Prose from Poetry Magazine

Mundane and Plural

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Riot.”
Photograph of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Trauma tends to paralysis. The traumatized are struck, as in shock, into inaction in a posture of wordless gaping. After great pain, as we know, a formal feeling comes. The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs. Or, as another theorist of disaster, Maurice Blanchot, has written,

We feel that there cannot be any experience of the disaster, even if we were to understand disaster to be the ultimate experience. This is one of its features: it impoverishes all experience, withdraws from experience all authenticity; it keeps its vigil only when night watches without watching over anything.

Blanchot knows firsthand what it is to die and become alive again. In his miniature, post-traumatic memoir of the firing squad, The Instant of My Death, he tries to write, “feeling of extraordinary lightness ... sovereign elation,” when the guns were lowered and the squad “moved away.” At this moment of doubleness — “Dead — 
immortal” — he realizes that he cannot “try to analyze.” And then aftermath. Just so, the ecstatic dissolves. To be standing beside himself, or away from himself, out of himself, ex stasis, is also to be standing for himself merely. Mundane and plural: “As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him.”

An unarmed Missourian, Michael Brown, was shot to death on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, by a fellow Missourian and police officer, Darren Wilson. Mundane and plural. Please understand me: no individual death is mundane. Brown’s death is tragic and criminal, like Walter Scott’s — who was shot in the back three times by a South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager — and thus plural, many times over. The recurrent and persisting horror of police shootings of unarmed people, young people, people of color, young men, the 
history of our country’s worst horror and abiding shame that ranges from castration to lynching, one-at-a-time brutality as well as civil war — all our uncivil wars — is so recurrent and persisting as to appear mundane, the unmatched horror of seeing and living with brutality long settled into horrible habit and sanctioned, as it were, by the state, by the very state of things. In Brown’s case, the resulting response ranged from outrage — on all sides — to riots to calls-to-action, even to poetry. Yet I could not then write a poem. I have, since, written specifically about Ferguson, but like many, I imagine, the trauma, and anger, and sorrow are also finding themselves articulated, as Emily Dickinson said, at a slant.

What I did, on the night of the first riot, was not riot but read. 
I turned to two poems: Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and something by Gwendolyn Brooks I had read many years before and not since.

Riot is a poem and a book. A tiny book in three parts, a three-part poem totaling fourteen pages of print. It is a work markedly different from Brooks’s famous earlier works. It is not typically part of the Brooks canon — I mean those anthologizable, more easily teachable poems. “The Bean Eaters,” “We Real Cool,” the rich portraits and populated neighborhoods of Bronzeville with their old relatives and crazy women, their children of the poor, their gay chaps and pooh-poohing preachers, established her reputation so quickly that her second book, Annie Allen, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. She was the first black poet (she preferred this designation to African American) to win that prize. Here are the opening lines of Riot:

John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.

Because the Negroes were coming down the street.

Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.

What just happened here? Where are we? John Cabot? Who? Gone are many characteristics of Brooks’s earlier work: a fairly overt exterior narrative and linear chronology; a fixed or stable speaker, an individual “persona” in fact, with a voice lifted out of a Chicago South Side neighborhood and into (as she said) a “small second-floor apartment at the corner.” Gone are the distinct and distinctly drawn characters, the jazzy mood, the ballad and sermon and blues intonations of her earlier poems. What we have instead is an intense, 
interiorized, self-referential work that feels more fragmented than complete, more cubist, more elliptical, more postmodernist than finished or tidily coherent. Its references seem social though they are uncontextualized and unexplained; and it leads into the poem’s second section whose primary “strength ... is how it uses collage,” to cite a colloquium from Jacket2. What just happened here, in fact, is a riot.

Martin Luther King Jr. authorizes the poem with his opening assertion-epigraph that “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And although the poem does not confirm — rather it assumes this circumstance, as it assumes our complicity in knowing (and in fact we can’t not know what we know) — the triggering event is King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968, and the aftermath riots in Chicago, the West Side, or “race riots” in a city infamous for race riots, including the 1919 riots which featured heavily militarized police and thirty-eight deaths. The poem begins in the aftershock of trauma and seems to describe the fear and apparently, or likely, the death of one John Cabot, he of the “golden hair.”

Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr call this a “revisionary ... even aspirational, history.” Though the sources vary slightly, they all agree that nine to eleven people died in the riots, and all were black. So who is John Cabot? A fiction, a figment, a straw figure? We know the name from history books, if we look. John Cabot — Giovanni Caboto — under commission from Henry VII, explored swaths of this continent in 1497, claiming North America for England, one of the first colonial appropriations of the new world. And we know John Cabot, according to the Jacket2 critics, as the “name of an original Boston Brahmin, about whose family it is said and this is good old Boston ... where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God.” We know our John Cabot is indeed talking to God, or “any handy angel,” praying in horror: “Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” He sees the “windsweep” of Negroes 
coming down the street. He is grossed out by them. But “Gross. Gross” may describe his own appetite too, his outsized hunger for kidney pie and Grenadine de Boeuf, as for the other opulent aspects of his lifestyle, perhaps faux-European: fancy cars, fine clothes, rarified Scotch whiskey (though Grandtully is actually a cheap after-dinner liqueur as well as a Scottish village, pronounced grantly). As he lived, he seems — this sacrificial J.C. — to “die expensively today,” burning like the body of another holy martyr, John Wycliffe. Here is the poem’s second half:

Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot
itched instantly beneath the nourished white
that told his story of glory to the World.
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he
     whispered to any handy angel in the sky.

But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove
and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili,
malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old
averted doubt jerked forward decently,
cried, “Cabot! John! You are a desperate man,
and the desperate die expensively today.”

