narrator interjects: "(The end is—isn't it?—all that really matters.)" The poem concludes with the achievement of Satin-Legs's objective:
Her body is like new brown bread
Under the Woolworth mignonette.
Her body is a honey bowl
Whose waiting honey is deep and hot.
Her body is like summer earth,
Receptive, soft, and absolute …
The slant rhymes undercut the directness of the statements, and draw attention to the "absolute" nature of receptive earth, where, in the old courtly usage, Satin-Legs Smith is about to die. Unlike the pool players in "We Real Cool," who "die soon" in many senses, Satin-Legs will survive; this Don Juan's version of Hell is to repeat this cycle indefinitely, with "little hope" of redemption. The ignorant white observer is presumed to accept this ending as all that really matters.
Brooks wrote this accomplished poem toward the end of her work on A Street, probably in response to Richard Wright's evaluation of the manuscript she had sent to Harper & Brothers; he praised her skill and genuineness, but added that "most volumes of poems usually have one really long fine poem around which shorter ones are added or grouped."
A Street concludes with a sequence of twelve sonnets, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," which is close enough to what Wright was asking for. "Gay Chaps" is among the stronger poetic responses we have to World War II, and deserves inclusion in anthologies devoted to that subject, along with "Negro Hero," the monologue of a Black mess attendant who took up a machine gun and used it effectively when his ship was attacked at Pearl Harbor, despite regulations of the strictly segregated Navy of that era, in which Black personnel did not handle firearms.
Brooks adopts several points of view throughout "Gay Chaps at the Bar"—omniscient, first person singular, first person plural—and her speakers demonstrate that Black soldiers suffered the same terrors and hopes as any other soldiers. But she is equally concerned to present the injustices of the Black warriors' situation, and reasonable doubts about what they might have been fighting for. The sonnets submit to convention in several ways, but Brooks uses slant rhyme in them more often than she had earlier; they extend the range of sonic choices, and help to emphasize the paradox that these men were fighting for a country which in many ways refused to claim them.
Brooks's interest in traditional technical virtuosity reaches an apex in Annie Allen, the collection for which she received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize. The book is arranged in three sections: "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood," "The Anniad" (which includes the long poem of that title and two short pieces as "Appendix to The Anniad"), and "The Womanhood." The eleven short poems in the first section establish Annie as a daydreamer, resentful of restrictions imposed by her parents and society, hopeful of some idealized rescuer.
"The Anniad" is a technical tour de force: 301 lines in forty-three seven-line stanzas, employing thirty different rhyme schemes, a compelling meter (trochaic tetrameter catalectic), and a diction that is elaborate, dense, and compressed. Paraphrase is often difficult, and it is also difficult to resist being carried along on the sound waves, heedless of incomprehension. There is a definite narrative; some of the details are obscure, though the poems in the first section of Annie Allen provide background for the entrance to the poem:
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 featherbed
What was never and is not.
What is ever and is not.
Pretty tatters blue and red,
Buxom berries beyond rot,
Western clouds and quarter-stars,
Fairy-sweet of old guitars
Littering the little head
Light upon the featherbed,
Watching for the paladin
Which no woman ever had,
Paradisiacal and sad
With a dimple in his chin
And the mountains in the mind;
Ruralist and rather bad,
Cosmopolitan and kind.
The imperative of the first line, repeated six more times throughout the poem, implies a reader or listener. This strategy, not as fully developed as in "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," still gives the speaker awareness of an audience, and an inclination to perform. In various tones—affectionate tolerance, adult amusement, or sadness and anger—the speaker shows us the impossible romantic aspirations that fill Annie's "light" and "little" head. The paladin's virtues are impossibly contradictory; that he is not a person, but an imaginary being, is obvious enough, but emphasis is provided in the relative pronoun: "Which no woman ever had."
As she grows older, a "man of tan" courts Annie, and his qualities and her predilections arouse her:
What a hot theopathy
Roisters through her, gnaws the walls,
And consumes her where she falls
In her gilt humility.
They move to a "lowly room" which she tries to transform into a lovely love nest. There follows a passage which has been subject to more than one critical bias:
Doomer, though, crescendo-comes
Surrealist and cynical.
Garrulous and guttural.
Spits upon the silver leaves.
Denigrates the dainty eves
Dear dexterity achieves.
Names him. Tames him. Takes him off,
Throws to columns row on row.
Where he makes the rifles cough,
Stutter. Where the reveille
Is staccato majesty.
Then to marches. Then to know
The hunched hells across the sea.
Vaunting hands are now devoid.
Hieroglyphics of her eyes
Blink upon a paradise
Paralyzed and paranoid.
But idea and body too
Clamor "Skirmishes can do.
Then he will come back to you."
To the reader biased toward a belief in the occasional usefulness of paraphrase, "Doomer" presents difficulties; but the second of these three stanzas helps to identify it as a power suggestive of Uncle Sam, the draft, and the intrusion of war. Noisily, prophesying slaughter, speaking almost bestially, it attacks the little home life Annie has with difficulty achieved. It calls "tan man's" name, inducts him into armed service, sets him to drill with guns, reveille, and marches, and ships him overseas. Annie, bereft, looks blankly on her altered life, but wants to believe he will not be killed.
Hortense J. Spillers, on the other hand, offers a feminist reading of the passage in "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems": "As it turns out, he is not the hot lover 'theopathy' would make him out to be, but Annie denies it, fearing that to say so would be to evoke an already imminent betrayal: [quotes first and third of above stanzas]. This scene of 'ruin', brought on by sexual impotence, gains a dimension of pathos because it anticipates the woman's ultimate loneliness, but this judgment is undercut by the caricature of the male."
This may constitute misreading for the sake of an overriding theme, but Spillers characterizes, with justice and unintended irony, the poem's "specific end: to expose the sadness and comedy of self-delusion in an equally deluded world."
Upon his return, troubled by conflicting recollections of horror and of power, and by predilections imposed on him in a white-dominated society, "tan man" finds a mistress whose color is more honey than chocolate. The twenty-third stanza begins by repeating the first line of the poem, and launches an account of Annie's life alone, from winter through the following fall; she attempts social gaiety, esoteric learning, the high life, and then tries to settle toward her husband's return. The speaker turns to "tan man" and chastises him:
Hence from scenic, bacchanal,
Preshrunk and droll prodigal!
Smallness that you had to spend,
Spent. Wench, whiskey and tail-end
Of your overseas disease
Rot and rout you by degrees.
At home again, he wastes away, and at last leaves the world, and the two women, who are contrasted harshly in successive stanzas:
Leaves his mistress to dismiss
Memories of his kick and kiss,
Grant her lips another smear,
Adjust the posies at her ear,
Quaff an extra pint of beer,
Cross her legs upon the stool,
Slit her eyes and find her fool.
Leaves his devotee to bear
Weight of passing by his chair
And his tavern. Telephone
Hoists her stomach to the air.
Who is starch or who is stone
Washes coffee-cups and hair,
Sweeps, determines what to wear.
The second of these stanzas, the fortieth in the poem, reflects Annie's static helplessness; it is the only one with two rhymes instead of three. She becomes the victim of nightmares and a harried resignation, but the final stanza mutes the verbal flash:
Think of almost thoroughly
Derelict and dim and done.
Stroking swallows from the sweat.
Fingering faint violet.
Hugging old and Sunday sun.
Kissing in her kitchenette
The minutes of memory.
Though much of the satire in this poem seems to be directed at Annie's innocent romanticism, and at the circumstances which have nourished it, the tone of the last stanza turns toward sympathy. Annie's pathetic stillness, the amatory participles describing small aimless gestures, are mitigated by the "almost" in the first line, and by the iambic fullness of the last. Annie is now twenty-four, and has endured a series of disillusionments and bereavements. If she is to blame for some of them, so is the world.
Whereas the poems of the first two sections of Annie Allen speak of Annie in the third person, the third section opens with a sequence of five sonnets, "the children of the poor," in which the mother speaks in the first person. The sequence quickly ranges over several questions arising from the profoundly mixed blessings and curses of disadvantaged parenthood—how to protect children, teach them, prepare them for the fact of death. The fourth sonnet is a complex variation on the persistent American theme that art could not flourish in the period when people of ability were occupied with settling the country. Its punctilious adherence to Petrarchan conventions of structure momentarily withholds the sarcasm that bursts through in the sestet. It begins with two short sentences occupying exactly half a line: "First flight. Then fiddle." The remainder of the octave describes the fiddling, fraught with "feathery sorcery" and "silks and honey," yet covertly rebellious:
muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
The sestet returns to the fighting:
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
Enjambment and shifting caesuras lend energy to much of the poem, but in the final couplet the energy is "civilized" to excessive tameness, reinforcing the "maybe" in the preceding line. The poem hovers between satire and direct polemic, both attacking and appropriating the notion behind it.
The inclusive vision that results in such a poem finds a variety of more single- minded expressions in the remainder of the book; this section of Annie Allen contains a few underachieved poems, but on the whole it is a sustained illustration of Brooks's many virtues. There are straightforwardly affectionate sketches, satiric portrayals of Black characters and of ignorant or sheltered whites, seized moments in the manner of Emily Dickinson, love poems, polemical addresses. The book concludes with an untitled poem of considerable power, addressing "Men of careful turns, haters of forks in the road," and declaring the speaker's full humanity. Its characterization of establishment caution is icily exact:
We are to hope is that intelligence
Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness.
Politeness will take care of what needs caring.
For the line is there.
And has a meaning. So our fathers said—
And they were wise—we think—at any rate.
They were older than ourselves. And the report is
What's old is wise. At any rate, the line is
Long and electric. Lean beyond and nod.
Be sprightly. Wave. Extend your hand and teeth.
But never forget it stretches there beneath."
The poem ends with a chilling recognition that things will not soon change, especially if polite requests are depended on. The last line memorably combines determination and pessimism:
Let us combine. There are no magics or elves
Or timely godmothers to guide us. We are lost, must
Wizard a track through our own screaming weed.
If there are sharp divisions in Brooks's career, one of them comes at this point. As George Kent puts it, "For both whites and Blacks, Gwendolyn would from now on be tagged 'the first Negro to win a Pulitzer Prize,' and with that label would come the roles of spokeswoman and arbiter in the upper realms of her city's and her nation's cultural affairs." We may be able to see whether Brooks's work changed noticeably after this, but the question is obfuscated by the churning assortment of critical responses to her new status. The problem of Brooks's place in a white literary establishment had in fact been thrown into relief by Paul Engle's August 26, 1945, review in the Chicago Tribune, of A Street in Bronzeville. Especially in the 1940s, trying to declare Brooks's transcendence of racial differences was to fall into the nearly inescapable trap of simultaneously affirming and denying the importance of race in her work: "… Miss Brooks is the first Negro poet to write wholly out of a deep and imaginative talent, without relying on the fact of color to draw sympathy and interest…. The finest praise that can be given to the book is that it would be a superb volume of poetry in any year by a person of any color."
