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'To find kisses pressed in books': One Hundred Years of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

In this year, the centennial celebration of the writer Gwendolyn Brooks, I attended the National Black Writers Conference Biennial Symposium aptly titled “Our Miss Brooks.” One of the conference organizers interviewed me and asked something to the effect of “what would the literary landscape look like today without the work of Gwendolyn Brooks?”

What a terrible thing to imagine, even hypothetically. I answered the only way I could.

“Blank.” I said. “It would look blank.”

Some illustrations: what immediately comes to mind is that we’d have no poem “We Real Cool.” (Who doesn’t know this poem?) My friend and mentor, the poet Steve Davenport, says “I've used ‘We Real Cool’ in a keynote speech at Roosevelt University in Chicago and every first day of Creative Writing 100 at the University of Illinois.” Poet Arielle Greenberg says “I read ‘We Real Cool’ as a child—it was probably one of the first poems I ever read on my own. And it blew my mind. The concision, the use of slang, the unusual epigraph. It opened the possibility that poetry could be modern, relevant, dark, funny, wild, young. I have luckily never recovered.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve personally taught “We Real Cool” as an example of everything poetry can be and does and I know there are more people out there with their own “We Real Cool” stories.

But let’s take it even further. No “We Real Cool” the poem, no We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks. No “We Real Cool” with its epigraph “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” And no Golden Shovel—the form invented by poet Terrance Hayes. To quote Don Share on Terrance’s poem “The Golden Shovel”:

Hayes’s inaugural poem in the form gave the form its name, and takes its title — and much else — from Brooks’s cherished “We Real Cool.” In fact, the Hayes poem absorbed every single word from the Brooks poem, and it did so twice. “The Golden Shovel” is a tour de force, so practitioners of this new form have both Brooks and Hayes to live up to. In Brooks’s poem, you’ll recall, the pool players — “Seven at the Golden Shovel” — are larger than life, facing mortality and bigotry with defiant, memorable verve. These young men will “die soon,” perhaps; but in poetry, they are, like the poem itself and Brooks’s legacy, immortal.

No Golden Shovel, and no anthology The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. Emphasis on “new”: no Gwendolyn Brooks, no “We Real Cool,” no Terrance Hayes “Golden Shovel,” no “new poems.” No Golden Shovel and no “Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel” in Tyehimba Jess’s magnum opus Olio—and who wants to live without that work in the world?

Perhaps this is partly the legacy of “Our Miss Brooks” and the legacy of Black American poetry. Without black poets digging with precious metals, American poetry would be so much the poorer for it.

It’s easy to point to the significance of “We Real Cool” as crucially important and imperative to American poetry. But let’s not forget that Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer in 1950 for her book Annie Allen, a sweeping poetic narrative in three parts that chronicles the life of Annie, a “forgot” black woman in Chicago, as she matures from the romantic fantasies, to romantic disappointments, to being “tweaked and twenty-four,/Fuchsias gone or gripped or gray.” The centerpiece to Annie’s story is the epic poem “The Anniad,” described by  Marilyn Hacker as a poem that “recalls The Iliad or The Aeneid, implicitly comparing their subjects: heroes who go to war, women who stay at home and wait for them. It is written in seven-line rhymed stanzas of trochaic trimeter, in elaborate polysyllables.” Like poet-critic Evie Shockley, I see this poem as more than recalling these classic epics, but as a significant epic in and of itself, one that is deliberately positioned to intervene in the trope of the epic hero and elevate the lives of African American women to significant and epic proportions. Whatever war there is in “The Anniad,” the “hero” who goes to war is not Annie’s husband (the “man of tan”) but Annie herself, in her small-scale but equally destructive war in her kitchenette apartment in a racist society. In a sense, Annie is always at war, always engaged in a battle between her imagined possibilities and the reality.

Wikipedia calls “The Anniad” a “mock epic” and in her chapter “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems,” critic Hortense Spillers suggests that “A pun on the 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.” I would go a step further and say that the backdrop is oppressive in addition to unresponsive. Shockley differs with the assessment that this poem is primarily ironic or to be taken as mock-epic and instead argues that “‘The Anniad’ can and should be read as a poem whose scope and form staked its claim to the status of legitimate epic.” I am in agreement with Shockley that this poem is taking its subject matter and historical references seriously. According to an interview with Brooks as quoted by Shockley, Brooks’s explanation of the title was “‘Well, the girl’s name was Annie, and it was my little pompous pleasure to raise her to a height that she probably did not have, and I thought of The Iliad and said I’ll call this ‘The Anniad’.”

