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The Poetry of Close Quarters

July 15, 2014

Curtis Fox: And this is Poetry Off The Shelf form The Poetry Foundation, July 11th 2014. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the poetry of close quarters. In 1945, the great Gwendolyn Brooks published her first book of poems, “A Street in Bronseville”. It got a lot of attention for it’s formal qualities and for it’s intimate portraits of African Americans in a poor neighborhood. One short poem in the book stood out and still stands out. It’s called “kitchenette building”. It’s one of the core poems in the Learning Lab section of The Poetry Foundation’s website. The poem guide for “kitcehnette building” is written by Hannah Brooks-Motl. Hannah’s a poet and critic who lives in Chicago where she joins me fro the recording studio at The Poetry Foundation. Hannah, I know what a ktichenette is I think, it’s a small little kitchen. But what’s a kitchenette building? That’s not a phrase we use here in New York, maybe in Chicago.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Yeah, I think it was definitely an expression when Gwendolyn Brooks was living and writing. A kitchenette building was a building of apartments that had been carved up into smaller and smaller units. Bathrooms were often communal, so there were three or four families sharing a bathroom. As more and more African Americans came to the city for work, the unofficial segregation policy ensued, so there were more people than there was housing and kitchenette buildings became a way for landlords to accommodate people but also make a profit. They would charge high rents for these tiny places.

Curtis Fox: Gwendolyn Brooks though grew up in Chicago’s South side. She grew up in a house in Chicago. What’s her connection with a kitchenette apartment?

Hannah Brooks-Motl: She moved into her first kitchenette apartment when she married. She lived in a kitchenette for the first few years of her marriage, and it’s a situation or environment or architecture that’s in a lot of her work, up through the 60s when she’s no longer living in kitchenettes. Her long poem “In The Mecca” is set in a building which is an actual building in Chicago, the Mecca.

Curtis Fox: So she didn’t marry up (LAUGHING)

Hannah Brooks-Motl: No, her husband was also a writer. He didn’t publish as much but he was very supportive of her career and her work.

Curtis Fox: Okay, let’s hear it. Here’s Gwendolyn Brooks reading “kitchenette building”.

Gwendolyn Brooks: We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

 

But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

 

Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?

 

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Curtis Fox: That’s just a wonderful last rhyme, “not for a minute” with “hope to get in it”. I always thought when I read this poem until I heard you say what you just said, I always thought number five was child number five, but she’s actually referring to apartment number 5 because they share a bathroom. That’s quite a few people sharing a bath. Let’s go back to the beginning of the poem and the magnificent first line:

Gwendolyn Brooks: We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Curtis Fox: That sounds a bit like T.S. Eliot doesn’t it?

Hannah Brooks-Motl: It does. “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,” has a stateliness to it. When she reads it, and I was struck listening to this recording last night, how rye she is —

Curtis Fox: And casual.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: And casual. “Involuntary plan” is a definite contradiction; a plan is by nature of being a plan not involuntary. A dry hour, I don’t know what a dry hour would be. These are poetic flourishes but they do set up a theme. They allow for reversals to eventually happen in the poem. We start dry and we end wet.

Gwendolyn Brooks: We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray.

 

Hannah Brooks-Motl: The “grayed in and gray” — because kitchenettes reappear in her work, you can kind of track some of the themes that start in this poem. “Grayed in and gray” in her semi-autobiographical novel Modern Martha she has this meditation on gray and how living in this kitchenette building, sounds are gray, the sounds of people having sex next door are gray, smells are gray. it’s as if this color, it’s a weird synesthesia that takes over. Here I take it to mean that people are blending into one another, that your sense of where you end and the next person’s sounds and smells or comings and goings begin is a little hazy, a little blurry.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks: “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

 

Curtis Fox: Dream, in quotes she says that. What does she mean here by dream? Does she mean aspirations? Creative life? What do you make of that word dream?
 

Hannah Brooks-Motl: I think the fact that it’s in quotes is very telling. It’s followed by language also in quotes which I take to be overheard speech. There’s the sense that this is a word that doesn’t belong in this poem, that’s one thing I think the quotes are doing. It’s a word that is incredibly vague and abstract, especially when you compare it to the very concrete details we get later on.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks: But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

 

Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?

 

Curtis Fox: That’s a question in the poem, but the way she reads it doesn’t have a question intonation to it, and it’s really a rhetorical question is it not?

Hannah Brooks-Motl: When I was listening to it I feel like she puts the question mark at the end of the second stanza:

 

Gwendolyn Brooks: But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

 

Hannah Brooks-Motl: I heard the question float through the lines in ways that I didn’t when I was reading it because it goes on for seven lines, you forget that you’re in a question. I think the intent of this poem depends on whether you think it’s a rhetorical question or not.

 

Curtis Fox: To put it really simply or bluntly, isn’t she saying can dreams survive this poverty and oppression? The onion fumes, the fried potatoes, the garbage ripening in the hall; these are not nice conditions.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Definitely not.

Curtis Fox: I read it as a rhetorical question. It seems to me the answer is no that she poses in the poem. But the curious part of the poem is this:

 

Gwendolyn Brooks: Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?

 

Curtis Fox: We’re not necessarily willing to let in these hopes and dreams. It’s as if we’re not even going to open that door. It seems to be a profoundly pessimistic poem at this point.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Maybe not pessimistic, maybe it’s frank, realistic. Even if we were willing to let it in, and time to warm it; that’s a way of keeping the we in the poem safe from all the demands that spin out of letting the dream into the kitchenette apartment, wanting more, wanting different.

Curtis Fox: The final stanza is somewhat ambiguous in it’s answer to the question the poem raises.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks: We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

 

Curtis Fox: So the residents don’t spend much time wondering about whether their material conditions are squashing their dreams, they have an eye on more immediate concerns like getting a bath. This last stanza has such a cheerful bounce to it, especially with that last rhyme, “Not for a minute” and “hope to get in it”. So is it a positive poem, a negative poem, what do you make of it?

Hannah Brooks-Motl: I don’t know that it’s either. I think we want a poem to either say poetry can overcome oppression, or social forces quash all. I think in this last stanza it kind of makes fun of us for wanting or thinking that there can be a definitive answer to that question or a definitive tone to take. That a political poem has to be very serious or it has to be beleaguered. Your’e right that the wit in this final stanza is pretty amazing and it’s pretty funny as well.

Curtis Fox: It’s buoyant too. You can tell she’s amused when you hear her read it.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Right. I think the “We think of lukewarm water” — “we wonder” and then “we think” are interesting oppositions of verbs that happen there. What they’re thinking of is a tepid compound, but it’s also not cold.

Curtis Fox: It actually sounds pretty inviting in the poem, the lukewarm water.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Better than dry hours.

Curtis Fox: So one of the answers to this question that the poem raises is the poem itself, that it actually was written. She lived in a kitchenette building, and onerous as it may have been, she did manage to dream up this poem.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: And I think to show that fried potatoes, onion fumes, are things that are at a poet’s disposal. You see her using everything around her.

Curtis Fox: Even the running garbage. Okay Hannah, thanks so much.

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Sure.

Curtis Fox: You can read Hannah Brooks-Motls’ poem guide and dozens of other poem guides in the Learning Labs section of The Poetry Foundation’s website. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. The theme music for this program comes form the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

On Gwendolyn Brooks's “kitchenette building”

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