There is no reason to doubt Engle's sincere admiration of Brooks's work, or the honesty of his conviction that race should not be the issue that it is; but it is hard to get away from the hint of exclusiveness, the suggestion that Brooks is a fine poet, not regardless of her color, but despite it. In later years, increasing numbers of Black writers would question the extent of Brooks's commitment to Blackness; but there were confusing earlier questions by less militant writers. J. Saunders Redding, for example, in a generally favorable review of Annie Allen in the Saturday Review, found references to intraracial color preferences too esoteric: "Who but another Negro can get the intimate feeling, the racially-particular acceptance and rejection, and the oblique bitterness of this?… The question is … whether it is not this penchant for coterie stuff—the special allusions, the highly special feeling derived from an even more special experience—that has brought poetry from the most highly regarded form of communication to the least regarded."
Redding and Engle were saying remarkably similar things, and missing an important element of Brooks's art. She sought to make her Black characters as rounded as poetry permits; this necessarily involved treating aspects of the Black experience which are imposed by white society. Through her first two books, her anger at injustice is comparatively restrained, but several poems in The Bean Eaters greatly increase the pressure of rage against the control of mature technique.
In one or two instances, the pressure overcomes control. "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" is a daring response to the murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager who was beaten and killed in 1955, during a visit to Mississippi. Brooks adopts the point of view of the young white woman who accused the youth of making sexual advances toward her. The sympathetic portrayal of the woman is striking; the husband, however, is a flat symbol of murderous white male oppression. He deserves that status, but in the poem he fails to earn it; instead of a plausible and therefore frightening and disgusting human, we have something too much like a cartoonist's drawing of Bull Connor. On the other hand, the woman's romantic vision of southern womanhood collapses convincingly before her growing knowledge of the Dark Villain's innocent youth:
Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little
The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
Flat portrayal of white characters is more effective in such satirical poems as "The Lovers of the Poor" and "Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat," where reduction of characters to cartoons serves a dual function: it permits broad sarcasm and indulgence in playful diction, and it invites the white reader to feel excluded from the portrait until it is too late to escape inclusion in it. Both poems portray whites in the act of dehumanizing Blacks, though "Bronzeville Woman" is heavy-handed in this respect. A rich and overbearing woman has had to replace her Irish housemaid, and the agency has sent a Black woman, whom the employer calls "it" throughout the poem. The portrayal becomes more effective, if nearly sentimental, in contrasting the reactions of the employer and the employer's child, "Not wise enough to freeze or be afraid."
The other major treatment of racial violence is "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed," a fiercely ironic narrative of the violence that follows a Black family's purchase of a house in a white neighborhood. Traditional ballad meter and language give the poem a strange atmosphere of remoteness:
Rudolph Reed was oaken.
His wife was oaken too.
And his two good girls and his good little man
Oakened as they grew.
Contemporary racist brutality breaks with great force into such a setting, but the poem is strong enough to contain the atrocity of Reed's death, which comes as he is defending his house against rock-throwers who have wounded one of his daughters. The end of the poem is a powerful tableau of grief and strength:
By the time he had hurt his fourth white man
Rudolph Reed was dead.
His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse.
"Nigger—" his neighbors said.
Small Mabel whimpered all night long,
For calling herself the cause.
Her oak-eyed mother did no thing
But change the bloody gauze.
These somewhat extended poems concerned with racial injustice, white insensitivity, and violence, are scattered through an unusually varied collection of shorter poems, from the brilliant miniature "We Real Cool" to such humorous pieces as "On the Occasion of the Open-Air Formation of the Olde Tymer's Walking and Nature Club." It is this mixture, perhaps, more than the presence of the longer poems, which led some readers to regret the increased emphasis on social issues in The Bean Eaters—as if social issues were making their first appearance in Brooks's work. It is true that these longer poems are more explicit, and reveal anger more openly, than do most of Brooks's earlier poems; but most of the shorter poems aroused regret that Brooks could not be consistently polite.
The new poems in Selected Poems (1963) did little to change these impressions; "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," with its evocations of African majesty, the squalor of slave ships, and the commitment of Freedom Riders, both extends and rejects the polemical manner. Its content is occasion for celebration and exhortation, but in style it reverts to a density Brooks had not used at length since "The Anniad." It crams a racial history into a single consciousness, which ranges without transition between individual and collective recollection, and gathers momentum toward the polemical ending: "To fail, to flourish, to wither or to win. / We lurch, distribute, we extend, begin."
On the other hand, a number of the new poems are brief character sketches; these presage the ambitious and thickly populated In the Mecca (1968), the book which has been said to initiate the third period in Brooks's career. If it does mark a significant shift in Brooks's way of writing and of thinking about what she is doing, this is more evident in the shorter poems that follow the title poem. "In the Mecca" is, at just over 800 lines, Brooks's most ambitious single poem: but in strategy and style it is an extension, not a repudiation, of her earlier excellences.
Epigraphs provide the information that the Mecca building, an extravagant apartment complex erected in Chicago in 1891, degenerated into an overcrowded tenement. Kenny J. Williams adds the important fact that the building was razed in 1952.
In bare outline, the narrative is grim: Mrs. Sallie Smith returns to her apartment from hard domestic labor, and begins to prepare dinner for her family of nine children; she notices suddenly that the youngest, Pepita, is missing. There is a fruitless search, police are called, and at last the child is found murdered.
The poem begins with a single line on a page by itself: "Now the way of the Mecca was on this wise." It remains for the poem to unfold the wrathful irony in this echo of Matthew 1:18 ("Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise"). The rest of the poem is based in the present tense; Mrs. Smith encounters four neighbors on the way to her apartment, and each is sketched briefly; Alfred, an English teacher and untalented would-be writer, comes to act as a choral commentator as the poem develops. The children have their distinctive ways of trying to defend themselves against the reality of their lives; Melodie Mary, for example, "likes roaches, / and pities the gray rat." She is dimly aware of headlines announcing strife and suffering in China, but
What if they drop like the tumbling tears
of the old and intelligent sky?
Where are the frantic bulletins
when other importances die?
Trapped in his privacy of pain
the worried rat expires,
and smashed in the grind of a rapid heel
last night's roaches lie.
When the family goes in search of Pepita, they inquire of several neighbors, each of whom is given several lines of characterization. Great-great Gram, who recalls her childhood in slavery, reverts to childhood as she recalls popping little creatures that "creebled" in the dirt of the cabin floor, thus inverting Melodie Mary's treatment of the same subject. Aunt Dill, reveling in her report of a child's rape and murder the previous week, is a gruesome parody of unfeeling self-satisfaction.
Toward the end of this section, there are three portraits without reference to Pepita or her whereabouts. The first, concerning Don Lee, is similar to several other poems Brooks has written about notable Blacks; even in the context of this poem, it appears to portray the poet and activist now named Haki R. Madhubuti. Along with Alfred's references to Léopold Sédar Senghor, "Poet, muller, President of Senegal," this constitutes unobtrusive anachronism. "In the Mecca" contains few references which can be dated precisely, but some of them, such as Senghor's presidency of Senegal (1960–1980), convey the impression that the Mecca existed in the 1960s. This effect is only slightly complicated for the reader in possession of such arcana as the year of its demolition; the building itself may have been infamous, but its destruction did not significantly change the lives with which the poem is concerned. Brooks's Mecca outlives its namesake, and becomes a perceptible metaphor as well as a symbol.
The increasing desperation of the search for Pepita is reflected in the rapidity with which new characters are introduced from this point on. In the whole poem, over fifty people are mentioned by name or characteristic label; more than half of them appear in the last 200 lines. Because this large cast moves in quickly, sometimes at the rate of four people per line, there is room near the end of the poem for four strophes of between a dozen and two dozen lines each, the first two introducing new characters, the third and fourth returning to Aunt Dill and Alfred, respectively. The two new characters reinforce the balanced vision of the whole poem: Way-Out Morgan is collecting guns, imagining "Death-to-the-Hordes-of-the-White-Men!"; Marian is ironing, wishing for some disaster to befall her so she may be noticeable. Absorbed in their visions, they have no time to wonder where Pepita is. Aunt Dill reappears in a gooey cloud of self-satisfaction; the narrator calls her
the kind of woman you
peek at in passing and thank your God or zodiac you
may never have to know….
In this welter of selfishness, Alfred makes a final appearance, allowing Brooks a sly reference to the temporal limbo in which she has erected this cosmos:
I hate it.
Yet, murmurs Alfred—
who is lean at the balcony, leaning—
something, something in Mecca
continues to call! Substanceless; yet like mountains,
like rivers and oceans too; and like trees
with wind whistling through them. And steadily
an essential sanity, black and electric,
builds to a reportage and redemption.
A hot estrangement
A material collapse
that is Construction.
The next strophe begins with two lines that look back toward this reverie, and forward to the discovery of Pepita's body:
Hateful things sometimes befall the hateful
but the hateful are not rendered lovable thereby.
The murderer of Pepita
looks at the Law unlovably.
Beneath Jamaican Edward's bed lies the body of Pepita, who "never learned that Black is not beloved." Remembering a rhyme the child once made with "rose," her mother decides to "try for roses." The final four lines of the poem revert to what only Jamaican Edward could have seen, but the powerful image of horror is rendered in a style that can only be the narrator's:
She whose little stomach fought the world had
wriggled, like a robin!
Odd were the little wrigglings
and the chopped chirpings oddly rising.
"In the Mecca" is a large and largely successful poem, a benchmark in Brooks's career. The poem draws its strength both from her increasing interest in the possibilities for polemic in poetry, and from her broad and deep familiarity with poetry's technical resources. Except in scope and achievement, it is not a radical departure from the work which preceded it. However, it was completed during a time of upheaval in Brooks's sense of herself as a poet, and the shorter poems collected with it are evidence of a major division in Brooks's career.
Much has already been made of the external forces that wrought important changes in Brooks's thinking about her life and work. At the Fisk University Writers' Conference in 1967, she encountered, more forcibly than she had before, the power of young Black writers committed to making a literature for Black people, and to liberating themselves and their people from white oppression. The experience energized her in new ways. She also worked briefly with the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang whose younger mentors, especially Walter Bradford and Don L. Lee, provided encouragement as she sought her "newish voice."
"After Mecca" is a coherent sequence of separate poems; it gathers force by proceeding from individual portraits, through two "public occasion" poems and the three-part "Blackstone Rangers," to "The Sermon on the Warpland" and "The Second Sermon on the Warpland." As the field of vision expands from one poem to the next, the formal scope extends from brief and nearly metrical to more widely various free-verse lines. The diction, however, remains characteristically Brooksian, as in this conclusion to "The Leaders," the second part of "The Blackstone Rangers":
The Blackstone bitter bureaus
(bureaucracy is footloose) edit, fuse
unfashionable damnations and descent:
and exulting, monstrous hand on monstrous hand,
construct, strangely, a monstrous pearl or grace.
But along with certainly that she had much to learn from younger Black writers, there came a desire to reach audiences unaccustomed to hearing or reading poetry. This arose partly from increasing doubt about dependence on the Eurocentric tradition she had so thoroughly commanded for most of her career; at this point, the language problem referred to early in this essay becomes extremely difficult, despite Anglo-American's flexibility and relative openness to other traditions. With a few notable exceptions such as "We Real Cool," Brooks's poetry has depended not only on fresh and unusual language, but on the varying degrees of surface difficulty that such wordplay often creates. Her attempts at a more accessible style have sometimes resulted in oversimplified moralizing, and in indecision about which poems or versions of poems to reprint.
