Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Eros in Democracy

“An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire.”
Painting by Jacob Lawrence titled, "Virginia Interior." Painting is of a bedroom.

Why does a book-length poem called Riot (1969), which details the civic unrest in 1968 Chicago after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, conclude with not a bang, as it were, but with an intimate domestic scene between two lovers? What accounts for this private, interior, semi-erotic tableaux? Encountering it in an anthology, you might think this poem reads almost like a traditional love lyric. Most political poetry does not — imagine, say, Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy” ending with a bedroom scene. It’s much easier to imagine a version of Riot that ends with a hortatory, impersonal, from-on-high vision of renewal, something like W.H. Auden’s “we must love one another or die” or Audre Lorde’s “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.”

In fact, when Riot was anthologized in the Library of America’s The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, this third section was left out, presumably because the editors considered it less important than the first two sections, which are, on a superficial read, more overtly “political.” But what I want to argue here is that in some sense the real politics of this poem lie with its ending — that you cannot omit the ending without neutering or, in some sense, whitewashing Brooks’s vision. In some ways this poem is more political and original because of this tiny lyric.

The third part of Riot is the shortest of the three sections, taking up little more than a page. It comprises seven stanzas, several of which are one line. It reads, in full:

It is the morning of our love.

In a package of minutes there is this We.
How beautiful.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other,
are responsible props and posts.

A physical light is in the room.

Because the world is at the window
we cannot wonder very long.

You rise. Although
genial, you are in yourself again.
I observe
your direct and respectable stride.
You are direct and self-accepting as a lion
in Afrikan velvet. You are level, lean,

There is a moment in Camaraderie
when interruption is not to be understood.
I cannot bear an interruption.
This is the shining joy;
the time of not-to-end.

On the street we smile.
We go
in different directions
down the imperturbable street.

Because this section is quite different from the first two sections of the poem, which are polyvocal, fragmentary, and overtly sociopolitical 
in nature, to read Riot is to have to ask why it ends with an invocation of individual and — crucially — erotic renewal.

I would offer two interconnected answers. For one thing, Brooks wanted, I think, to push back against the popular white vision of an undifferentiated mass of rioters. (See, for example, the lines in section one when the rioters are seen by the white John Cabot: “the ‘Negroes’ were coming down the street / ... / They were coming toward him in rough ranks.... / They were black and loud. / And not detainable.”) Instead, “Riot” concludes with an indelible portrait of black people as individuals — in this case, as giddy, optimistic lovers, not as “types” or “rough ranks.” But I also would argue, as importantly, that Brooks wanted to reinscribe a Whitmanic vision of democratic ideals in terms of the political goals reflected in the Black Arts Movement — to ring a change on the dominant poetic vision of American democracy. What I am suggesting is that this poem’s evocation of two people going to bed together, rising, and then walking down a street “in different directions” is for Brooks a model of the possibilities of an egalitarian society. In her view, to model that society one has to begin, as Whitman did, with the tender connection between two people. In her book Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, the critic and poet Evie Shockley has described one aspect of Brooks’s work as a kind of “changing the subject,” and that is, I think, an apt way of describing what she does here.

But first let’s look at the poem. Riot has been relatively neglected within Brooks’s canon, mainly because its political subversiveness led critics of the time to dismiss it. Because this section in particular has received little attention, I want to offer a close reading of it — 
after all, part of my argument is simply that this work as a whole merits close critical scrutiny of the sort that it largely has not received, and that this section is crucial to understanding the whole work. 
I would like, too, to complicate the cut-and-dried pre- and post-1967 narrative about Brooks’s prosody — a line I know Brooks herself drew, and which Carl Phillips has written about here — by noting how much this piece of the poem is still influenced by Brooks’s erstwhile modernism, in particular by T.S. Eliot.

To my ear The Waste Land is a shadow text behind Riot. There are the surface allusions and overlaps: the title of the second part (“The Third Sermon,” like “The Fire Sermon”; the reliance on “Fire” as a destructive and renewing element). There is the sonic overlay of “waste land” and “warpland.” And there are the textual resonances: the use of capitalized words spoken by some external, unidentified voice; the disjunctiveness of the prosody; the difficulty we find in locating a central speaker; the alternation of longer and shorter lines. America, Brooks implies, is a kind of waste land following King’s death, not because the unrest is unjustified — indeed, the poem appears to suggest that, given American history, riot is a legitimate avenue for political reform. Rather, it’s a waste land because of the very injustice and oppression that led to the riots. But for Brooks, writing about revolution does not mean eschewing entirely the techniques and influences of the poets whose work informed her as a young poet.

