Poems That Listen: A Celebration of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Centennial
This is the first of a series of posts honoring Gwendolyn Brooks during the month of her 100th birthday. I am honored to have curated the outstanding collection of poets who will bring insight on her life and work. The Brooks bloggers for June are: Randall Horton, Simone Muench, Evie Shockley, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Patricia Smith, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Matthew Yeager.
Listening, in my opinion, is perhaps the greatest activity in which a human can engage. Especially for artists. Yes, it is important to speak, and two of my mottos are “Why waste time on the mic?”—A Tribe Called Quest, and “Speak truth to the people”—the late Black Arts poet Mari Evans. Yet for decades, perhaps my entire life, I have dwelled in the sanctuary of lending an ear.
I am the youngest of six, with 12 years between my oldest sibling and me, and four years separating the sister closest in age. I spent much time in aloneness, a silence only tainted by television, the low hum of domestic violence, or Mama calling from work to check on me. My childhood was guided, directly or indirectly, by, at minimum, a great-grandmother and two grandmamas, seven aunts, five uncles, latch-key parents and a plethora of teachers, coaches, cousins, and friends. In the moments I wasn’t by myself I was incessantly talked to and at.
I was always listening, or at the least, receiving.
That said, I hungered for my parent’s and my sibling’s attention. And because I was a good kid, it rarely came.
I remember earning all A’s and one B on a 2nd grade report card. I cried and screamed like I’d been beaten. But this was rare behavior. Most of the time I bunkered in the uneasy solitude of imagination and sadness.
My senior year of high school I was referred to as the “Dear Abby of Enid High.” I was the shoulder and repository of my friend’s relationship and family dramas, from pregnancy woes to break ups. These folks rarely asked how I was doing because at an early age I’d learned to “front like I cope” (Digable Planets). And because I listened, made them laugh, and never had a girlfriend.
College was the same, in both repository and girlfriendlessness. As a journalism major, listening was a part of my career path as well. A path introduced as “the public’s trust” by an old-school teacher at Enid High that continues to inform my approach to writing in all genres.
I’m driven by writing words that listen—to themselves, to other words, to caesura, to the larger world of the poem and beyond, and to the reader. One cannot talk and listen at the same time—at least this is what I tell my students. But I believe language can accomplish both simultaneously.
In my mind this means crafting a syntax that, as per all poets, places a great agency on each individual word or utterance. A precision or exactness, as Miss Gwendolyn Brooks taught and exquisitely employed. That each word or silence is conveying my intent most specifically. This, of course, is not unusual for poets. Intent as in message and music. Intent as in visceral and physical. No wasted words, as Miss Brooks told us in workshop in 1996, the last semester-long class she taught at Chicago State University.
Miss Brooks in Report from Part One, the first of her two autobiographies, introduces us to “verse journalism,” but only offers two explanations of her invented form: “poet as all-seeing eye,” and “poet-as-fly-on-the-wall.” As an example, she references “In Montgomery,” the seven-page poem she wrote on assignment from Ebony Magazine in 1971. Miss Brooks and award-winning photographer Moneeta Sleet were sent to Montgomery, Alabama to assess life and change five years after the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Legislation. She also considered “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” as a precursor to her verse journalism construct.
Both of these poems, as well as dozens of others, engage in the work of seeing, speaking, and listening.
In “The Boy Died in My Alley” from to disembark, Miss Brooks engages a language with lingering ears that pays attention to itself, the poem, the reader, and the larger conversation of urban street violence, specifically on Chicago’s South Side, though it could be anywhere.
The poem’s opening immediately implicates the reader emotionally and physically, and offers no way out:
The Boy Died In My Alley
Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.
Only a truly insensitive being could read that stanza and not be moved. The poem’s first line both listens and speaks to the title, then crashes the reader into the cold disregard of police business, and the muddled empathy of the speaker. Miss Brooks’s decision to capitalize “Shots” proffers a chilling sensory experience of those utterances. They are alive and loud in juxtaposition to the flatness of the policeman, the distant plea of the resident’s response, and the everydayness of shootings and gunfire. The second line, “Policeman said, next morning,” is listening and speaking to the stanza’s last line—that the boy will not see another sunrise. That the boy “Apparently died alone” is both in stark contrast and even more stark attention to the fact that the resident, and others on the block, were close enough to hear the gunshots. The boy did not die alone, and his life was not the only one taken that night. The frightening depth and weight of “I never see the dead” is self-referential.