Of the roughly fifty poems Brooks published between 1968 and 1987, a few have appeared only in periodicals, and only nineteen are collected in Blacks. A white reader might be tempted to think that some of this indecision arises from Brooks's having accepted, in 1985, her second major accolade from the literary establishment, when she became Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress; but in interviews over the past twenty years, and in her tireless work for Black writers during her tenure at the Library, she has demonstrated unwavering commitment to the cause of freedom for oppressed people.
Brooks's wavering over certain poems is evidence of crisis, but it is important to remember that crisis is usually much more rewarding for artists than for politicians. In adjusting her accustomed tools to her new tasks, she has taken some directions which she seems later to have reconsidered, but occasional frustrations have not sent her back to techniques in which she has long been adept. Her most recent collection, Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1988), is cause for gratitude that she has not retreated from trying to perfect her new ways of working.
This handsome chapbook contains only four poems, but one of them is "Wine," some 375 lines spoken by Wine Mandrel. The character is of course a literary creation, partaking of what Brooks knows of Mrs. Mandrel, and of what she knows of herself and the world. There are passages where one might wish that more memorable language had been found for the urgent messages:
we are all vulnerable—
the midget, the Mighty,
the richest, the poor.
But Brooks has hold of something here. In her early work, personal history (not necessarily her own) was a dependable provider of material. She began to merge social and political history with that strain in poems like "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed" and "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters," and perfected that merging in "In the Mecca." Now, she is after larger historical scope, and appears to be on the brink of finding the means to achieve it without surrendering particularity. As she has Wine Mandrel say,
This is the time for Big Poems,
roaring up out of sleaze,
poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4533
SOURCE: "The Loss of Lyric Space and the Critique of Traditions in Gwendolyn Brooks's In the Mecca," in Kenyon Review, XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 136-47.
[In the following essay, Clarke examines the significance of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and postmodern subjectivity in In the Mecca. According to Clarke, "'In the Mecca' is an enunciation of place, fragmentation, despair, death, and a frantic splitting of the narrative strategies of showing and telling."]
What else is there to say but everything?
In the Mecca
The 1952 razing of Chicago's once magnificent showplace, the Mecca, was an act of erasure, causing Gwendolyn Brooks, by the late 1960s, to reconsider her own location in the tradition of African-American literature. Designed by George Edbrooke, "famous for his ability to utilize aesthetically large spaces," and built by the D. H. Burnham Company in 1891 for the white wealthy of Chicago, the Mecca became one of the early examples of a multifamily dwelling:
… During the Columbian Exposition of 1893 it was one of the places in the city that visitors wanted to see. (Later it was still a tourist attraction, but not because of its beauty.)
By 1912, the Mecca housed the black elite of Chicago. After World War I, the building began its decline. By the Great Depression the once elaborate showplace and tourist attraction had become a crowded slum for poor black people and a symbol of encroaching urban blight—a great hulk of modernity confining thousands of expendable people to the bowels of the city.
The Mecca was girded by three balconies and guarded by ornate wrought iron grillwork. Off these balconies, doors opened to the apartments, "like tiers of cells in a prison cell-block." Hard wood floors splintered, and beneath the balconies the tile was broken in many pieces. The Mecca contained 176 units. Some apartments had seven rooms. After the Depression, no one ever knew how many people lived there at any one time. Estimates of three thousand to nine thousand people have been given. "'You'll find them sleeping in the kitchen under the sink, anywhere they can sleep,'" one tenant is quoted as revealing to a journalist.
Gwendolyn Brooks began to write In the Mecca as a "teenage novel" in 1954. Brooks drew upon her firsthand experience as secretary to "a patent medicine purveyor" during the 1940s. She had walked through its U-shaped great gray hulk, its littered atria; passed by the once-beautiful marble walls and the once plushly carpeted floors; looked up to see the accumulated dirt and grime on the glass of its skylights emitting a kind of unreal light; passed her hand along its rusted wrought iron; mused over what remained of its useless fountains.
Her editors were never enthusiastic about the manuscript, counseled that her training in poetry had ill-prepared her for the "freer area of prose" and discouraged her. Harper's would publish the novella. Maud Martha in 1953, the polemical Bean Eaters in 1960, and the noted Selected Poems in 1963, before Brooks would turn her attention again to In the Mecca—this time conceived as a book-length poem, "2,000 lines or more."
Brooks's entire oeuvre has been studies of black subjectivity, of African-American oral and written traditions, sources of knowledge and faith systems; of the psychic and physical effects of racism on the lives of black and white people; and of the richness of the lyric. Brooks is a strong reader of blackness, a strong poet of place and region (the south side of Chicago), and a strong interpreter.
In the Mecca is Brooks's last book published by Harper's, her publisher of twenty-five years. In many ways In the Mecca marks Brooks's rejection of a safe subject position inside the American literary tradition. Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize winner announced in 1969 that Broadside Press, run by poet and promoter of the new black poetry Dudley Randall, would publish her next book, Riot (1969).
When the collection In the Mecca was published in 1968, the Mecca building had been razed for sixteen years. The poem "In the Mecca" does not attempt to historicize the action within the 1940s or 1950s nor is there any over attempt to inscribe within the narration or the narratives the real history of the 1960s. The poem sits as a gate to the text as if the real Mecca's great gray hulk of brick still filled half the block north of Thirty-fourth Street between State and Dearborn. As "perceptible" metaphor and symbol, the Mecca is a lesson on the spiritual and psychic condition of urban black people in post-modernity.
Brooks had been transformed by the apocalyptic decade of witness and the ringing testimony of the new black consciousness articulated by militant young black poets of the sixties, and sought a place among them. The narrator's authority in the poem parallels Brooks's own subject position as poet and soon-to-be arbiter of the new black arts movement in the Midwest. No longer Hyena, "[t]he striking debutante. / A fancier of firsts," but Esu, perhaps, the androgynous Yoruba god of chance who lurks at gateways, on highways, and at crossroads. Brooks moved her witness out of "her dusty threshold." Like her narrator, Brooks arrives in the wake of destruction; signifying indeterminacy, ambiguity, fluidity, unpredictability, and liminality. Uncertain, ironizing, and critiquing traditions and texts—Brooks's own and others—the poem extends a provisional hope—outside the Mecca. Brooks writes in her notes, "Work Proposed for 'In the Mecca'":
… I wish to present a large variety of personalities against a mosaic of daily affairs, recognizing that the grimmest of these is likely to have a streak or two streaks of sun.
In "In the Mecca," Brooks locates her narrator within a more transgressive space and creates a "speakerly text." "In the Mecca" is an enunciation of place, fragmentation, despair, death, and a frantic splitting of the narrative strategies of showing and telling. "In the Mecca" is a text which "Signifies" on the rich resources of African-American narrative and English poetry.
The movement of the poem's 807 lines winds narrowly with the movement of the narrator/witness/interpreter and the reader (who is reluctant) as if through the corridors of the once splendid dwelling. The poem will be encountered as a text of texts, in which race, sexuality, and gender are deeply implicated. Through a chronological reading of select narrations and narratives, I will also examine Brooks's narrative and rhetorical strategies as a turning to new space. I also read this poem as a post-modern elegy on the place of the lyric in African-American poetry.
As much as they Signify on antecedent texts, Brooks's strategies of shifting subjectivity, dispersed narration, and polyvocality look forward to Toni Morrison's strategies in her revised slave narrative, Beloved. As the enunciated story/mystery of Sethe's murder of her daughter tells itself, the reader must encounter the slave stories of Paul D., Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid, Sethe herself, and numerous other liminal and marginal characters whose accounts of atrocities committed against them are as horrific or more horrific than the ones committed against Sethe or the one Sethe committed against her young daughter. Morrison, nearly twenty years after Brooks's revisionary work, critiques historians—white and black—and undertakes to revise antecedent black (and white) texts in Beloved.
The action of Brooks's poem, on the surface, revolves around the search of Mrs. Sallie Smith, "this low brown butterball," for her missing daughter, Pepita, whom she and the reader ultimately discover is murdered. The reader is confronted with a relentless narrator who compels the reader to hear the stories—in multivoice and multivernacular irony—of characters speaking their own atrocities and failings contextualized/framed by a fictional Mecca, infusing the poem with a Gothic dread.
Full of temporal inversions, "In the Mecca" functions as a mystery, a "narrative-within-a-narrative." The modes of narration split sharply between its "showing" of Mrs. Sallie's desperate, passive search for her missing child, Pepita, and the frantic deployment of polyvocal and multidiscourse tellings. In each mode of narration, the narrator causes in the reader crises of witness, "an anxiety of fragmentation," a cut-off-ness, an isolation which in the poem is enhanced by the indifference of the other characters/subjects to the fate of the missing child and the distancing, elevated rhetoric and speech acts of the narrator, who knows, of course, the outcome of the search for Pepita.
Additionally, the play among narrative modes in the poem critiques and pays homage to the lyric, the ballad, the sermon, the slave narrative, the proverb, the psalm. The narrator enunciates these strategies and they are dispersed throughout the modes of discourse adopted by the other telling subjects. Through the deployment of end rhyme, the location of the lyric passages, the satirizing of the vernacular speech, the revising of African-American storytelling traditions, the poem acknowledges Brooks's "deep and broad familiarity with poetry's technical resources," and embraces and extends the formal, metric, and lyric proficiency of her antecedent texts.
Much of what Gates has said about Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo as "a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative composed of subtexts, pre-texts, post-texts, and narratives-within-narratives," most certainly be said of "In the Mecca." The narrative is a book of texts, and each of the subjects is a text of itself. The narrator—and perhaps Brooks—functions as Esu and is the interpreter of black subjectivity in the poem. The poem is profoundly post-modern.
The movement of the poem, the space it takes on the page, the way it makes the reader go on the search is both telescopic and documentary. The poem evokes hallways, in an almost concrete fashion. The narrator is a film director, commanding attention to her epic production with its epigraph of biblical revision: "Now the way of the Mecca was on this wise."
The reader, like a reluctant viewer, is directed and commanded to "Sit where the light corrupts your face" and to follow the poem's constricted lineation down the corridors of the place to capture a perverse "social panorama." A mediating but unconscious subject led by the narrator, Mrs. Sallie leads the reader through a desolate space ringing with different languages: first as she, home from work, "ascends the sick and influential stair" to her fourth-floor apartment, and then as she winds back through the place in search of Pepita. Through Mrs. Sallie's subjectivity, the reader witnesses the other subjects. Ultimately the narrator, and not Mrs. Sallie, is the one who brings the reader to witness the truth of Pepita's murder.
At the third line of the poem, "the fair fables fall," the narrator tells the reader that this will be no predictable narrative—not Annie Allen nor even Maud Martha. As transgressive as they were, Annie and Maud were the centers. Subjectivity shifts in "In the Mecca."
