I’ve been reading The World of Gwendolyn Brooks, a 1971 collection of Brooks’ poems and fiction. There are some favorites, but mostly lots of favorite turns of phrases, interesting and original descriptions. Even if you’re not big into poetry, you may still know Brooks as the author of “We Real Cool.” I can see why English teachers would like that poem for classroom use because it’s, well, fresh, lively, and a great way to introduce poetry. Written fifty years ago, the poem describes an issue that is still real and present and pressing. An experience young people still share.
(the first part of the video is Brooks’ poem, the second part is a poem by Dorothy Parker)
“A Song in the Front Yard” is a sort of feminine counterpart to “We Real Cool”: there’s the girl who’s always been good, while watching other girls enjoy being ‘bad.’ “They do some wonderful things. They have some wonderful fun.” The allure of the back alleys, of being assertive and seductive. Take a listen:
But youth rebelliousness is not all there is to Brooks’ observations; she portrays both pride and insecurity as African Americans experienced it in regards to social status, class, and race. She shows us her characters’ hopes, aspirations, love, fear and anger. The speaker in “Kitchenette Building” explains “‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong / Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man.’ / / But could a dream send up through onion fumes / Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes / And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall […] Even if we were willing to let it in […]?”
Many of Brooks’ characters have both feet firmly on the ground. “The Mother” for example, who speaks about abortion. She makes very clear that abortion is never an easy way out: “Abortions will not let you forget. / You remember the children you got that you did not get”. This mother speaks frankly, speaks from her heart and her womb, and asks for women’s decisions, women’s mourning to be respected. “I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children. / I have contracted. I have eased / My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.”
She explains that even an aborted child may be loved, that she had words for each child she lost: “I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized / Your luck / And your lives from your unfurnished reach, / If I stole your births and your names, / Your straight baby tears and your games, / Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths, / If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths, / Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.” Clearly, the abortion was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, she has thought, deliberated about the matter, and did not choose easily. The mother Brooks introduces us to, like so many women who have miscarried or had an abortion, lives with a swarm of “ifs,” a family of shadow children around her. Is it a plea for forgiveness or is it loving reassurance that she closes on? “Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” Very likely it is both. It is as if she is saying, “I hope you understand.”
Some pages later, we encounter “The Preacher: Ruminates Behind the Sermon,” as he somewhat irreverently, but honestly, wonders who dares “Buy [God] a Coca-Cola or a beer, / Pooh-pooh His politics, call Him a fool” and decides “it must be lonely to be God.”
In the poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, thinks about her encounter with the black boy Emmett Till. “From the first it had been like a / Ballad. […Like] the ballads she had never quite / Understood –” Bryant owned a local store and was 21 when 14 year-old Emmett was visiting his relatives in Mississippi. After the young boy was supposedly seen flirting with her, her husband and his half-brother abducted and violently murdered Emmett, dumping the body into the Tallahatchie River.
The Carolyn Bryant we meet here cannot quite understand what happened. She tries to, by casting it into the mold of the ballads she learned in school: “Herself: the milk-white maid, the ‘maid mild’ / Of the ballad. Pursued / By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince. / The Happiness-Ever-After.” However much she tries, she cannot will herself to accept this version of what happened. The “Dark Villain” wasn’t much of a villain, she knows. “The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified / When the Dark Villain was a blackish child / Of fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty”. As for the “Fine Prince” – she knows too well that “under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under / Waited the baby full of tantrums. / It occurred to her that there may have been something / Ridiculous in the picture of the Fine Prince / Rushing […] With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed) / That little foe.”
Then comes the real turn in the story: “she could not remember now what that foe had done / Against her, or if anything had been done.” When the foe has done nothing, he cannot be a foe, and the fine prince cannot be fine. The fine prince becomes a murderer instead of a hero. She is afraid. She puts on her lipstick so he will not feel she was not worth “It” even though she does not feel right about the “It”: “Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stuttering bravado, / The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes / The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?” In killing the boy, her husband has not just destroyed one single-parent black family, he has also irreparably damaged his own: The tension at the dinner table is high. When he slaps one of their children, the mother “could think only of blood. Surely her baby’s cheek / Had disappeared, and in its place, surely, / Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end. / […] It was not true, of course. / It was not true at all. The / Child’s face was as always, the / Color of the paste in her paste-jar.” She cannot bear the tension and walks out. He follows her, touches her, sweet-talks, then kisses her. All she can feel, now, is hate.
Also included in The World of Gwendolyn Brooks is her novel Maud Martha, which follows a black woman from childhood to married life. It is short, and written in very short sections, sometimes only two pages long. These brief episodes capture defining moments: the death of her grandmother, her first visit by a white boy, going to a concert at the Regal Theatre, her sister being chosen over her by her crush, beaux 1 and 2, starting married life, her first child, having to work as a maid to make ends meet, going to a movie and being the only black people there. These episodes are beautifully written and at times flow like poetry. The many different tenants in the apartment building make interesting and memorable characters. I really enjoyed reading Maud Martha.
As I said, the book I read is from 1971, — Brooks only passed away in 2000, so has written a good number of poems in those almost 30 years between publication and her death. A new collected works just barely came out, which you may want to check out if any of this has made you at all curious. See if your public library or campus library has it. If they don’t, why not suggest they get a copy?