John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
and broken glass and blood, and he cried “Lord!
Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”

Aftermath: The poem seems to embody a tactic Brooks herself 
deliciously called “verse journalism”: “I’ve always thought of myself as a reporter.” But then, again, who is John Cabot? Is he not fictive rather than real? Does Brooks not seem empowered to imagine as well as document? Throughout Riot her poetic grows ever more complex and multiple, as even here, in this first section, her point of view is a superimposition, one on another, shared, plural, blended, yet also capable of, one-at-a-time, sympathy, culpability, and indictment.

Aftermath: Riot exists forcefully as an artful expression of chaos, the first coming-into-words utterance after a stunned stupor of assassination. Riot sounds like rage. But it exists with equal force and fixity as an expression of the poet’s confidence, her profound risk-taking, as she grows and develops. It’s not that Brooks is turning away from her earlier poetic self; rather, she is becoming her later self, more fierce if more elliptical. In 1967 she attended the second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University. The first conference, 1966 — in the aftermath of the Watts riots, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Medgar Evers — called for a new black writing, affiliated with the Black Arts Movement. In Riot we see Brooks helping to shape this aesthetic. We also see her opting out of a number of mainstream or established aspects: her celebrated signature idiom, her finesse with traditional prosody and form. (If this first part of Riot is loose pentameter, or at least in deca- and hendecasyllabic lines — like the King quote, in fact — the subsequent sections eschew such formalism, as Carl Phillips’s essay in this issue examines.) Elizabeth Alexander says about Brooks’s early work that she is “nothing short of a technical virtuoso” with an impressive formal range of “sonnets, ballads, spirituals, blues, full and off-rhymes.”

Brooks also opts out of other aspects of fame. Riot is Brooks’s first book after she decided to leave Harper & Row and invest, as it were, with a black publisher — in this case Broadside Press, which Dudley Randall founded in 1965 and ran out of his spare bedroom and, later, a church basement in Detroit. That is, Brooks shifts her own cultural capital from New York to the Midwest, from a white board of trustees to “community publishing,” in a decision James Sullivan calls a “profoundly anti-economic move.” It’s one thing to write black, to “maketh a brand new Black,” and a further one to say “I couldn’t possibly think of going back to any white publisher. I’ll always be with a black publisher.”

It’s true that Brooks later expressed some doubt about Riot. Perhaps it was, she said, too meditative. But what she calls meditative may be the powerful interiority of her new style. Certainly, it is not serene, it is not self-contained or self-reflective, it is not in its mood or method contemplative. It is powerfully dramatic, performed by a shifting cast of voices and not a single monologist; it is powerfully narrative, though its narrative field is highly elliptical, inferential, and as fluid as a photographic multiple exposure.

Aftermath: an unarmed citizen, Abraham Lincoln, was shot to death on April 14, 1865 (he died the next morning), in Washington, DC, by a fellow citizen, the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. The Civil War stands as a kind of sustained traumatizing riot, fought in the nation’s own backyards and neighborhoods; and Walt Whitman’s great poem, the lilac poem, stands as elegy not just for the martyred Lincoln, not just for the legions of sacrificed war dead, but for the ideal 
notion of perfectibility, democracy’s promising dream of equality 
and fairness. It was a riot of race, economics, and power. To express his grief, but also to enact a sympathetic martyrdom, Whitman dies, too, in his poem, his unsurpassed eloquence erased by horror and disillusionment. The great poet of the people retreats to a dismal inhuman swamp, giving himself over to grief. “Dead — Immortal,” says Blanchot. In this same double trope, Whitman is reborn in the song of the hermit thrush, who tutors him in nature’s forgiving and regenerative process. It is, we appreciate, one of the great acts of transcendental imagination. I’m sure that’s why I turned to it when the riots began. And why I turned to Brooks? If Whitman’s poem is a masterpiece of transcendence, Brooks’s is a masterpiece of something else entirely. She does not transcend, does not rise remade, reunified, or reinvented out of the erasures of history and nature; not for her the intimate or egotistical sublime. Computer scientists have a term, when they include one document (or let’s say one point of view, or voice, or tactic) inside or alongside another one: transclusion. Not to go beyond, but to reach beyond to include the other, or other things: textual blending, reaching out of, to attain the multiple. Transclusion is to carry from one thing to another, to overlay, not to go beyond, but to remain, enlarged. So this is the claim I make for Gwendolyn Brooks’s later art. It is a transclusive art.

For Whitman, the figure of Lincoln stood as a figurehead, the ideal representative man — to use Emerson’s term — a leader born straight out of the natural environment of the new world. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a similar esteem and position here in Brooks’s post-romantic, post-naturalist vision. But for us, of course, Michael Brown is not a heroic elected politician, a president, a revered leader of a church, nor a civil rights movement. He was and is, like us, more mundane; like us, plural. Yet in this way, he is also a representative man. Neither hero nor antihero. But now, like Walter Scott, like Freddie Gray, and so many more, one of many. Blanchot again is useful in his reminder: “This self is merely a formal necessity; it simply serves to allow the infinite relation of Self to Other.”

I know this one thing for certain. No one of us now — no one stunned self or Self — can supply a sufficient vision, a sufficient artwork, capable of addressing, representing, and correcting the horror of inequity, inequality, and human violence. This was Whitman’s 
realization, too, and it nearly killed him. It is what Kazim Ali points to when he writes: “When we think of a unified or singular American identity, we lose the chance to truly understand our selves and one another.” The really traumatic question is both plural and mundane. That question is, together, do we stand a chance?

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Though he is known primarily as a poet of the Midwest, David Baker was born in Bangor, Maine in 1954. He spent his childhood in Missouri and attended Central Missouri State University before receiving his PhD from the University of Utah. He has won fellowships and awards from the Poetry...