Themes and Variations
New Looks at Gwendolyn Brooks.
The June 2017 issue of Poetry begins with a suite of poems that might inspire déjà-vu: Patricia Smith’s “A Street in Lawndale,” which features “The Old Marrieds,” “Kitchenette Building,” “The Mother,” and “A Song in the Back Yard.” Poems of strikingly similar titles appear in the early pages of A Street in Bronzeville, the first book by the legendary Gwendolyn Brooks, born a century ago this month. And Smith’s poems echo more than Brooks’s titles: the lines of each Smith poem start and end with the same words as the lines of the corresponding Brooks poem. They’re enhanced versions of Golden Shovels, a Brooks-inspired form recently invented by Terrance Hayes and explored at length in the February 2017 Poetry. With her golden shovels, Smith digs into Brooks’s work, reflecting, varying, and sometimes inverting the earlier poems’ themes.
The opening stanza of “A Song in the Back Yard” plays on the beginning of Brooks’s “a song in the front yard,” which reads:
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I’ve wallowed in the back yard all my life.
I want to slide ’round front
Where it’s gold-splashed and guarded and spined fragrance grows.
A girl gets a craving for rose.
Rather than yearn for the back yard, Smith’s narrator desires the front—and subtler adjustments mark her version, too. She doesn’t get tired of a rose; she gets a craving for rose. What to make of this variation, which turns the noun into an adjective? “Rose” could refer to the flush of white skin. Inspired by Smith’s flexible view of grammar, we might also detect the past participle of “rise,” which hints at the desire to rise in station—to do the opposite of “wallowing” and “sliding.” Those words suggest staying close to the ground, below the upright flowers (the “spined fragrance”) in the front yard.
These lines—and this use of “rose”—recall another Brooks poem entirely, “Riot,” which is cited in several essays in the June issue. It describes a wealthy white man, “all whitebluerose below his golden hair, / wrapped richly in right linen and right wool.” Here, rose is indeed an association with whiteness—and “gold” refers to blond hair. Perhaps “gold-splashed” describes not just the wealth of the people inhabiting Smith’s front yard, but also their physical attributes.
And perhaps the “spined” flowers reflect their owners as well: they illustrate not just physical but also moral uprightness. Or, at least, they appear to. At the end of Brooks’s version, the speaker declares her intention to invade the backyard, and to become like the people who spend time there. “I’d like to be a bad woman, too,” she writes, and wear black lace stockings, and “strut down the streets with paint on my face.” Smith’s ends with a similar declaration:
And I’m gonna be a righteous woman, too.
And wear a soft cardigan, cashmere trimmed in lace.
And stroll ’round all of Lawndale with this righteous on my face.
Again, Smith tweaks the usage of a word, converting the adjective “righteous” into a noun. The peculiar grammar matches the peculiar meaning: what does it mean to have “righteous” (or righteousness, for that matter) on your face? Doesn’t righteousness live in actions rather than appearances? This line implies a critique of the front-yard folk: they broadcast their station without truly embodying it. One accesses this sort of righteousness via cardigan and lace-trimmed cashmere (an echo, perhaps, of Brooks’s “right linen and right lace”); it is just as external as the makeup that Brooks’s front-yard character longs to layer on her own face.
The Brooks and Smith poems entitled “The Mother” describe more calamitous topics. Brooks’s elegizes the speaker’s aborted children, and in her adaptation, Smith focuses on another kind of maternal tragedy, another kind of aborted life—that of children lost to violence:
is that the you there is now, how the story of you will be said?
You were born — a gunshot, a swift blade — then you died.
It’s too much this way — even the child who killed you cried.
Believe. I loved you all.
Be. Leave me the sounds of still-thudding hearts. I grieve you
Smith describes loss within loss: not just the loss of a life, but also the loss of a story of a life. Then, through her diction, she provides a dizzyingly complex narrative perspective, as if to complicate those stories beyond the superficial three-part version she outlines above (birth, violence, death)—and, in so doing, to reclaim them.
Her lines ring not just with echoes of Brooks but also with their own sonic resonances: “story” and “born,” “said” and “blade” and “died,” “child” and “killed” and “still.” Words like “believe,” “loved,” “be,” “leave,” and “grieve” recall, affirm, and quibble with one another. “Believe,” she writes, and a line later, “Be”—a plea for continued existence, for life, and as such, an expression of her own hopeful belief. The next line, “Leave me the sounds of still-thudding hearts,” introduces death only to reject it: its beginning, “Leave me,” might at first seem a command for departure, even as the line goes on to beg for continuity—for life or for memory. “Still-thudding hearts” accomplishes a similarly intricate feat. It suggests, of course, hearts that continue to beat, yet the pun on “still” points toward motionless hearts, toward death. In these ways, Smith melds the wish for life with the acknowledgment of death, an entanglement expressed by the sonic similarities of “believe,” “leave,” “love,” and “live.” That same entanglement marks Brooks’s original, which Smith at once abides by and departs from—just as these stricken mothers hold onto, and withdraw from, their departed children.