Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gwendolyn Brooks and Displacement

I was reading some poems by Gwendolyn Brooks again, in preparation for teaching them. She was born in 1917 and died in 2000 and was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, if memory serves. Her most famous poem is "We Real Cool," which is indeed a great poem in an invented form, and a poem that's efficient in the way Dickinson's poems are. A great deal of business is transacted, so to speak, in just a few lines.

But Brooks' range was amazing, both in terms of style and voice and of subjects that interested her. Many of her poems are rooted in her neighborhood of Chicago (like "kitchenette building" and "The Bean Eaters"); indeed, the prize-winning volume is entitled A Street in Bronzeville.
She wrote excellent short narrative poems--"Sadie and Maud" is a famous one--and longer, more meditative pieces like "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith." She moves easily between more formal verse and free verse, is a virtuoso deployer of rhythms and diction, and displays a clear, sharp intelligence in every poem.

Partly because of temperament and partly because she started writing in the 1940s, she arrived a bit late at the political-activist eruption of the 1960s--but arrive she did. She changed publishers for activist reasons--in part to make her books more affordable for working people. She wrote some superb socially conscious poetry, including "Riot." Her homage-poem, "Malcolm X," is pithy.

Of her "neighborhood" poems, "the vacant lot" (yes, she uses no capitalization in the title) is one of my favorites. The speaker remembers the last three people--Mrs. Coley and her two children--who lived in the house that was removed to create the vacant lot. The memory is sharp and humorous, but one subtext of the poem is that the poem, the memory, is the last anyone will hear of all the history that occurred in that vacant lot. Circuitously, it's a poem about urban displacement, or urban revision, which seems constant.

I saw/heard Brooks read at U.C. Davis. Her husband was with her, and at her insistence, he read some of his poems after she did. He was a modest, wry man, and before he read, he said, "Simple logic dictates that I should have read first." We laughed, for who among us would have liked to read our poems right after Ms. Brooks had read? Of course, she had intended to honor him and his own work, but she'd put him in a tough spot, so she laughed, too.

In honor of her and her husband, I'm replicating the folly by posting a poem after talking about hers. Simple logic dictates that I should have started with my desultory poem and then moved to the main act, Gwendolyn Brooks. But no. That would have been too easy. As far as I know, this poem concerns urban displacement, too; hence the title, I reckon:


Well, I went downtown.
They’d moved it. Some dirty bricks
were left behind, some people.
A few old buildings stood—
rats in elevator cars, For Lease
signs in windows, stench of mayoral
promises in a dumpster.

I started screaming, couldn’t stop,
stacked echo on echo, splendid rage.
My outburst brought police. They
took me to a place to which
Downtown had been transferred.

For every question they asked,
I asked two. In the hasty move,
city ordinances had been
misplaced. No one
could specify with what I should be
charged. Upon my release, I asked
myself what’s right for me to do?—an
old-fashioned interrogative that
would have played well in Old Downtown
but not, alas, in the New Here District,
where bright, new office buildings
and slick, wee bistros will sit on
an immense investment of capital.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
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