This interview, however, took place some fifty years after the poem appeared, and perhaps it might be more complicated and deliberate than Brooks lets on. The book’s original title was Hester Allen and the epic party piece was slated to be called “The Hesteriad.” As the poem deals so much with the pitfalls and follies of love and other idealistic fantasies, under the title of “The Hesteriad” I would be more inclined, like Spillers and other critics, to read this poem ironically as the title seems to be no more than a deliberate pun on the Victorian notion of “female hysteria.” The change to Annie Allen befits Brooks’s penchant for alliteration and steers the poem away from the ironic effects of hysteria and links it firmly to Virgil’s Aeneid. I find Shockley’s arguments as to the poem’s seriousness convincing and I am prepared to take Brooks’s long poem not as a mock epic or as an ironic statement, but as an “honest to goodness epic” intending to seriously engage the genre on multiple thematic levels.

At the start of the book Annie Allen and the poem “The Anniad,” Annie is a romantic dreamer “Fancying the featherbed” and “Waiting for the paladin” man of her dreams. To prepare herself for this eventual meeting, she works at “Taming” her “black and boisterous hair,” presumably straightening and hot-combing it into submission and conformity with white supremacist expectations of female beauty. Her “man of tan” is elevated to an almost godly role in her mind long before he ever appears. But appear he does and Annie welcomes him as a savior and a pathway out of her limited options, represented by her birth and life in a “pinchy” room in the home she shares with her critical and oppressive mother. Annie dreams of palaces but this tan man instead “Leads her to a lowly room,” “the path his pocket chooses.” Nevertheless, Annie sets to work and “makes a chapel” of the kitchenette apartment. Annie has a favorable impression of herself and what she deserves. She feels this apartment is beneath her but she “genuflects to love” it anyway, forgoing some of her dreams and ideals in the short run to hopefully get her desired outcome in the long run. Annie seems to know she doesn’t belong here but she puts her efforts into making do.

This less-than-ideal scenario is not unlike the one Aeneas finds himself in in the early parts of his tale. Annie feels destined for more despite her mother’s negativity and the reality of her social oppression. Aeneas is destined and prophesied for greatness (the founding of Rome) but he is less than ecstatic about this challenge. When Aeneas lands in Carthage he knows that this is not the sacred and prophesied land where he is supposed to found Rome, but Dido is very convincing and Aeneas is willing to settle down and build a home. Dido urges him to “haul up your ships;/Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me.” The newly built city of Carthage is not the destined spot for Aeneas and the Trojans, but like Annie who lights “Tender candles ray by ray” to “Warm and gratify the gray” of the “lowly room” that becomes her domestic sphere, Aeneas is found laying “the stones for Carthage’s high walls,” “wasting [his] days” building the city of the Tyrians. Both protagonists are domesticating in places that they hope will house their dreams and the means to bring them to life. But Rome must be founded and the god Mercury is sent to rouse Aeneas from his domestic lethargy and send him on his way. Annie’s life is similarly disrupted: her tan man is called up to war and is sent to “The hunched hells across the sea.” The palatial life Annie once imagined vanishes in an instant. The potency and empowerment of war and European cultures means that when tan man returns, he finds that his home life with Annie is less than satisfactory, exclaiming “Not that woman! (Not that room!/Not that dusted demi-gloom)." More importantly, not Annie with her “chocolate” dark skin. He takes several light-skinned lovers described as “gorgeous and gold,” “maple banshee,” and “bad honey.” Tan man’s return from war abroad becomes Annie’s intraracial colorist war at home.

Overall the Tan Man is a mostly two-dimensional character: the most important thing about him, especially for Annie, is that he is light-skinned. Annie elevates this quality above all others, given that the Tan Man doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of materiality or personality. Unlike Dido whose desire for Aeneas is engendered by external influence of meddling gods, Annie’s internal desires create and “color” the external object of her desire. This image of her ideal lover, coupled with disdain for her own dark skin, can only lead to romantic disappointment. Annie must do battle with how she perceives herself perceiving how others perceive her: she can straighten her hair, rouge her cheeks, and stay with the Tan Man even as he seeks other lovers. Annie seems to think that her husband’s choice in lovers is determined by skin color. She describes them as being “gold,” “maple,” “honey,” and “vinaigrette.” Describing these women in terms of consumable foodstuffs is an opportunity for another reading that I won’t get into here. What is Annie to do with her wayward prince?

Like Brooks herself, Annie turns to the classics (the texts of Plato, Seneca, etc.) and to the traditional poetic trope of witnessing the passing of one’s life through the passing of the seasons. She consoles herself by physical immersion in the more-than-human world, seeking “solaces in snow,” “solaces in green,” “to summer’s gourmet fare,” and “to parks. November leaves.” This only works so well and in final despair she “Twists to Plato, Aeschylus,/Seneca and Mimnermus,/Pliny, Dionysus.” She tries to read or philosophize her way out of (or into acceptance of) her predicament. Plato banned poets from his ideal republic for their ability to encourage excessive emotions in others; Aeschylus is considered the father of tragedy; Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) is the god of ritual madness and ecstasy; at the opposite is Seneca as a proponent of stoic philosophy, and Mimnermus is best known as the writer of short, light love poem; Pliny authored Pliny’s Natural History, a catalogue of the knowledge known in his time.

