May 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"Stuff and Satin Aiming to Enfold Her": On Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks

A poet can be known and still somehow forgotten. This is how it seems to be with Gwendolyn Brooks, whose name now blots out her sonorous lines and sparkling turns of phrase in the memory of the masses. A fine tune of jazzy vanitas, "we real cool," haunts our anthologies with annoying frequency, but I'd guess this isn't due to admiration for its feline gait and enjambed doom so much as because it takes, like, a second to read. Desperate to hook the kiddies on poems, we lay waste our poets' powers, serving up meager fare. "We real cool" is hardly the zenith of her talent.

Would it be rude, reckless even, for me to suggest a racist force at work behind the raising of "we real cool" over all her other works? Iambic pentameter, Milton's mighty line, had long been marked off with yellow caution tape as the province of the paleface, and "we real cool" does little to suggest that we stand in the presence of a prosodic master, who could wield English meter with the grace and violence of a taut barracuda. It occurs to me that at least three black American masters, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Brooks, all loved to take the traditional sound of English poetry (I won't say meter and rhyme, which is too limiting) as both their point of departure and their homeland. I sense a feeling, unstated, that people want African-American poets to commit themselves to a hectoring vers libre -- rhetoric, rather than poetry. Perhaps because they feel it slices through the sea of static.

Odd, since the simmering rage of Brooks's more formal poems is the source of their power; their understatement is like a sudden slap. Few have evoked the boring terror of poverty as well as Brooks did in her "Bean Eaters":

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

The hard three rhymes prepare the way for the last line in the stanza, which is suddenly short like a retracted hand and which somehow manages to turn their cutlery into an object of sublime terror.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

Here Brooks returns to a rhythm that wouldn't be out of place in a Kipling poem, including on top of the rhyme the repetition of two syllable pairs ("two who," "putting"), and the effect is to evoke briefly a feeling of domestic comfort, of settling in for an evening of near silent routine. But then:

And remembering...
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

In the first line, she cuts short the rhythm, Kipling thrown off the beat, a great pause like a cloud lured in by the ellipsis. The next line is longer, and still full of a sense of soaring reflection. But then the final, most brilliant line extends with an amphetamine plenty, looping (in most printings) prosily back and forth across the page. The scarily plural detritus of the room, symptom of unredeemed time, surges forth to imprison memory again. Snuff it out like candle flame.

"The Bean Eaters" is an argument for poetry itself because no one could achieve its emotional effect in another form. Imagine this scene translated into narrative prose, how heavy and earnest it would feel -- room description and scenes of phoned-in social issues awareness, two things I tend to skim in novels. Or imagine a movie, the camera panning the flatware and receipts, while a violin whines. Mein Gott!

But the brilliance of "The Bean Eaters" is how the slowing and speeding up of the rhythm, falling almost into pace with a hopeful patter, does all the emotional labor. Read as prose, the last line is innocuous, even boring; read as the last line of "The Bean Eaters," the last line is like a stab in the heart. An empty observation, maybe, like observing that none of the notes in a melody is beautiful by itself, but only in relation to the preceding ones. I think, though, that this comparison gives us a useful clue. Poetry is more like music than like prose. The sound of it is everything.

The lecherous professor in Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, meditating on the hateful "communications skills" class he's forced to teach, makes some observations that I find disturbingly convincing:

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: "Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other." His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.

And in another Coetzee novel, a character singles out Americans for their mechanical speech, a rant occasioned by having to deal with a university library employee. I bristled patriotically at that, just a little, but I have to admit that my paisans, especially those in the urban managerial classes, tend to pride themselves on how machine-like they can make their speech, at least at work. (Off the clock they speak in a scatological freestyle.) But then, most work has become increasingly mechanical, and overexposure to machines may lie at the root of what Coetzee calls our hostility to song.

"The Bean Eaters" reminds me of La Valse by Ravel, a piece in which a Viennese ballroom number is subjected to gradual brain damage; the cheerfulness decays revealing the bone beneath. Both works describe and enact how song becomes eroded by mechanical particularities, until all song and rhythm starts to sound like a music box tune, tired and saccharine.

Another aspect of Brooks's genius was her ability to sound as if the sonnet form had been made to fit her words, rather than the other way around, a gift given to few, even the greats. ("Batter my heart three-person'd God" by Donne seems to me, at least today, like the exemplar.) In "God works in a mysterious way," named after and in conversation with a great Cowper poem, Brooks once again seeks the transcendent in world of dead things. But though the poem may read on its surface like a dense work of theology, once again it's the sound and rhythm that carries forward the surge:

If Thou be more than hate or atmosphere
Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves.
Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.

This English, repurposed from the King James Bible and a long line of Protestant hymns, manages to suggest a much deeper, darker relationship to the Divine Other, one infused with bitterness.

It was her ability to be nakedly bitter and sorrowful that also makes me love her poems. A weird pattern I see in current writing is that while many are willing to confess to their being depressed for no reason (see the anxiety underlying the "First World Problems" jokes) or outraged for a specific reason (see all of social media), very few seem inclined to declare themselves sad or bitter for a specific reason. Reasonable, appropriate sadness seems like a taboo, perhaps because it implies a loss of control, and, in the circles I move in, the supreme value seems to be the ability to manage every aspect of your life like an intricate spreadsheet. Brooks and her characters, though, are bitter and sad for very good reasons: poverty, loneliness, racism, death. And when the sadness comes, Brooks has no fear of showing it without the protective glaze of irony or intellect: In "the rites for Cousin Vit," her ear is a sure guide through dark woods:

Carried her unprotesting out the door.
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can't hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid's contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine.

And, as in "The Bean Eaters," Brooks slows the rhythm, breaks the stride to accommodate the appropriate emotion: "Oh oh." This is the sort of voluntary inarticulacy that few writers are smart enough to sparingly use. Loyalty to the original emotion, and the technical mastery needed to covey it -- Brooks had both of these qualities, a combination that occurs only in the most masterful writers.