Homage to Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks
Selective Poems


On Sunday, December 3, 2000, Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet who grew up in Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century and made history by becoming the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, died at her South Side Chicago home with "pen in hand, and surrounded by verse and people she loved." She was 83.  (The Chicago Tribune)

We are pleased to present Marilyn Hacker and Heather McHugh's contributions in appreciation of Gwendolyn Brooks's work. To read more about Brooks's astonishing life and her accomplishments, please click here at The American Academy of Poets website.



THE RITES FOR COUSIN VIT   by Gwendolyn Brooks                                                          

Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.
(from Annie Allen, 1950)              

      This poem, an Italian sonnet – a form in which Brooks is a virtuoso,
which figures largely in her first two books –  is from part III ("The
Womanhood") of Annie Allen.

       The movement of this last section of Annie Allen is that of the
character, Annie’s moving out of  romantic self-absorption, and beginning
to observe her own community – which , for her as for Gwendolyn Brooks, is
not limiting, but a source of energy, information, support, and, most of
all, of stories implicit in the quotidian lives of its citizens.

    "The Rites for Cousin Vit" is, an elegy as well as a sonnet, but it is
an elegy so overflowing with the life-force of its subject that, with no
overt religious context, it constitutes a denial of death. Still, the verbs
"rises in sunshine" and " must emerge" metaphorically equate the sensual
and down-to-earth Vit with the risen Christ – who then "does the snake-hips
with a hiss" – also becomes both Eve and the serpent , until , after the
communion of the "bad wine" and the purely human interaction of "talks,"
these transcendental identities are resolved with the final verb, a
one-syllable sentence of affirmation: "Is." All this is contained – or
rather, turned loose – in an Italian sonnet of two envelope quatrains and a
sestet framed by the end-words "emerge" and "is." Nothing is accidental
here, certainly not the title, in which Vit’s name echoes the Latin for
"life" – and her identification as "cousin" implicitly creates a narrator/
speaker  with a familial relationship to her;  it also claims her as a
community and family member, a fact which informs the "outlaw" aspects of
her behavior: the plural "love-rooms," the bad wine, shiny dresses  and
dirty dancing. "Outlaw" perhaps, but not outcast.

    And that one-word sentence applies to the poem's author as well. In the
present tense. Is.

    Marilyn Hacker



sonnet-ballad  by Gwendolyn Brooks

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover's tallness off to war.
Left me lamenting.  Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won't be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue.  Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate – and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, "Yes."
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?


     I know most people love the poem "We real cool" best of all—and I’ll admit right now that I’m probably a bigger Mystikal fan than any poet my age in academia today. But it’s not their lyrics, proper, I love. There are Gwendolyn Brooks poems, the lyrics of which I do, and dearly, love—"The Bean-Eaters," for example, and this heart-rending ballad-sonnet, whose title introduces another high yell on behalf of proud admixtures: for a ballad-sonnet is half plaint, half straint. And the people’s ballad and the ivory tower’s sonnet are nowhere so deftly married as in this poignant song, a young woman’s apprehension of her lover’s death in battle.

     Just as, in the "The Bean-Eaters," a phrase like "a plain and creaking wood" manages both to turn literature’s groaning-board to a sparer, simpler advantage as the elderly couple’s kitchen table, and also deftly to recall that other pining place, the coffin—similarly, this young lover’s song manages to be plain and fine at once. Such simple loveliness as those that occupy the sonnet’s second and fourth lines ("They took my lover’s tallness off to war" and "What I can use an empty heart-cup for") make for irresistibly moving materials.

     Four out of five of the first lines are end-stopped; to read through them is to feel a rhetorical sub-understanding develop, about how heavily ends can fall. Brooks then expertly breaks up the sixth line (the first one explicitly to mention the word "end") by giving the young woman a kind of syntactical stammer, later to be matched, semantically, by the young man’s own stammer, which is mentioned (rather than illustrated) in the sixth line after hers. Hers is the stammer of a primary resistance to death—his of an ultimate acquiescence to it. Also written into Brooks’s savvy rhetorical design is a sad knowing about certain gendered counterpoints of nature—engendered ones, too, since the poem’s source and destination both involve the "mother."

     There are two rhetorical turns in particular, in this sonnet’s tender outcry, for which I want to hold out extra-wild admiring (just as in "The Bean-Eaters" I especially loved the interbraided elements of the second stanza’s paired and counterpoised effects: "Two who are Mostly Good. / Two who have lived their day, / But keep on putting on their clothes, / And putting things away." (Wow! just look at those two on’s; look at those two putting’s!). Here in the ballad-sonnet, it’s first the repetition of "would have to be untrue" that wows me: it both dares and deepens the thought, even as it is being expressed. I love how that phrase’s repetition rips the poem’s spoken fabric into fragments, as it then goes on to hazard the extraordinary turn "Would have to court/Coquettish death"—a move so exquisite, with its modal hint of continental courtesy, as to call up the very literally European (battle) grounds of the American lament.

     Instead of some Francoise, of course, the coquette turns out to be the human being’s always-alien and always-prior claimant, death. The way the word "arms" does double duty, the way the word "beauty" is modified by the double sense of "sort"—the sorrow of the proprieties of war being precisely that it demands an other, an impersonal, kind of fidelity from its young men, calling them deserters UNLESS they say yes to death (and no to the magnetic fields of personal love)—desertion! the very term by which a marriage can be ended; yet if the soldier does not desert, the marriage may never begin—all these ironies play delicately into the balance, toward the sonnet’s close. After such subtleties, the many meanings of the young man’s "hesitation" and his "change" are so likely—linguistically—to seduce us into collateral considerations that we may be amazed, by the time we reach the last line, to hear the poem’s first line befall us again, its rhyme now a knell of annulments.

     This is gorgeous craftsmanship. And gorgeous craftsmanship has always marked Gwendolyn Brooks’s finest work. A salute to the pains she took, to write this way! We owe her plenty, for her subtle dynamites, her devastating discretions.

     —Heather McHugh


Gwendolyn Brooks by Anthony Walton


Sometimes I see in my mind's eye a four-or five-
year-old boy, coatless and wandering
a windblown and vacant lot or street in Chicago
on the windblown South Side.  He disappears
but stays with me, staring and pronouncing
me guilty of an indifference more callous
than neglect, condescension as self-pity.

Then I see him again, at ten or fifteen, on the corner,
say, 47th and Martin Luther King, or in a group
of men surrounding a burning barrel off Lawndale,
everything sourrounding vacant or for sale.
Sometimes I trace him on the train to Joliet
or Menard, such towns quickly becoming native
ground to these boys who seem to be nobody
sons, these boys who are so hard to love, so hard
to see, except as case studies.

Poverty, pain, shame, one and a half million
dreams deemed fit only for the most internal
of exiles.  That four-year-old wandering
the wind tunnels of Robert Taylor, of Cabrini
Green, wind chill of an as yet unplumbed degree

a younger boy she did not have to know to love.


                        (first appeared in The New Yorker 12/18/00)