As Brooks uses the epic convention to interact with classical works, she writes Annie as a self-styled philosopher linking her to a long tradition of philosophical thought as she navigates her contemporary world. Perhaps the plays of Aeschylus provide Annie with sympathetic characters, understanding, or methods for grieving one’s negative turn of events. The poems of Mimnermus may serve to indulge in and keep her imagination and hope for love alive. Perhaps Dionysus inspired her to pursue her own extramarital attempts at “forbidden taffeta.” If Dionysian revelry, indulgence, and wildness do not succeed then perhaps Seneca’s practical stoicism or Pliny’s rational (if limited) explanations of the natural world suggest viable alternatives to perceiving her problems. Brooks’s use of Annie’s engagement with these classical texts offers a way of revising masculinist and canonized approaches to literary articulations by putting Annie in possession and control of texts that readers of her time might consider as above her stature.

Having absorbed this new ancient knowledge, Annie dutifully returns to the domestic sphere and childrearing as the poem, and this phase of her life, nears its end. It is with some regret that I ultimately read Annie as unable to escape the strictures of patriarchal heteronormativity that she’s been born into, and that Brooks did not propel her past this limitation. But that might be asking too much of a poem that is very much of its time. If Annie is to be read as absorbing some of Dido’s qualities, she fares better than Dido who is cruelly manipulated by the gods into an all-consuming romantic neurosis. Dido falls irreparably in love with Aeneas because Cupid, the sun of Venus, has temporarily taken over the body and essence of Aeneas’s son Ascanius. Dido’s love and appetite for Aeneas (as encouraged by Cupid via Ascanius) is insatiable. When Aeneas departs Carthage to continue on his journey to find the homeland that will be the founding of Rome, Dido roams her city in desperation. These wandering movements are echoed by Annie who visits parks and walks through the passing seasons while the tan man has his affairs. Dido burns all of Aeneas’s remaining possessions and then falls on a sword in suicidal despair. In many ways Annie has already fallen on a sword of sorts, spending her dreams and youth on the Tan Man. As for the tan man, he succumbs to his unnamed “overseas disease,” hastened by drinking habits, and Annie cares for him in his final days.

By the end of the poem she is “tweaked and twenty-four” and “almost thoroughly done” [in]. Like Aeneas, Annie learns a hard truth about the differences between duty and desire. Death releases Dido from her distress over Aeneas, but it also releases Aeneas from his desire for her and frees him up to continue with his duty; death of the Tan Man releases Annie from her duty to him, a duty that is a transmuted version of her prior desire. With Tan Man as a constant reminder, one can imagine that his death releases Annie from being made to feel smaller, uglier, and less relevant to the world than she actually is. After all, she is the center of this epic and must, in some ways, be our epic hero.

Yet characterizations like that of hero or victim  lose hard definition in Brook’s masterful reworking of conventions and plot lines. Even in classical epics it becomes hard to solidly define the attributes of a hero, other than one’s ability to face and surmount a series of challenges imposed by outside stakeholders and circumstances. One way to read Annie’s potential heroism is how she maintains and recovers a sense of dignity when examples of presumed female desirability are flaunted in her face. Stoicism is but one reaction, and it doesn’t save Annie from other such “she can take it” tropes that are flung at Black women. Unlike Dido and Aeneas, Annie commands no immediate respect from her surroundings. Dido has her queendom, Aeneas is already the stuff of legends, and both are important enough to warrant interference by the gods, whereas Brooks describes Annie as “Whom the higher gods forgot,/Whom the lower gods berate.” It is one thing to be driven to suicide by romantic setbacks, another to push on when one knows that more trouble awaits on the road to a high-value destiny, and Annie shows that it is yet entirely another to push on after setbacks without any guarantee of a rewarding future beyond what she must make for herself within the confines of a white supremacist patriarchy.

This is but a beginning and incomplete reading of “The Anniad,” aided by critics like Evie Shockley who have rescued Brooks’s more obscure Modernist works with the intent to read them seriously and not as mock epics or mocking imitations of other genres. As Shockley notes, the poem deserves more attention for the way it engages with the avant garde tradition and its place among other long Modernist poems of its time. What I have hoped to do here is begin building on the more recent emerging criticism and offer a way of tracing epic influences in the “The Anniad” beyond some of the superficial linkages to the title by suggesting that Brooks was working to reconfigure recognizable epic roles and tropes into Annie, a woman who highlighted and responded to the specific racialized struggles of midcentury African American women.

I return to the question I was asked in the conference interview: “what would the literary landscape look like today without the work of Gwendolyn Brooks?” Thankfully, we don’t need to find out.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2017

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is a 2014 recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Poetry Fellowship. Her chapbook cutthroat glamours (2013) won the Phantom Press chapbook contest. Her first full-length book, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), was selected by Claudia Rankine as the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award winner and was a 2013...