Gwendolyn Brooks: “kitchenette building”
Gwendolyn Brooks grew up on Chicago’s South Side in a house her father bought shortly after the poet and her younger brother were born. Located at 4332 South Champlain, it was a comfortable home with a large front porch and backyard. The Brooks family was only the second black family on the block, but as the 1920s slid into the 1930s, African Americans began to move to the area in increasing numbers. Once a “Black Belt” was recognized, a series of discriminatory housing practices started: Chicago’s growing African American population was soon unofficially segregated. The narrow corridor of apartment buildings and houses along State Street could not hope to hold the explosion of skilled and unskilled workers who moved to the city during World War II; one solution was to chop existing houses and apartments into ever smaller units, called “kitchenettes.” These single rooms or series of small rooms, often rented at high profit by predatory landlords, housed entire families who shared kitchens, bathrooms, and much else. They were cramped microcosms of the circumscribed lives endured by most African Americans at the time.
Though Gwendolyn Brooks grew up in a house, she spent much of her young married life in a kitchenette. “I remember feeling bleak when I was taken to my honeymoon home, the kitchenette apartment in the Tyson on 43rd and South Park,” she wrote in her autobiography, Report from Part One. In those early years of marriage, Brooks was dealing with endemic racism and near-poverty as well as forging her poetic voice. She had been writing poetry since she was a teen, but in a workshop of Chicago’s brightest African American poets led by the socialite Inez Cunningham Stark, she began to broaden her vision. She soon learned to incorporate conversational and syncopated rhythms, people and personalities, and urban settings—as Langston Hughes, an early and enduring influence on Brooks, had done beginning in the 1920s. Brooks would eventually combine the details and observations of her life on the South Side with formal techniques she had mastered early on. Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 to enormous acclaim, though much of it was tinged with racism. In the Chicago Tribune, Paul Engle declared the book “an event of national importance, for 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. Her poems would be finely lyrical and delightfully witty without the fact of color ever being mentioned.”
Such statements are painful to read now, not to mention misleading. A Street in Bronzeville, like all of Brooks’s work, is deeply committed to capturing the experience of black folks in their homes and communities. Both the form and the content of the poems depend upon their context. The second poem in the book, “kitchenette building,” treats the housing issues that, because they figured so largely in her life, would figure so largely in her work: sections of her later novel Maud Martha and all of her long, strange, brilliant poem In the Mecca take on the scene first sketched out in the four stanzas of “kitchenette building.” The poem was immediately recognized by many as one of the book’s strongest, and both its subject matter and its style were regarded as harbingers of things to come. But the poem also gave Brooks instant credibility. As Richard Wright noted, “Only one who has actually lived and suffered in a kitchenette could render the feeling of lonely frustration as well as she does. . . . Miss Brooks is real and so are her poems.” That kind of endorsement was enough to propel Gwendolyn Brooks to real fame, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
Brooks begins “kitchenette building” with a plural “we,” seeming to speak for the crowded subjectivity that develops as a result of life in such close quarters—individuals blur, literally “gray in” to one another:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray.
But the poem’s opening initiates an even larger attack on the accepted view of what constitutes an individual; not only is “I” absent, but “We are things”—not acting agents but objects acted upon, by time (“dry hours”) and circumstance (“involuntary plan”). In such a world, ideas carry their own kind of agency, which is why “Dream” gets to be the subject of its own sentence:
“Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
Paired with the snatches of overheard speech, “Dream” could be an utterance—to speak of your lofty dreams is to be frivolous—or the concept of dreaming itself; it’s unclear whether the word is a symbol or a substitution or an escape. “kitchenette building” is built around a series of such metonymies. Metonymy is the rhetorical device that substitutes a part of something for the whole. Unlike metaphor, which is based on similarity, metonymy is based on contiguity or proximity. It’s a device that Brooks exploits to particular effect in “kitchenette building,” a poem that asks us to think about what happens to people when social forces squeeze them into smaller spaces and closer proximity.
In the second stanza, the dream is forced to contend with a series of sensory metonyms—“onion fumes,” “fried potatoes,” and “yesterday’s garbage.” The smells in the kitchenette building are indicative of the kind of life being lived there. Cooking onions become menacing when they produce “fumes”; the smell of fried potatoes is so ubiquitous that the dream must “fight” with them; and, most tellingly, the sanitary conditions of the building mean that garbage stays in the hall, “ripening” and mingling with the other common smells. Against such olfactory concreteness, the “dream” is barely allowed substance. It remains a stopped-short series of adjectives (“Its white and violet”) and a series of verbs that correspond to contradictory subjects (people “sing” while things “flutter”). Hazily described, it’s unclear whether the “dream” is one of personal ambitions, or goals of social justice, or a reverie, or even the condition of being asleep. This stanza is pitched in the hypothetical “could,” and the uncertainty of what kind of dream is being dreamed means that the words used to describe it are bound less by proximity than by similarity. “Flutter” is similar to what your heart might do when you think about a goal, or a life ambition; “an aria” might very well describe someone’s fantasy of becoming an opera singer, or the experience of a listener immersed in one of opera’s most beautiful moments. The world of the kitchenette building is also the world of a dream that slips away into symbol and metaphor.