This section is different from the two that precede it. It is not, strictly speaking, highly elliptical in its treatment of its subject. Tender in tone, the poem paints a vivid picture of two lovers in a room, getting ready to leave it. Maybe they’ve just woken; certainly, they’re just getting out of bed. There is a distinct first-person speaker, speaking to a “you” who appears to be a new lover. But, it’s worth noting, for most of the poem Brooks uses the first person plural pronouns (“we” and “our”), emphasizing the couple and its unity. A few of the lines — including the first — are in an iambic tetrameter, and many others are in something close to it. So a kind of shadowy order is always about to come into focus beneath the free-verse rhythm. (Partly it’s this that brings Eliot to mind: many of his poems play with iambic tetrameter or a four-beat line.) The central action of the poem happens about halfway through: “You rise. Although / genial, you are in yourself again.”

These lines — to state the obvious — suggest a literal rising from bed following the entanglement and self-forgetfulness of sex. With rising comes a reassuming of individuality and separateness; in fact, the lines are a very beautiful description of an almost universal moment. Given the broader context of the poem, though, we also have to take the verb “rise” here in its metaphorical guise: “you rise” is also evocative of a post-riot social renewal of blacks in America, a 
vision of what is happening on the streets of Chicago — a rising against oppression.

This gesture, the crux of the poem, stages the poem’s subsequent shift from erotic entanglement to a clear — and arresting — view of the other as other. The speaker suddenly sees the “you” as a distinct human with his or her own intentions and physical qualities, and, implicitly, needs and rights. In fact, the next two descriptive lines are unlike anything else in the poem: they slow the poem down and almost seem unnecessary, until one realizes that they crucially enact and embody the act of witnessing the other. The speaker doesn’t just acknowledge the lover, but bears meaningful testimony to his irreducible being:

I observe
your direct and respectable stride.
You are direct and self-accepting as a lion
in Afrikan velvet. You are level, lean,

The adjectives are worth pausing over — “direct,” “respectable,” “self-accepting,” “Afrikan.” Nearly all (except “Afrikan”) are explicitly qualitative. Note, too, that this is the one place in the poem the “we” breaks down into “you” and “I.” Here, Brooks is reinscribing agency and personhood to the lover, rejecting the kinds of reductive, racist narratives white society has traditionally imposed. In their place, she introduces a fresh, new, particularized vocabulary of 

The other significant action of the poem comes at the end: “We go / in different directions / down the imperturbable street.” Here we find an example of Brooks’s double vision — the way she is trying to capture a sensation of both connection and separation. The lovers, still giddy from a night of “wonder,” walk freely “in different directions.” On the one hand, this is a literal description of a couple parting. On the other, on a deeper level, the description is a kind of completion of the individualization we saw earlier: having been connected, giddy, and hopeful in the “morning of their love,” they must part, moving into their regular days. They are at once plural and singular.

That word “imperturbable” is worth pausing over, as it does a huge amount of work in the poem. It means “not to be confused or disturbed.” The jacket copy on the back of Riot tellingly describes the riots as “disturbances.” So within the materialist presentation of the work — Brooks had input, as far as I understand, on how this edition was made, working closely with Broadside Press and with Dudley Randall — “imperturbable” is a countervision, a counterhistory. It evokes an undisturbed street or a street where riots are no longer necessary. On such a street, the lovers can part and move on into their lives. It is a vision of a future democratic society: a social space of calm.

But I suspect there is something else going on here too. Around the time of the publication of Riot, Brooks found herself in the position of being criticized from both sides. Conservative white critics had criticized her for abandoning her “traditional” forms — the tightly made sonnets and persona poems we saw in A Street in Bronzeville and other books. But some in the Black Arts Movement thought her work was not radical enough. She was older than many of the younger members, and her earlier body of work suggested an uncritical participation in a hierarchical “white” literary world. Some, like Haki R. Madhubuti, saw her work’s connection to modernism as a kind of capitulation to white values, an abandonment of black identity and its aesthetics. And so one might read the end as an expression of Brooks’s hope that within the black community there could be a unified understanding that renewal might go hand-in-hand with people going in different directions (i.e., that there would be different — and perhaps equally valid) visions of what change ought to look like. Notably, “in different directions” was sufficiently important a phrase that it was used as the title for a 1975 selection of her poems in the Library of Congress’s Quarterly Journal — presumably chosen by her, or at least used with her approval.

