If you’re a novice poet and want to struggle with the existential dread of being wholly intimidated by a boxer far above your class and the simultaneous inspiration of a knockout mind and craftsperson, then why don’t you go ahead and read some Gwendolyn Brooks?
Seriously, folks, I’ve read Brooks’ poems here and there, in this or that anthology, or when shared by some fellow reader on Twitter or Instagram. But this is the first time I sat down with a complete collection of her works, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that it left me stunned.
The collection itself includes poem selections from 3 previous publications spanning the length of her career plus a final section of “new poems” at the end. I certainly had my personal favorites among these, but at no point did I find any of her work weaker or uninteresting, or irrelevant. To me, that’s the sign of a master poet; someone who is digging as deeply and sharing as articulately and creatively at the beginning of her career as she does nearer the end of it, and across all sorts of themes.
Take, for example, this short poem, “the progress,” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” which was published in A Street in Bronzeville (1945).
And still we wear our uniforms, follow
The cracked cry of the bugles, comb and brush
Our pride and prejudice, doctor the sallow
Initial ardor, wish to keep it fresh.
Still we applaud the president’s voice and face.
Still we remark on patriotism, sing
Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice
For death of men, who, too, saluted, sang.
But inward grows a soberness, an awe
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.
Just look at what Brooks does before and after the volta. The first 8 lines seem to suggest a continuity of patriotism. A commitment to the nation’s commanders and even president, and the suggested idea that we are patriots, still. Proud to be American. But–I mean really, “but” in line 9 is the volta–then there’s a change. Context fills in. That proudness is a façade, isn’t it? There are whispers and rumblings growing inside of us. We are hollow where we should be filled with spirit. Our exterior poses and actions do not reflect the fear and resentment, the doubt, stirring beneath the masquerade.
Perhaps it is the state of the world (United States) right now, but this poem, which comes a little earlier than the 1/3 mark of this collection, had me sitting up at attention. It’s a clear indication of what Brooks can do with mastery of form, with subtlety and surprise. Whatever form she explores in this collection, she does it with deft touch and wild imagination. Some of her poems are biographical, like “A Bronzeville Mother,” which is a longer poem whose speaker, the woman responsible for the murder of Emmet Till, imagines herself a white princess and Till, that 14-year-old boy, a “Dark Villain.” It’s haunting.
I marked so many poems in this collection, and for so many reasons. I think it suffices to say that this is one I’ll return to again and again, not just to enjoy it, but to learn from it.