When the hypothetical situation is completed, in the third stanza, the ”dream” has literally vanished and been replaced by the pronoun “it,” which appears four times in three lines:
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
The note of suspicion is new: “even if” the residents of the kitchenette building were willing to allow the dream into their lives, “to let it in” and tend to it, Brooks sees no guarantee that it could still overcome the very real obstacles of the previous stanza. Like the poem’s opening, which showed us a universe in which people were “things,” this stanza suggests that agency and self-determination in the kitchenette are problematic at best. How can the choice to not entertain a “dream” actually be a choice if it is made based on harsh social and economic realities? But even as the stanza posits an uncomfortable paradox, its aural effects work effortlessly. Here, and throughout the poem, the first and final end rhymes seal off the stanza, closing doors opened earlier (“stanza” means “room” in Italian). Brooks is an accomplished rhymer, and this stanza in particular knits itself together through sound patterning, scooping up meaning as it trips along. “Even” chimes with “we” and later “very” and “clean”; you can hear it in the final “be” of “begin.” Likewise, the short “I” in “if” is picked up in “it in” and “anticipate.” The repetition of “it” pushes the stanza forward faster, aping the way an anxious brain spins out contingencies even as it knows it can’t handle them.
“kitchenette building” seems to pose a simple question: can dreams survive the impoverished material conditions of life in a kitchenette building? And the final stanza seems to give a definitive answer: not really. “We” can’t “wonder” about the potential of dreams to thrive—or we can’t wonder “well” and not for anything longer than a “minute.” The closeness of the kitchenette building, in which things are substitutes for people, reasserts itself as “Number Five”—the person, not the apartment—leaves the communal bathroom down the hallway and “we think of lukewarm water,” yet another example of substitution, this time for a bath. The poem’s final clause could be construed as entirely deflating: after the preceding stanzas, our only “hope” is that we manage to get the tail end of someone else’s hot bath. The cramped world of the kitchenette, built from proximities and compromises, overtakes the poem’s final lines as the metaphorical stirrings of the second stanza give way to yet more commonplace metonymies. Yet the poem itself is testament to the urge to dream, to fantasize, to project and plan. Even if a whole minute can’t be spared to wonder, the seed of wondering has been planted. There are other moments that make the ending seem less pessimistic than it might first appear. The final clause—“get in it”—reaches back across the previous stanza to revise “let it in,” and small reversals happen throughout the poem: after all, the poem starts “dry” and ends “wet.” While carefully avoiding simple optimism, “kitchenette building” offers itself as hopeful about the role of art, and of form, in shaping even the toughest of life experiences. The poem packs in the contradictions of life in the kitchenette, even as it orders the process of thinking through those contradictions. Poetry might not provide answers, but crafting it at least allows questions to take shape.
Six years after A Street in Bronzeville, Langston Hughes published one of his best-known and most renowned books, Montage of a Dream Deferred. Brooks’s poem presages that longer work in significant ways. Like Montage, which famously asks “what happens to a dream deferred?,” “kitchenette building” doesn’t tell us that dreams can’t survive racism, or poverty, or unsanitary living conditions; nor does it tell us that they can. Brooks’s poem shows us—through aural effects, rhetorical devices, even syntax—the ways in which reality under such adverse conditions is complicated. ”kitchenette building” is as full of sounds and smells and energy as it is shot through with compromise, loss, and despair. It offers no tidy answer, no simple statement. Though Gwendolyn Brooks felt bleak confronting her first home as a married woman, in time she felt other things, including joy and even inspiration. A few pages after her honeymoon arrival in the Tyson, she describes “623 East 63rd Street, our most exciting kitchenette.” Perched on a corner above a real estate agency, Brooks alleges, “If you wanted a poem, you had only to look out a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing. We gave a party for Langston Hughes.” The world of “kitchenette building” is one that requires an imaginative response, even as it makes it difficult for that response to develop unimpeded. In fact, Brooks might argue that the torturous journey her poems were required to take helped make them poems at all.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...