Indirect discourse predominates and is a function of the narrator's control of the display of language and the more sympathetic subjects. Direct discourse is allowed more sparingly to evoke humor, sarcasm, irony, and realism; and the narrator's distance from the enounced. Free indirect discourse is employed to communicate the more authentic historical horrors and the subjects' interiority—and perhaps the narrator's empathy. Christian devotion, as practiced in the Mecca, is called into question through St. Julia Jones's direct and ostentatious expression of religiosity in her farcical exuberance: "'He hunts up the coffee for my cup. / Oh how I love that Lord.'" The narrator retrieves control to show Prophet Williams, the religious charlatan, "rich with Bible" but whose wife, Ida, "was a skeleton / was a bone" and "died in self-defense" and alone. The narrator's interior eruption, "(Kinswomen! / Kinswomen!)," "Signifies" on the speaker's appeal, "Oh, Kinsmen, we must meet the common foe," in Claude McKay's famous poem, "If We Must Die" and laments the sacrifices of black women's lives, indeed of women's lives (and bodies), and signals further sacrifices to be revealed "on this wise." This eruption is perhaps the only place where the narrator reveals a gender identity and empathy.
There is irreparable damage in this place, and Alfred, an unreliable witness whose subjectivity is conveyed primarily through indirect discourse, contends with the narrator for presence. He is much less reluctant than the reader, is persistent, reappears five times—more than any of the other more than fifty subjects. At times his relationship to the narrator evokes younger black poets' relationship to Brooks; at other times Alfred seems to be a persona for Brooks, apprenticing herself to the younger (male) poets. Alfred has not the narrator's language nor rhetorical power. He has too many masters and is distracted by too many pretenders: "Shakespeare … Joyce or James or Horace, Huxley, Hemingway," "pretty hair," "that golden girl," respectively. Yet he is relentless in his witnessing and will grow from the experience. Will he be able to take the story beyond the Mecca?
Such hope cannot be extended to Mrs. Sallie and eight of her nine children. The narrator shifts her attention from the reader to Yvonne, Melodie Mary, Cap, Casey, Thomas Earl, Tennessee, Emmett, Briggs—all except Pepita. Each child's world is as restricted and dangerous as their names are ambitious and imaginative. Explanatory narratives of impoverishment, sexual exploitation, potential crime and violence, hunger, and isolation interpret each child's psychic and physical space. Yvonne, Mrs. Sallie's oldest, offers a more extended lyric moment as she "prepares for her lover" and ponders and plans a subversive sexuality:
It is not necessary….
to have every day him whom
to the end thereof you will love.
And Mrs. Sallie muses over the space she occupies in two disparate worlds—that of the Mecca where her daughter, "Melody Mary likes roaches" and that of her "Lady's pink convulsion, toy-child … under a shiny tended warp of gold." In lyric parody, in sing-song, slant-rhyme cadence, Mrs. Sallie wishes for a reversal of fortunes:
"And that would be my baby be my baby….
And I would be my lady I my lady…."
The lyric cannot exist in the Mecca; neither can the reversal of class and race locations.
The narrator's paradoxical rhetorical gesture, "What else is there to say but everything?" alerts the reader that language will not be impoverished in the showing and the telling. The focus shifts back to Mrs. Sallie as she, "counting noses," asks, in the vernacular, 'WHERE PEPITA BE?' This and variations of it become the strophe for the duration of the poem and extend beyond the question of Pepita's whereabouts to each character's telling of his/her own psychic location/place. Pepita is not the only tragedy here:
In threes! Knock-knocking down the martyred halls
at doors behind whose yelling oak or pine
many flowers start, choke, reach up,
want help, get it, do not get it,
rally, bloom, or die on the wasting vine.
Paying homage to and parodying the origins of black narrative traditions, Brooks inverts "space and time" by confronting Mrs. Sallie with "Great-great Gram," her first encounter in the search. Great-great Gram, an ex-slave, renders her testimony, a slave narrative. The performative quality of Great-great Gram's enouncement is unsettling. Though she uses the vernacular minimally, Great-great Gram's rhetorical directness is nearly as caricaturist as St. Julia Jones. On the other hand, conveying Great-great Gram's nostalgic yet realistic recollections of slavery through direct address, Brooks parodies our notion of the conventional, mediated slave narrative. The missing Pepita does not concern Great-great Gram as much as it stirs a childhood memory of younger sister, "Pernie May," who was the "best popper" of that "something that creebled" in the dirt; or the more eloquent reflection:
… Some slaves had beds of hay
or straw, with cover-cloth. We six-uns curled
in corners of the dirt, and closed our eyes,
and went to sleep—or listened to the rain
fall inside, felt the drop
big on our noses, bummies and tum-tums….
This narration is particularly rich as it recalls for the reader the great migrations of the slaves descendants from the South to the North to cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, D.C.; and of the real Mecca's history as one of the sites where that history and memory reside. Finally, Brooks collapses historical and present time as Great-great Gram's story of Pernie May refers the reader to Mrs. Sallie's younger daughter, Melodie Mary, who smashes roaches, "in the grind of her rapid heel."
Loam Norton, Mrs. Sallie's next encounter, also a very rich enouncement, has not seen Pepita either. He is preoccupied like Great-great Gram, with a correlative atrocity, "Belsen and Dachau." Using free indirect discourse for the first time, the poem presents Loam. The narrator reads Loam's thoughts, in a cynical revision of the Twenty-third Psalm. The past and present histories of the victims of slavery and the victims of the Holocaust are linked in time-worn signs: "jungles and pastures":
… The Lord was their shepherd.
yet they did want.
Joyfully would they have lain in jungles or pastures
…. Their gaunt
souls were not restored, their souls were banished.
In the shadow valley
they feared the evil, whether with or without God.
They were comforted by no Rod,
no Staff, but flayed by, O besieged by, shot aplenty.
Goodness and mercy should follow them
all the days of their death.
Enhancing the "speakerliness" of the text, the revised Psalm exemplifies the narrator's critical and interpretive functions as Great-great Gram's narrative shows the distance the narrator/interpreter must observe between subject and self. Also, Loam's monologue on the failure of faith calls upon the reader to revisit St. Julia Jones's libidinous exhorting of the Twenty-third Psalm at the beginning of the poem "… And I lie late in the still pastures. And meadows…." Loam asserts to the reader, "I am not remote, / not unconcerned" as if to vindicate himself (and Great-great Gram) for his preoccupation with his own horror.
Even the door becomes a speaker and a witness, questioning Mrs. Sallie's and her children's return: "What are you doing here? and where is Pepita the puny—the halted, glad-sad child?" The speaking door is an odd moment and a parodic comment on the Gothic urges of this mysterious poem: yet this is a place of "martyred halls" and "yelling oak and pine," rife with death and history. As the reader follows the Smiths back into their apartment, the poem breaks and constricts into eight narrow, slant-rhymed lines, mirroring their reentry into the apartment, as they try to "subdue / the legislation of their yoke and devils" with a false lyricality:
Has just wandered!
Has just blundered away
from her own.
And there's no worry
comes soon alone.
But their hope for Pepita is fractured as they consider how endangered young girls are in the Mecca, a place of female violation/exploitation:
And that lank fellow looking furtive.
cold poison could he spew, what stench commit
upon a little girl, a little lost girl….
The reader's hope is not recuperated either as she witnesses Mrs. Sallie's encounter with "The Law," to whom a missing "Female of the Negro Race" is of less concern than a "paper doll" or a "southern belle." They constrain Mrs. Sallie with "a lariat of questions." The Law leaves. Aunt Dill, a sinister witness, forecasts the accident, the murder of Pepita, as she arrives to give false comfort to the Smiths: "Little gal got / raped and choked to death last week."
Aunt Dill's gratuitous monologue hardly prepares the reader for one of the major crises of fragmentation in the poem: Mrs. Sallie's withdrawal from her subject position and from the narrative. The reader sees Mrs. Sallie and her children no more. The Law returns, and thus begins the second principal part of the poem. The Law proceeds through the place to ultimately uncover the "accident." The narrator has full control of the showing and most of the telling. Introduced to many more language users, whose baffling testimonies are relayed through the narrator, the reader is confronted with unmediated testimonies and interpretations. The reader must bear witness to subjects previously encountered as well as new ones, even more isolated from one another and fragmented by their atrocities and failings.
Alfred appears again—and has not seen Pepita—but offers a paean, in free indirect discourse, to Senghor, "negritude needing" which signals movement beyond his own mediocrity and Western derivativeness. Enhanced by the alliteration in the eighth line, Mazola's interior narration meditates on how easy death is in this place. This passage perhaps also laments the death of lyric within the tradition:
… the strangest thing is when the stretcher goes!—
the elegant hucksters bearing the body when the body
leaves its late lair the last time leaves.
With no plans for return.
Alfred's paean to Senghor—the major exponent of negritude—is countered by the narrator's competitive paean to Don L. Lee—the eminent black nationalist poet—and reinforces the loss of lyric. This latter enunciation about Lee signifies a turning to new space in the present, the possibility of a new world-view and creative production. The Don Lee exhortation may hold out the prospect of reclamation beyond the "art-lines" of Senghor and also beyond the lyric:
Don Lee wants …
new art and anthem: will
want a new music screaming in the sun.
Now the poem begins to more overtly reflect the black political climate of the sixties, its apocalyptic nature, the turning of blacks toward themselves and against white sanction, acceptance, tutelage, the violent wrenching of an enduring symbiosis.
In the poem's first dialogue, Amos argues with the "gradualist," who says, "Takes time," Amos prays for the purgation of a feminized America. America must be slapped, kicked prostrate, heel ground into "that soft breast" in order that she can rise, recover, "Never to forget." America must be gendered female to be conquered and therefore rehabilitated, "recover[ed]."
"The ballad of Edie Barrow," an intensely formalist moment, announces itself to the reader, and is a "surface divergence." On one level this is Edie's story of how she gives herself to a gentile boy and is rejected by him when he marries one of his own kind. On another level, Brooks is Signifying on her copious use of the ballad form in her earlier poetry. Brooks offers Edie's ballad as a counterpoint to Amos's prayer, and inverts it. The lyricality and alternating end rhyme disguise the cynicism of its narrative. Also, Edie's metonymic lament that her situation as compromised woman will be as a "hungry tooth in my breast" is juxtaposed to Amos's vengeful prayer that "Great-nailed boots … heel-grind that soft breast" of America, the metaphorical woman. Edie's cynical lyric of sex also recalls Yvonne's more naive lyrical moment. Edie, as one of several sexual females, illuminates how the feminine is constructed, remade, and degraded in the Mecca—both as place and as poem. The few lyric moments in the poem are sustained by the female subjects. "The ballad of Edie Barrow" represents more than any other passage the loss of lyric space. Sexuality, throughout this poem, is configured in male and female subjects as a corrupted heterosexuality. This corrupted sexuality is humorously and more cynically revealed when Prophet Williams, that signifier of inauthentic religion, is revisited, but this time as a purveyor of potions and elixirs who has:
Drawing and Holding Powder, Attraction
Cat Powder, Powerful Serum,
"Marvelous Potency Number Ninety-one"
(which stoppeth husbands and lovers from dastardy)
As she continues the frantic pace, through the fragmented community of language-users, the narrator, for the first time, addresses the missing girl, Pepita, directly: "How many care, Pepita?" Not Staley and Lara, Simpson, Bixby and June, "these three Maries," Great-uncle Beer, Wezlyn, Insane Sophie. "How many care, Pepita?… these little care, Pepita, what befalls a / nullified saint or forfeiture (or child)." Who does Pepita become in this moment—without the mediation of Mrs. Sallie? Perhaps she becomes a symbol of Brooks's antecedent texts, her loss of lyric autonomy.