Then there is, of course, the music, the sonic textures of the stanza. The words lean on a succession of vowels, which aid in the cold quiet of the situation. They present an arbitrary sense of knowing. The soft consonants provide subterfuge, surprise and force to the brutality of “died,” in both sound and action.
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.
The resident/speaker in this stanza is affected, at the same time as the reader, by the tone and word choice Miss Brooks utilizes to make this pronouncement. We are affected both emotionally and physically, as is the speaker. How is the resident, and how is the reader to distinguish “The Shot that killed him…” from “…the Thousand shots before;”? We, as readers, are commanded to listen to this interrupted life, the circumstances of this interruption, and own our feelings and complicity.
Policeman pounded on my door.
“Who is it?” ‘POLICE!” Policeman yelled.
“A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?”
The third stanza is all sound and sense, and not simply due to the obvious, or literal, truth that we are listening to the policeman. Yet, as readers, we are made privy to this exchange, and the cruel ambiguity, inclusiveness, and knowing of the stanza’s final line. Similar to the work of “We” in “We Real Cool,” all of us know this boy. Whether one lives in homogeneous suburbia or the homogeneous South and West Sides of Chi-town, we all know this boy.
I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.
We know some by name, as their murders have made the news. Yet so many others we do not know by name, whose chalk-lines pattern our streets and psyches. The poem’s next three stanzas further the speaker’s awareness of and involvement in the boy’s death, including the knowledge of where he was going and hearing his cry that “…hung upon the heaven/for a long/stretch-strain of Moment.”
The closing couplet is an essential and classic “Gwendolynian” utterance:
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.
Biographer George E. Kent, author of A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, highlights Miss Brooks’s emotional and metaphorical use of color from a poetry notebook in which she wrote in her preadolescent years:
In the notebook entitled The Red Book or the Merry Book (1930), Gwendolyn carefully worked out her color symbolism:
red—ashamed, shame, disgrace, fiery, fierce
brown—songster, gleeful, ambitious
yellow gold—avaricious, desireful, love of riches
purple—beauty, beautiful, fine, artful
blue—heavenly, religious, pious
white—clean, righteous, pure
pink—blushful, pretty mountain maiden
black—flower of crime
Gwendolyn feels today that she was a victim of brainwashing.
Certainly Miss Brooks, nurtured by loving and doting parents and an evolving consciousness, learned to wholly love herself. But there’s no question the ridicule and social abuse she endured as a dark-skinned girl-child with coarse hair informed her poetry and young mind. Other than her feelings about the color black, this grid remained consistent in her poetry throughout her career.
Miss Brooks was fond of red. Consider how the color is featured prominently in the poem that I believe is her finest example of both verse journalism and poems that listen, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” Everyone on Earth and Mars should read this poem.
Returning to the closing couplet, note how all of her meanings for red are applicable and inform how we receive the last line. Both are in heptameter, or seven syllables, in length. This brevity, this quick gasp of matter-of factness, is an impactful departure from the lyrical storytelling of preceding stanzas.
The notion that the disgraced, ashamed, fierce, and fiery alleyway is in itself a form of communication is harrowing. That we must listen to its tongue, regardless of if we choose to listen, is what the poem and form demand. It’s what our conscience requires of humane humans, of neighbors and community. We all know this boy, if we choose to pay attention.
June 7, 2017 marks the centennial of Miss Brooks, one of the twentieth-century’s pre-eminent poets and voices of social justice. Miss Brooks was a bold and compassionate voice with an extraordinary perspective, as she explored an ever-changing political climate that encompassed decades of confronting oppression and illusion. In her quest to mirror the worlds she witnessed and closely capture the daily communities she navigated and inhabited, her poetry skillfully addressed issues of race, gender, class, community, and culture in ways that spoke to a diverse, even mainstream audience, while never losing her connection with home.