Clearly Brooks found it necessary to shift her focus to individual intimacy in order to conclude this big poem about social equality and social revolution. To me, there is an important connection here with Walt Whitman, another of our great political poets. In many ways this poem makes an implicit response to, and necessary corrective of, Whitman. Whitman’s poetry had at its heart a vision of democracy that depended on the eros between two individual members. “Song of Myself,” it is worth remembering, was written partly in response to the deep racial divisions in the United States in the years before the Civil War; in it, Whitman articulates a vision of democratic unity grounded in erotic love between people (and across time).

As Whitman stages it, erotic love is the glue that binds democracies — a model for democratic feeling, a kind of erotic pluralism. What democracy demands of us, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, is that our feeling for our fellow citizens is stronger than our distrust or suspicion. And one way that happens, she argues, is through love and sympathetic identification that expand our “circle of concern.” “All decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love,” she writes; her thesis is that art is one of the primary ways a liberal society achieves such sentiments. We rely on powerful works of art to jolt us out of the divisive feelings that, as she puts it, “inhibit our dealings with one another.”

Whitman’s visionary poetry, in Nussbaum’s view, is an example of one such artifact. Of his famous elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” she writes, “Participating emotionally in Whitman’s poem, readers are summoned to throw their full hearts into the search for an America that does not yet exist, but which might become reality.”

This insight — that a kind of eros of identification might enlarge us — was of course central to Whitman’s work, and to his project of radical identification with the other. Likewise, in Brooks’s poem, as in Whitman’s, equality is driven by a kind of caritas/love that must be figured in the intimacy of the body if it is to succeed as a powerful 
symbol for the broader group. But there is a major difference between them. Crucially, while the first two sections of Brooks’s poem feature white people who don’t get it, so to speak — “But WHY do These People offend themselves?” one says in section two — this section includes no white people (or none that we know of). In this way Riot participates in the Black Arts Movement’s aesthetic attempt to construct a way of talking about black people and black life that didn’t have to include or deal with white people, that didn’t need white people to be part of the discourse. The vision in this section is inclusive of blacks but in some sense indifferent to or even exclusive of whites.

In offering this as its culminating democratic vision, Riot enacts a kind of “changing the subject,” to borrow again from Shockley’s characterization of what Brooks excelled at. If Whitman, as a white man in 1855, was saying, “We are equal, you are like me,” when he wrote “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Brooks, as a black woman in 1968, is saying to the white reader, “We are equal, so much so that I don’t even have to include you in my portrait of an egalitarian world — that is how far we have come.” In this way, the end of Riot enacts change even as it envisions it. It concludes with a vision of democracy that, unlike Whitman’s radical universalism, is primarily pluralistic, reinforcing the idea of important differences within the larger group. All may have equal value, but they walk “in different directions” — an image quite different in affect than Whitman’s image of atoms 

It’s something of a critical truism that the United States has a particularly impoverished tradition of politically engaged literature. It’s also something of a critical truism — or at least an oft-invoked quandary — that, as Auden put it, in his elegy for the poet W.B. Yeats, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But Riot, like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, reminds us of precisely what poetry can do that is different from prose. That is, poetry is able not only to articulate a vision, but to embody it. Poetry works on the limbic system, through the lyric qualities of music. This tradition of American embodiment is crucially somatic and ultimately hopeful in the way it crosses bridges 
and gives voice to the traumas of the culture at large and of people in particular.

Brooks’s poem ends with a vision of an “imperturbable” street. As we know, that street is not yet here. And so her challenge remains one we have to take seriously. Riot, like much of Brooks’s earlier work about the violent history of lynching, demands the reader ask what she might be blind to: What can I not see or what am I missing? What does a vision of pluralism mean, and how might we walk someday, in different directions, along an imperturbable street?

There is an idea in medicine of the illness that one is blind to or in denial about — anosognosia, the illness that one has to be told one has. It is an illness so embedded in your subjectivity that it seems normal to you. Of course, it strikes one upon hearing this term that a culture too could suffer from anosognosia. Riot succeeds, to a surprising 
degree, in forcing the reader to confront her own possible blindness — 
to confront the social ills she is complicit in, the ways a society can accept deep wrongs as “normal” without consciously intending to do so. What hasn’t been fully understood, though, is how this tender, highly structured, modernist-influenced, and strangely intimate last section of Riot is crucial to the poem’s achievement.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Poet, essayist, and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1976.  She is a graduate of Yale University and holds an MFA in writing from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.  From 2005-2010 O’Rourke was poetry co-editor for the Paris Review, and in 2000 she was...