Alfred, having found his own voice, returns and, for the first time, in a direct testimony rejects the tutelage of his white masters, "Not Baudelaire, Bob Browning, no Neruda" and muses aloud:
"A violent reverse.
We part from all we thought we knew of love
and of dismay-with-flags-on. What we know
is that there are confusion and conclusion.
Even the hardest parting is a contribution….
What shall we say?
Farewell. And Hail! Until Farewell again."
"We part from all we thought we knew of love" signals the painful parting with the lyric testament—at least in the Mecca. Lyric is sex, lyric is female, lyric is Western contamination—racial as well as artistic. Again the question of what is there to say, what is the language beyond the ending, beyond "Farewell"? What can be reclaimed or recuperated? Certainly not Pepita—and perhaps not anyone else in the Mecca. There is damage here, irrevocable, as the narrator takes the reader closer to the reality of the "accident."
The narrator reemerges with the startlingly sarcastic narrative of the "sixtyish sisters, the twins with floured faces," who "muffle their Mahler, finish their tea, / stare at the lips of the Law." The sisters exemplify bourgeois intransigence and indifference to the fate of Pepita. They are sharply juxtaposed to an equally satiric narration of Way-out Morgan, a bitter black militant collecting guns, "sinfully lean … fills fearsomely / on visions of Death-to-the-Hordes-of-the-White-Men! Death!" He envisions, like Amos, a vengeful sacrifice. But as an inversion of Amos, for whom sex is a metaphor for conquest, Way-Out "postpones" the real thing, "a yellow woman in his bed … to consider" his vision of "Ruin."
However, the final depiction of Alfred, "lean at the balcony leaning" posits sacrifice and offers hope, and perhaps resurrection.
… something in Mecca
continues to call! Substanceless; yet like mountains …
................. And steadily
an essential sanity, black and electric,
builds to a reportage and redemption
A hot estrangement.
A material collapse that is Construction.
Finally dwarfed by Alfred's commanding rhetoric, the narrator presents the body of the murdered Pepita, "beneath the cot" of her murderer, Jamaican Edward. Pepita's body and Jamaican Edward are the last of the more than fifty characters/subjects/witnesses the narrator shows us. Though the reader has never known Pepita, her body provides that "essential sanity," some relief, and a grounding in chaotic space. The narrator quotes Pepita's own childishly lyrical words and rhyming couplet to the reader: "'I touch'—she said once—'petals of a rose. / A silky feeling through me goes!'" The reader, as Alfred in the passage above, must see construction from material collapse, must, in seeking reality, "explore the injury inflicted by it," must find the language ("reportage") to reemerge from the paralysis induced by it, must "move on." It is uncertain the reader can move on.
And finally, Mecca, with all of its historical, metaphorical, cultural, political resonances for African-Americans, is a place/space of dissolution and desolation—a dystopic space despite Malcolm X. The modes of narration remain split, which signify the impossibility of reconciliation. There is a possibility of renascence—outside the Mecca—the possibility of something "black and electric" rising out of the rubble, perhaps even out of the dead Pepita's "chopped chirpings oddly rising." However, the possibility of new space, new speech, and new agency become more realized in "After Mecca," the male-focused space of occasional, exhortatory, eulogistic poems of the second section of the book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8712
SOURCE: "Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the 'Margins,'" in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, edited by Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, pp. 283-311.
[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Brooks's artistic development, critical reception, and identity as a spokesperson for African-American women. According to Lindberg, Brooks sought to overcome "the double bind of a black woman artist who would be heard as something other than victim of or exile from her race and class."]
Black Poet, White Critic
A critic advises
not to write on controversial subjects
like freedom or murder
but to treat universal themes
and timeless symbols
like the white unicorn.
A white unicorn?—Dudley Randall,
"You can say anything you want about black women"—
or so said a poet-critic colleague of mine when I mentioned that I was writing an essay on Gwendolyn Brooks. This could be a green light or a roadblock. Except for the solipsist or the most entitled, either by unexamined literary expertise or a valid license, as it were, to represent the BLACK WOMAN, it is not a simple declaration of fact. Let us not quibble—but mustn't we profoundly quibble?—over "can" and "may," over competence and permission. Depending on the race, gender, and politics of speaker and auditor, the force and function of the irony of my colleague's statement cut in rather different directions. Did s/he mean "go right ahead, you can be trusted?"—issuing, as it were, a carte blanche. Did he/she mean that black women poets are fair game, while black male critics remain untouchable? Did s/he mean that, given the spread of interest and jaggedness of identity politics, the playing field is level enough for even a professional (can't one, in these days of overidentification, silently assume the modifiers "white" and "androcentric" if not "male"?) reader of, say, Ezra Pound to cross gender or color lines? Or did s/he mean, rather as Gwendolyn Brooks might have coached, to finish that half sentence with a resounding, "but we don't have to listen!!!"
Putting aside my own double or treble academic (dis-)qualifications, is Gwendolyn Brooks's own license to represent the BLACK WOMAN current and negotiable? Some, including most black feminist literary academicians, who, not without evidence, find her critical comrades and male-defined position troubling, would say "no" or "no longer." While such issues will dance around the margins of my text, I do not presume to choose or deny representativeness, acceptable blackness or whiteness, and/or proper feminism. Instead, guided by the later poetry and programmatic statements of Gwendolyn Brooks, I hope to open certain issues that seem confused, yet hardly muted by recent academic appropriations of black women's writing and the legitimation routines that authorize such de- and recanonizations. I set up this essay, not assertively to apologize for what may be deduced as/reduced to my whiteness or womanhood, but with the hope that I am a better ironist than those who would mark the limits of (my) authority with the same assurance as they/we (the old New Critics of poetry and culture) were wont to remark its limitlessness. Instead, I wish to open, in what I hope will be a challenging way, issues of the poetics and reception of Gwendolyn Brooks since her 1967 turn away from white literary mainstream values and publication.
From the beginning of her poetic career, Brooks has shown an acute consciousness of and responsibility regarding issues of representation, audience, and authority. The first black woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize, trumpeted for the longest time by the white liberal establishment as a prodigy for adding just enough political correctness while observing strictures of form, she has always addressed and never easily hierarchized the treble joy/oppression of womanhood, poverty, and blackness. While it should be noted that adoption and emphasis of this last category, "blackness," as against Negro-ness, marks a momentous shift in Brooks's work, it is somewhat inaccurate to rend her corpus in two or three: into a before, during, or after the Black Power and Black Arts moment(s), or, for that matter, a complete shift in focus from the oppression of women to support for what looks to some like the simply misogynist and nationalist Black Arts tradition. Brooks, I contend, did not radically change her poetic themes. Even obvious modulations in her line and other organizing musical techniques are, on the whole, unremarkable. After having cut a figure in several strict verse forms, she took a typically modern and American turn to free verse, and moved closer to the ordinary language of her elected community. Certainly the texture of her poems, her palette of allusions and affiliations, has shifted from the white Anglo-American canon, but In the Mecca (1968), which Haki Madhubuti plausibly claims "'blacked' its way out of the National Book Award," is as remarkable for its range of verse forms as for its direct treatment of race and class oppression. Nevertheless, black and/or feminist critics have tended to narrow her politics to one aspect of the struggle, while white mainstream poetry reviewers have dismissed her apparently less artful later style as flat and too political. There is no reason to assume that a particular political commitment must turn one toward or away from artistic experiment or accomplishment; but, perhaps in part because (white, mostly male, academic) critics have been so busy excusing or obscuring (bad) politics in the name of high art, they have not trained themselves or prepared us to hear music in the heteroglossia that assaults the urban eye and ear. Questions about Brooks's abandonment of artistry persist, framed as the opposition between craft and commitment. In a 1969 interview by George Stavros for Contemporary Literature, Brooks answers charges about having "abandoned lyric simplicity for an angrier, more polemical voice" with
Those are the things that people say who have absolutely no understanding of what's going on and no desire to understand. No, I have not abandoned beauty, or lyricism, and I don't consider myself a polemical poet. I'm a black poet, and I write about what I see, what interests me, and I'm seeing new things.
Brooks has always questioned, and, in the mid-sixties, she articulately and consistently refused the limits placed on the reputed natural "clowning" or super respectability of "colored people." If only by implication later made explicit, her earliest work also questioned the exceptional "race" and "gender" writers—artists, musicians, sports figures, politicians, or "exception Negroes" in general—when she literalized the politics and epistemology of representation. As teacher, critic, and inspirational speaker, Brooks increasingly began to use her position as respected artist to give voice to a solidarity that begins to resolve the double bind of a black woman artist who would be heard as something other than victim of or exile from her race and class. Awareness of divided and divisive loyalties to a conventional (white, European, Aristotelian, or simply "decorous") notion of art and to a constricted notion of her "People" was hardly born with the sixties. It is fitting that Brooks's most significant mentor, Langston Hughes (whom she first heard in the church where she also first heard and met James Weldon Johnson), gave such clear voice to his own dilemma as a Negro artist. In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes, whose own metaphors are underwritten by W. E. B. Du Bois's "double consciousness" as well as by the strictures of The Crisis against which the poet rebels, sounds a condition that Brooks would almost of necessity turn into a poetic theme:
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people….
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. "O, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are," say the Negroes. "Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously. We will pay you," say the whites.
With full knowledge that, as a mainstream Negro writer, her representations were going to be (designated) more representative—if not more "equal"—than others, Brooks worried both how blacks (then Negroes) should be represented in literature, and how whites misread, cruised, or otherwise misused the black experience—which was hardly monolithic. Annie Allen, the 1949 collection that secured her the Pulitzer, shows Brooks's manifold concern about how blackness is constructed and perceived from outside. Even if she sometimes too-much-protests a bourgeois respectability she would later dismiss, a poem like "I love those little booths at Benvenuti's" assaults certain images and expectations of "Bronzeville" in the minds of white readers and spectators. Brooks exposes and returns the oppressive (white male) gaze of outsiders, and she does so by temporarily adopting the outsider's or suburbanite's perspective. In this way, she more than slightly confuses subject looking and object seen, "they" and "one." But by the same token, we get a clear sense of "us versus them":
They get to Benvenuti's. There are booths
To hide in while observing tropical truths
About this—dusky folk, so clamorous!
So flatly brave!
Boothed-in, one can detect,
But how shall they tell people they have been
Out Bronzeville way? For all the nickels I
Have not bought savagery or defined a "folk."
The colored people will not "clown."
The colored people arrive, sit firmly down.
Eat their Express Spaghetti, their T-bone steak.
Handling their steel and crockery with no clatter,
Laugh punily, rise, go firmly out of the door.
Maud Martha (1953), Brooks's lyric novel and her only published long fiction, not only focused on what it means to be black Maud (as against golden Helen, her sister), but it also turns the tables on what it means to be reduced—or is it inflated?—to a synecdoche for one's race. By making one white visitor to the black community representative of his race, Brooks again makes the reader look at the spectator who, because he cannot step outside his whiteness, does not recognize himself as an intruder. We don't get inside the head of the visitor, any more than we are exactly in the booth with the "good view" at Benvenuti's, but Maud fixes the visiting white man by fully elaborating the ways she protects her personal space. Long before Black Power declarations of racial self-definition, Brooks more than once subtly makes visible the assumptions that underwrite white control over the figurative power of racial interaction. Maud Martha refuses simply, as Brooks would later say, to worship whiteness or whine about race. If blackness and femaleness can be essentialized, whiteness still demands individuation: when was the last time a white man was allowed to speak for all white men, or even all American white men? Yet long since we ceased giving over the power of voicing the body politic to king or president, there persists a disturbance in representation/representativeness by which black people—the racial and, I would add, sexual other(s)—are somehow fixed as slates upon which "whiteness" (an absent or understood adjective for American individualism) can be written in almost invisible chalk. Here one of Brooks's formulas, from Primer for Blacks, intervenes to help us read Maud Martha:
The conscious shout
of all that is white is
"It's Great to be white."
The conscious shout
of the slack in Black is
"Its Great to be white."
Thus all that is white
has white strength and yours.
In a discussion of the "Great" or Emersonian tradition of American literature and scholarship (exemplified by "The American Scholar"), Toni Morrison hints something of the threat that African American (read Brooks's BLACK?) questioning or wrenching of individualism and self-determination, the very lynchpins of American man-or personhood, can have, Morrison says:
[A]utonomy, authority, newness and difference, absolute power not only become the major themes and presumptions of American literature, but … each one is made possible by, shaped by, activated by a complex awareness and employment of a constituted savagery, that provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity.
The self constituted as and by Maud Martha, one of the ordinary "kitchenette people," is made—and assertively remakes herself—not from savagery but from (black) submission and other undistinguished maternal and female matter. Here and in other instances, Brooks manages at least to tweak the system to which Morrison refers—and, further, one might add, to work this revolution surgically within tight lyric confines. At moments, her destructive meditations are not wholly unlike Dickinson's persistently private explosions. But Brooks is always aware of "the People" and her public; that is, of race, of being racialized, and of the need to seize the power and tools of representation.
It is, I should think, customary enough for black academics and poets to be called upon—usually from "above"—to represent their race. Brooks reassigns this honor, or curse, to Maud Martha. Her novelistic/autobiographical answer, painted in miniature from the inside of Maud Martha's experience as this very difference in persona, at once recalls Du Bois's prerogative (setting aside for work his cultivated representative status) of determining the level of his social interactions with whites. But Brooks also subtly undresses and redresses the dynamics of rhetorical power differentials by making a young white male classmate who calls on Maud intrude into a community that, he is made to assume, can only feel blessed by his presence and/or whiteness. We readers are thus ironically privy to—and, in some cases, the butt of the dramatic irony of—Maud Martha's educated perspective on race matters:
though she liked Charles, though she admired Charles, it was only at the high school that she wanted to see Charles.
This was no Willie or Richard or Sylvester coming to call on her. Neither was she Charles's Sally or Joan. She was the whole "colored" race, and Charles was the personalization of the entire Caucasian plan….
What was this she was feeling now? Not fear, not fear. A sort of gratitude! It sickened her to realize it. As though Charles, in coming, gave her a gift.
Recipient and benefactor.
It's so good of you.
You're being so good.
If one can safely assume that the readership of Maud Martha included a large number of white integrationists of several stripes, Brooks has brilliantly diagnosed, announced, and reversed a disturbance in representation by which white folks are accustomed, as discrete individuals, to identifying individuals who can stand for the group—of colored, Negro, black, other folk(s). Brooks stages, with ironic equanimity (as against Maud's expected Negro gratitude or feminine reserve) a practical encounter that tests liberal notions of accommodation: "Here was the theory of racial equality about to be put into practice, and she only hoped she would be equal to being equal."
If in 1953 Brooks was content to have Maud Martha analytically voice the options open to an ordinary woman—even an "old black gal"—she was audacious enough to create a character who could create herself within the limits of her male-identified world of marital banality:
To create—a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great but not for her.
What was wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.
She would polish and hone that.
Brooks's 1967 announcement of a different public role for herself as poet, along with her embrace of the evolving role of New Black, might have been impossible and surely would not have been very forceful if she had not threaded a consistent meditation on racial and artistic self-construction—and reconstructions of racial and sexual otherness—through her work.
Brooks has always addressed and continues to address difficult issues, including those often decorously silent intimate traumas of abortion, color caste, domestic abuse, alienation, and motherhood in poverty. Defiant in the face of a painful history of racist lies and false consciousness that refuses to yield a "useable past," she has actively fashioned models of personal and communal dignity as poetic blueprints for cultural survival. An early poem like "the mother" (A Street in Bronzeville, 1945) adumbrates her later focus on rejected, imperiled, and criminalized urban youth, even as it admits of wildly different ethos and messages: from an anti-abortion plea to a manifesto of women's choice and self-determination. This poem in particular continues to garner classroom and critical response for its complex deconstruction(s) of subjectivity and/or the androcentric lyric tradition. As Barbara Johnson has noted, Brooks bends the genre of apostrophe by addressing the literally doubly victimized, the imaginatively doubly redeemed, and inextricably compounds nonmother and unborn as agent and object of abortion. Brooks manages to convey the force of desire, regret and affirmation without sentimentalizing the role of mother or erasing the horrors of unrealized pasts and futures:
ABORTIONS will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
After that first stanza, which complicates the ontological and epistemological categories generically fixed by personal lyric and the address of apostrophe, the subject—and here both positions of aborted relationships share objecthood and agency—switches from the general or colloquial "you" to an only more apparently fixed "I" that promises but fails to represent a single point of view or viable position, if only because it is addressed both to the unborn and the unknowing audience. Characteristically, Brooks both invites and inhibits identification as well as easy judgment from above and outside:
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
If Brooks there achieves in an exemplary fashion the virtually impossible task of at once humanizing and equivocating over victim and agent—of making present, speaking as and to, those who definitively never were—she elsewhere works a similarly undecidable agency into the public arena of city streets and community. In fundamental ways, she has come increasingly to violate fixed definitions of gender and race roles as well as systems of representation and cultural reproduction. Perhaps an extreme case, Riot: A Poem in Three Parts (1969), gives life to the humor and horror of needs denied and escape routes blocked. I can only skim the first poem, which is, granted, a long cry from the second, "The Third Sermon on the Warpland," with its phoenix rise of "A woman is dead. / Motherwoman. / She lies among the boxes…." Still, the sequence's beginning, beginning with the source and thrust of its epigraph, indicates the range of Brooks's irony and her complex identification with the rioters:
A riot is the language of the unheard.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
Because the "Negroes" were coming down the street.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.
John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
and broken glass and blood, and he cried "Lord!
Forgive these nigguhs that know now that they do."
Long before Riot, and before the events therein ironically recorded from within and without the virtual reality of an old negritude, which marks its fall from grace by its dialect apostrophe to "nigguhs," was swept over by a wave of unaccommodating black victims-turned-agents of potentially constructive destruction, Brooks's poetry had italicized and complicated b/Blackness. She had always been hard on Negroes with class pretensions, those who would marry or buy their way into whiteness. She did not abandon the intellectual or literal neighborhood of working-class blacks for the suburbs of academic or other prestige. And beyond the empirics of such community identification, her works explicitly warn of the various temptations to escape or explain away the racism that some black bourgeois, not to mention the intellectuals, refuse to acknowledge. Again, a set piece from Maud Martha is particularly revelatory. Maud, at the beauty parlor, thinks she has heard Miss Ingram, a cosmetics saleswoman (about whom Maud "wondered if … she knew that in the 'Negro group' there were complexions whiter than her own"), say, "I work like a nigger to earn a few pennies." Seeing no reaction, Maud thinks she must have been wrong. As it turns out, Sonia Johnson, the beautician, failed to react because she was certainly not a "nigger," and she knew what the word meant:
these words like "nigger" don't mean to some of these here white people what our people think they mean. Now, "nigger," for instance, means to them something bad, or slavey-like, or low. They don't mean anything against me. I'm a Negro, not a "nigger." Now, a white man can be a "nigger," according to their meaning for the word, just like a colored man can. So why should I go getting all stepped up about a thing like that?
Therein, Brooks not only underscores the sometimes illusory power of renaming, she insists on a solidarity that will later manifest itself in a refusal to condemn the New Blackness of the sixties that the author behind Maud—who was, after all, a "plain ol' black gal"—might have been expected to reject. But, really only those who failed to read the bold code could have expected that!
Before the 1967 official D Day—or b/Black day—her poetry had more than once occasioned the negative commentary of white critics and, in at least one hilarious—or is it scary?—case, broadcasters, who found her language assaultive and her subject matter too frank. Indeed, Brooks's famed "ordinary Negroes" were extraordinarily aware of being positioned within and without their poetic sketches and larger historical and literary traditions. One incident on the road to her ultimate declaration of independence from mainstream aesthetic strictures and white bourgeois values is worth nothing. It too is a reflection and public opening on her earlier work. I have in mind the controversial half-life and musical resurrection of "of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery" (A Street in Bronzeville, 1945).
In 1962 a Chicago radio station, WNEW, on which Brooks had decades earlier read her poem, banned Oscar Brown Jr.'s musical rendering of "Elegy of a Plain Black Boy" on the grounds that the recurrent phrase "a plain black boy," echoed in and from Brooks's poem, would offend Negroes and violate strictures against mixing politics into art. Of her twenty-year-old poem, updated with a direct address to the new ban on "black," she submitted the assaultive defense that explains her repositioned writing Subject and subject matter; thus: "'the life and death of a pitiful yet proud and lip-out-thrusting, chest announcing youth.'" Recall for a moment De Witt Williams, as he visits in death the haunts of a youth that, after Brooks's treatment cannot remain simply ill-spent. There is no small freight of literariness in the parody of the interstate journey of Lincoln's bier recorded in Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and the skewed identification effected by the substitution of "Nothing but a plain black boy" for "Coming for to carry me home" of the spiritual's second line:
He was born in Alabama.
He was bred in Illinois.
He was nothing but a
Plain black boy.
Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot.
Nothing but a plain black boy.
Drive him past the Pool Hall.
Drive him past the Show.
Blind within his casket,
But maybe he will know.
I do not mean to diminish the history and changes of political position and identification that intervene between the Brooks(es) of the forties, early sixties, and the near past; surely her poetry and programmatic prose would not permit such easy moves. Nevertheless, her interrogations of race, class, and gender remain both complex and in revisionary conversation with several traditions of which she has become part. At one point, Brooks characterizes her post-1967 work as a change of ethos and attitude, from supplication to self-possession:
Much of the work that preceded the days of considerable black fire belongs in a category I call "condition literature." You remember, in "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman loves animals because they do not tirelessly "whine about their condition." A good many of us who preceded the pioneering influence of Baraka did a lot of poetic, dramatic, and fictional whining. And a lot of that was addressed to white people. We sensed ourselves crying "UP" to them. "Help us," we seemed to cry. We were fascinated by the sickness of the black condition.
I would qualify Brooks's self-corrective dismissal, in that a great deal of what she did involved more than whining or satisfying the guilt, curiosity, imagination of a white audience. But, she does not need me to save or choose her most effective work. It has had impact and influence, and she herself has revisited it in later poems and anthologies.
Even in the most declarative or rhetorical mood, her poems remain, according to her announced non-Western poetics of change and ad hoc utility, in-process and revisionary in their focus on youth and popular misconceptions about inner-city blight. Perhaps the occasional or instructive poems titled or subtitled "Sermon," "Dedication," "Preachment" do not so much conceal as proclaim the irony and distance out of which she configures an identification with, and encouragement of, what are now generations of energetically self-destructive but infinitely promising inner-city young people. If literary allusions and artful oscillations between third-person narrative and internal monologue are more pronounced in Annie Allen, Maud Martha, and peak in In the Mecca, such poems as "Primer for Blacks" and "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals" (Primer for Blacks—Three Preachments, 1991) and the pair "The Chicago Picasso" (one of Two Dedications, 1967) and "The Chicago Picasso, 1986" at once recall her earlier performances (sometimes directly citing and renewing earlier poems) and bear witness to New Black consciousness. "Requiem Before Renewal," the Third Preachment in Primer for Blacks, names her prospective yet revisionary strategy. In this vein, "The Black Stone Rangers, I, As Seen by Disciplines" [not disciples] (1968) asserts faith in black self-determination:
There they are.
Thirty at the corner.
Black, raw, ready.
Sores in the city
that do not want to heal.
If the Blackstone Rangers were her special link to an allegedly "sick" or stagnant pool of alienated youth talent, the occasional poems Brooks has written as poet laureate of Illinois (named so after Carl Sandburg, in 1968) and for Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago elaborate the general empowerment that comes from an unblinking recognition of potential behind the bleakest facades. "A Hymn to Chicago," in the self-published pamphlet Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago the "I Will" City (1983), locates strength and beauty even as it "italicizes" a harsher truth:
This city mixes garbage and stars. This city seems able
to make a carol out of what has been obscure …
… This city,
for all its age, is alive with youth-music and youth-fragrance,
the music and green and fragrance youth knows how to
manufacture for itself, cannot give to others,
Need I italicize our truth
that this city
is imperfect, that within it
crime, race injustice, and cunning prowl and
Italics emphasize. They do not commend
rejection of all that surrounds
Indeed, it seems to me—pace editors like Haki Madhubuti who would make her post-1967 position univocally freeze in heroic portraits of male revolutionary race heroes (including his former self, Don L. Lee, and the Rangers who made up her first workshop gang) and mostly feminist critics who lament this alleged fixity—that Brooks remains open to change and self-re-creation. Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press, which recently reissued the out-of-print Maud Martha, publishes an extensive and somewhat self-duplicating list of Brooks's poems, whose reprints are often subtle recastings, to which I refer you for proof of Brooks's range and coherence of vision. Perhaps her consciousness, evident in her poetic penetration of the more-than-victim versus assailant attitude of young gangsters and other marginalized black urban youth, is not the unification or overcoming of Du Bois's "double consciousness" in a monolithic and potentially obsolete Black Power pose, but a long unfolding of the contradictory interpellation of blackness, an open call, if you will, from poet to people that continues to mark internal differences, mock the mastering white (if not also the male) gaze, and celebrate the ironies that empower the disempowered by a chiding celebration of the honorific name, the Black Magic, that used to be a curse. Again, I will not quote, but I suggest you read, the full text of this short "Preachment"; the following excerpt from the first, third, and eighth (final) stanzas of "Primer for Blacks" suggests Brooks's inclusiveness and her strategic separatism:
is a title,
is a preoccupation,
is a commitment Blacks
are to comprehend—
and in which you are
to perceive your Glory.
The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks wherever they may be.
And remember, you Blacks, what they told you—
remember your Education:
"one Drop—one Drop
maketh a brand new Black."
Oh mighty Drop.
—And because they have given us kindly
so many more of our people
All of you—
you COLORED ones,
you NEGRO ones,
those of you who proudly cry
"I'm half Indian"—
those of you who proudly screech
"I'VE got the blood of George WASHington in MY veins—
ALL of you—
you proper Blacks,
you wish-I-weren't Blacks,
Niggeroes and Niggerenes.
As we shall see, more than her verse form or topics, Brooks decisively changed the force of her irony against the political and cultural status quo that quite systematically dictates standards and undervalues black accomplishment—except when the "natural," blues, rap, or Harlem enjoy temporary renaissance. Consonant with the changing literary and literal politics of the young writers and activists of the Blacks Arts Movement, in particular the position expressed and the scene captured in Larry Neal's and LeRoi Jones's Black Fire (1968), Brooks deliberately changed the composition, site and invited response of her audience. After the uprisings of the mid-sixties and in the wake of an increasingly elitist or accommodationist civil rights movement, Brooks adopted certain practices and principles from her younger radical colleagues; she also began publishing at small black presses and working with groups of younger and almost exclusively black inner-city young people. Exemplary here is Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (Broadside Press, 1971), the anthology of poetry, short prose pieces, and programmatic criticism edited or "presented" by Brooks. This book grew out of the community poetry workshops, formal and informal, Brooks led—a word she avers in this context—in Chicago beginning in 1967. Brooks's introduction tells something of her own conversion experience as well as the composition of her audience. Again, though, "audience" is also not quite right, since she is auditor as much as speaker; pupil as well as teacher of a group of young poets and performers from the "literary-minded among the Blackstone Rangers," "teen 'Gangsters,'" whom she met at "the First Presbyterian Church on the South Side." None of the irony of her position is lost on Brooks: middle-aged Lady Pulitzer up against the first members of Kuumba (founded by Val Gray Ward), who were some Baaad young folks, including Don L. Lee, "who had already published 'Think Black,'" and Sonia Sanchez, whose poem "We a BadDDD People" and anthology We Be Word Sorcerers (1973) intertextually and nominally honor Brooks's first broadside for Broadside Press, "We Real Cool," a poem to which we shall return.
It is with an understanding of her own story, even here subsumed to black history, that Brooks delineates the position, predisposition, and even the grammatical prepositions that define her "New Black" poets, and herself as a (new) black poet:
With the arrival of these people my neatly-paced life altered almost with a jerk. Never did they tell me to "change" my hair to "natural." But soon I did. Never did they tell me to open my eyes to look about me. But soon I did. Never did they tell me to find them sane, serious, substantial, superseding. But soon I did….
Incidentally, the question of my status, my position, (was I or was I not a Teacher, a Workshop Ruler?) was soon a gentle joke. I "taught" nothing. I told them, almost timidly, what I knew, what I had learned from European models (well, Langston Hughes too!) And they told me without telling me that the European "thing" was not what they were about….
Many of these black writers are now involved in an exciting labor, a challenging labor…. They are blackening English. Some of the results are effective and stirring. Watch for them.
True black writers speak as blacks, about blacks, to blacks.
Brooks describes her first encounter with the "New Black[ness]" of such young black poets and playwrights as LeRoi Jones and Ron Milner at the Writers' Conference at Fisk University in 1967 as her full public transformation from Negro to a Black: "It frightens me to realize that, if I had died before the age of fifty, I would have died a 'Negro' fraction." Rather than gloat or despair about her distance and irrelevance from the young who would just barely respect anyone's mainstream credentials, she listened and began bridging the "generation gap," which, Brooks came to insist, never (should have) existed among blacks. Her account of this event is worth revisiting at some length, if only because we might wish to heed her cautionary note about appropriation embedded in her own self-effacing enthusiasm for the male revolutionary poet-heroes performing in Nashville:
Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself. I knew that I was what most people were still calling a "Negro."…
Suddenly there was New Black to meet…. I had been "loved" at South Dakota State College. Here I was coldly Respected…. Imamu Amiri Baraka, then "LeRoi Jones," was expected. He arrived in the middle of my own offering, and when I called attention to his presence there was jubilee in Jubilee Hall….
Up against the wall, white man! was the substance of the Baraka shout, at the evening reading he shared with fierce Ron Milner among intoxicating drumbeats, heady incense and organic underhumming. Up against the wall! And a pensive (until that moment) white man of thirty or thirty three abruptly shot himself into the heavy air, screaming "Yeah! Yeah! Up against the wall, Brother! KILL 'EM ALL! KILL 'EM ALL!"
I thought that was interesting.
There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He's tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white: not the Schooled white; not the Kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders.
Brooks's poems as well as their means of publication and distribution changed from styles acceptable to the big New York commercial houses to those possible only in workshops, readings, and small press anthologies. In the sixties, the lines of black (and perhaps not only b/Black) poetic communication were strong and strongly interwoven among many community and political organizations and movements. The circuit Brooks entered was at least circumjacent to the work and workers of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the Black Panther Party, and other groups that had been literal and figurative fellow travelers on freedom marches and voter registration drives. I do not mean to project sixties nostalgia onto a complex scene whose coalitions were sometimes rather costly, but black and/or revolutionary unity during that period has been nearly erased by interested revisionary histories from several sides. Further, not to expose any secrets that Brooks and more than one black public intellectual continue to reveal, the easy flow of artists and information from performance venues as varied as black colleges (whether traditionally Negro Southern colleges or inner-city state community colleges and universities), organized or informal youth groups (even "gangs"), churches and prisons, and public commemorative occasions (especially in cities with black leaders) continues. Such networks are always somewhat fragile, as capable of excluding members on account of revolutionary purity or Puritanism as being co-opted by critics in search of authenticity, the academic descendants, perhaps, of "professional Negro-understanders."
In any case, consistent with Brooks's 1967 embrace of "New Black," she offered Report from Part One, her autobiography-in-process, long awaited by Harper and Row, to Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. In Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (1975), his memoir and celebratory program of the press's first ten years, Dudley Randall's account of her association with Broadside Press neatly indicates the range and redirection of her work enabled by this change of publisher and audience:
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, she told me she was doing a little book and wished to donate it to Broadside Press. Titled Riot, it was published in 1969. All proceeds from the book go to Broadside. It was followed by Family Pictures, and Aloneness, a children's book.
One day she called me and said she wanted her autobiography to be published by Broadside. Thinking of her welfare, I declined…. Upon publication Report From Part One was greeted with an enthusiastic review by Toni Cade Bambara on page one of the New York Times Book Review.
Her latest book is Beckonings, where she tries a style simple and direct enough to reach all Black people, yet rich and deep.
Broadside began by issuing famous poets' broadside poems with original art but soon moved to single book and group anthology publications of new poets. Created by Dudley Randall's vision and with little funding, publishing an impressive roster of black poets and scholars, Broadside surely needed Brooks's prominence and sales potential. But there was much more than that, for Brooks had found both herself and/or a new role as an activist artist, even as she was helping to found a community of poets. Brooks's first Broadside broadside, "We Real Cool," whose title and refrain, borrowed from black English street argot, became something of an anthem, has an interesting history that makes Brooks a leader avant la révolution, if you will. Dudley Randall tells it, thus:
In May 1966, I attended the first Writers' Conference at Fisk University, and obtained permission from Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson, and Margaret Walker, who were there, to use their poems…. I wrote to Gwendolyn Brooks and obtained her permission to use "We Real Cool." This first group of six Broadsides [is] called "Poems of the Negro Revolt."
Differently presented and received seven years after its publication in the collection The Bean Eaters (1960), Randall's broadside of Brooks's "We Real Cool" "was lettered white on black by Cledie Taylor to simulate scrawls on a blackboard," in keeping with the care he took to "harmonize … the poem, in paper, color, and typography." This is to say that Brooks's poem was afforded a place of distinction, if not literally a space on many a wall. This poem continues to generate interest, and, if only because I was at least surprised to see it treated to an apparently gratuitous dismissal in a recent issue of Callaloo, I would like to spend a few moments over it. Before rival readings, the poem, unfortunately sans graphics:
"We Real Cool"
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Of this poem Hortense Spillers, praising the "wealth of implication" in this "[l]ess than lean poem," says it is "no nonsense at all." Finding original artistry, in-crowd and in-race code, and a full range of traditional poetic techniques in Brook's poem, Spillers say that Brook's players "subvert the romance of sociological pathos" and, quite comfortably, she has them read Brooks's lines, thus:
They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight [could be nonstop] lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.
I would like to bring Helen Vendler's recent mention of Brooks into conversation with Spillers's earlier tribute. Speaking with the well-earned authority of her position as a major reader of the Western cannon and an influential critic of new poet candidates to that tradition, Vendler writes about the new national poet laureate in Callaloo, the most important wider-than-academic journal of black and Third World poetry. She generously praises and candidly corrects (explicitly not in the sense of "political correctness") the "Identity Markers" Rita Dove marshals to "confront … the enraging fact that the inescapable accusation of blackness becomes, too early for the child to resist it, a strong element of inner self-definition." At one point, Vendler economically dismisses Brooks in questioning one of Dove's "relatively unsuccessful historical excursions in a lyric time-machine." Not to make too much of a few lines, I quote her dismissal in full: "This [Dove's early 'odyssey'] may owe something to Gwendolyn Brooks's 'We Real Cool,' but it avoids the prudishness of Brooks's judgmental monologue, which though it is ostensibly spoken by adolescents, barely conceals its adult reproach of their behavior.
Even though Vendler indicates that Brooks's poem is not properly addressed to the white critical tradition, her response does not fail to register, however unwittingly, Brooks's double movement at once to narrow and to expand the usual distance readers of poetry traverse in becoming—or resisting becoming—"We," whether real cool or not. By making Brooks admonish the adolescents, Vendler makes pretty clear who isn't We—not to say who "We" isn't. It seems that, however fallen, Brooks, the poet, simply must share the critic's position above those pool players. Curiously, from their different aesthetic and experiential positions, Vendler and Spillers both give valid readings of the poem, and it is no accident that they fix on the pronoun that hangs out there like the prepositions from William Carlos Williams's famous wheelbarrow.
Not to dwell overlong on the ethos or impact of the very different constructions invited by Brooks's "We," I add Brooks's own commentary on the poem, which is delivered as stage directions for her public readings:
First of all, let me tell you how that's ["We Real Cool"] supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying. "Kilroy is here. We are." But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. The "We"—you're supposed to stop after the "we" and think about validity, of course, there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty.
Characteristically, Brooks invites both identification with and objectification of the young men—depending, perhaps on such categories as the race, gender, age of her/their audience. There is something cunning and deceptive both about the openness of Brooks's "We" and her variable distance from both the pool players to whom it refers and the people—at least since its Broadside republication—it seems to rename. Rather like the young white man who, in Brooks's story about Baraka, heeded a call not intended for him, or the "You" of "Primer for Blacks," that shifty pronoun works a critique on audience overidentification and poet's supposed representativeness. After all, isn't she supposed to correct the young punks, not to follow them as new leaders? But which she? The writer of "We Real Cool," The Bean Eaters (1960)? Or the writer of the 1967 broadside, "We Real Cool"? And should the differences of context and thus of content be fixed—either in the sense of "healed" or "halted"? Brooks put(s) her readers, specifically a black audience that is not limited to the no-longer-New Blacks of the sixties, to work on such questions.
Rather than stand as the highly decorated, proper, and representative lady and/or poet for her race (the "lady 'negro poet'"), Brooks chose to transform a black audience into poets or, as William Blake might say, prophets. Brooks's address is wider than Whitman's mutual embrace of writer and his people. More literal, literary, and liberating are her encouragement and publicity in favor of young poets than the hope that one day, perhaps crossing to Brooklyn on a ferry, one might think her thoughts. Indeed, it might be that her greatest offense against the literary and academic establishment(s)—the refusal to rest on her (canonical) laurels and apparent dismissal of the capital "P" of Poetry, which is also her refusal to repeat the talented-tenth or exclusive single, sanctioned post of (non-)representative poet, such as Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance—encrypts her most direct engagement of literary history.
Despite a fair amount of thunder and fire, her statement is no "No in thunder," but a generous "Yes" to those systematically excluded from the academic and elitist poetic apparatus. Let me digress for a moment, moving from black to Blake, if you will. Indeed, there is something Blakean, revolutionary yet (re-)visionary, in Brooks's poetic address or ethos that jibes with Blake's ironic assault on Milton and literary canonizations that would create and define both "a fit audience though few" and "justify the ways of God to Man"—not to mention Western Truth for all time readable in a certain poetic genealogy and line. Let me remind you just how economical Blake can be, when he quotes a few words of the biblical Moses at the end of his preface to Milton. Moses prevented his servant from forbidding unsanctioned competing men from prophesying with the words "Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets" (Numbers 11:29). With this epigraph, standing as it does at the beginning of his poem against limits placed on the religion and polities of his time, Blake takes aim against the one Holy and Apostolic Church that English poetry was becoming—ironically, under the name of Milton, erstwhile radical Protestant.
Like Blake, Brooks subsumes and revises the conventional role of poet. Sometimes she critiques the old by celebrating and enacting her new position within poems. "The Wall," for instance, records and comprises Brooks's poetic dedication of "the mural of black dignity" painted on a slum wall at Forty-third and Langley in Chicago. In a mise-en-scène that depicts the poet—"She our sister is"—who rises to the podium in order to celebrate and, with the other "Women in wool hair chant their poetry," to take poetry from off shelves and paintings down from walls to this Wall. She is but one of the celebrants, one with the graffiti artists, also an organic cultural critic, celebrating her own history and promise. With one stroke, she helps deface the ugliness of the slum, while together poet and multimedia artists worship, make "yea" and "announcement," "chant," and "sing." Thus, with the African ornaments of sixties costumes and the figures of high art, Brooks at once very precisely locates in time, space, and with the proper names of some participants, the occasion of this celebration of perpetual movement as an assertion of human dignity:
August 27, 1967….
Humbly we come.
South of success and east of gloss and glass are sandals;
grave hoops of wood or gold, pendant
from black ears, brown ears, reddish brown
and ivory ears
… In front of me
hundreds of faces, red-brown, brown, black, ivory,
yield me hot trust, their yea and their Announcement
that they are ready to rile the high-flung ground.
Behind me, Paint.
No child has defiled
The Heroes of this Wall this serious Appointment
this still Wing
this Scald this Flute this heavy Light this Hinge.
An emphasis is paroled.
The old decapitations are revised,
The dispossessions beakless.
And we sing.
In order to sing prophetic poetry with her young people, Brooks had further to go than Blake, since she had not only to reject and replace one precursor, but she had also to renounce the monumentalization of Western art and her own assigned position(s) therein: "First," "Negro," "Woman," "Poet(ess)," and so on. Just so, with reference to Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones's Black Fire (1968), her own contribution to A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975) prizes the utility as well as the perpetual revolution and resistance of the Black Art she had first embraced, as such and by her own account, in 1967 at the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk. In her "Course" she is, again, pupil of the young and poet-in-process: thus:
The new feeling, among the earnest new young black creators, was that concern for the long-lastingness was western and was wrong. One created a piece of art for the enrichment, the instruction, the extension of one's own people. Its usefulness may or may not be exhausted in a day, a week, a month, a year. There was no prayerful compulsion—among the earnest—for its idle survival into the centuries. The word went down: we must chase out Western measures, rules, models.
Directly, as a poet consciously and publicly revising both her own image and the poet's representative function. Brooks, in the appendix/marginalia to Report from Part One, opens both person and category "Poet and/or G. B." to change and public interaction and construction. She is conscious of writing at, to, within the limits of a topical tribute to the changes wrought in her by—young and mostly male—revolutionary heroes. She is conscious, too, of future (r)evolutions from poets, prophets, and just plain people she will address and support. Ironically, her secure fame and position enable her to renounce the poet's traditional aesthetic distance:
My aim, in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully "call" (see Imamu Baraka's "SOS" [Black Fire]) all black people: black people in tavems, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones, not always to "teach"—I shall wish often to entertain, to illumine. My newish voice will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which I so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's G. B. voice.
Let me make clear that Brooks does not see what I am calling her shift in intended audience (also a shift from general poetic and academic to specifically black community venues) as renunciation of, say, prestige for virtue. She announces a new, provisional yet prophetic writing in the terms of a new (black) consciousness and the affirmation of the beauty of her own dark skin; from the first, we might remember, her poems remarked the self-hatred imposed by color caste and versions of white beauty. And, while her apparent adoption of such roles as queen and mother to poets might seem, from a certain perspective, to recapitulate the old virgin-whore construction, Brooks doesn't end with that rebeginning:
I—who have "gone the gamut" from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress.
I have hopes for myself.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
Hughes, Gertrude Reif. "Making It Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry." American Quarterly 42, No. 3 (September 1990): 375-401.
Examines the appropriation of modernist literary strategies and anti-heroism in the poetry of Doolittle and Brooks.
Kent, George E. "Aesthetic Values in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks." In Black Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 75-94. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Discusses elements of existential despair and the social alienation of African-Americans in Brooks's poetry.
Miller, R. Baxter. "'Does Man Love Art?': The Humanistic Aesthetic of Gwendolyn Brooks." In Black Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 95-112. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Explores Brooks's humanistic perspective and universal artistic concerns in her poetry.
Park, Clara Claiborne. "First Fight, Then Fiddle." The Nation (26 September 1987): 308-12.
Provides an overview of Brooks's life and work through review of D. H. Melham's Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice and Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith's A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction.
Shaw, Harry B. "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 136-59. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Examines Brooks's presentation of black male figures in A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, and The Bean Eaters.
Stavros, George. "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks." Contemporary Literature XI, No. 1 (Winter 1970): 1-20.
Brooks discusses contemporary black poetry, her artistic influences, major themes and technical aspects of her work, and changes in her political consciousness and perspective.
Tate, Claudia. "Gwendolyn Brooks." In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, pp. 39-48. New York: Continuum, 1985.
Brooks discusses the emergence of her new black consciousness during the late 1960s and her artistic aims and political perspective as a black writer.
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