I don’t read much poetry. I don’t really read any poetry the way I did in my AP Lit class senior year of high school. It’s unfortunate, because there’s so much great poetry out there. But it’s also not surprising, because poetry can be difficult to read. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, and on the back of this book of collected poetry is this quote: “She is a very good poet, the only superlative I dare use in our time of misusage; compared not to other Negro poets or other women poets but to the best of modern poets, she ranks high.”
In reading this collection, I learned two things:
- Gwendolyn Brooks has a vocabulary that far exceeds mine. I spent many of these pages looking up words in the dictionary hoping it would help me better understand what she was saying. Sometimes it made all the difference; other times, I finished a poem and still had no clue. Maybe context would’ve helped, a teacher who knows the time period better and can fill in some gaps, but I definitely didn’t understand everything I read.
- Poetry needs to be read aloud. Seriously. It truly can make all the difference in catching nuance and meaning in phrasing that for whatever reason doesn’t translate when reading to yourself in your head.
While not everything I read resonated, there were some poems that crawled up under my skin and sat there. They had to be re-read several times in one sitting, and then left to marinate, and then read again on another day. Where you can sit and binge read a 500 page book, you can not do that with a book of poetry. Your brain might explode. Hyperbole aside, Gwendolyn Brooks has a way of talking about social issues, racial issues, that are for me, indescribable. But she captures a feeling–makes it so tangible–in a manner that often gets lost in prose. She says it all without having to say it all.
Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath
My proper prudence toward his proper probe
Astonished their ancestral seemliness.
It was a not-nice risk, a wrought risk, was
An indelicate risk, they thought. And an excess.
Howas I handled my discordances
And prides and apoplectic ice, howas
I reined my charger, channeled the fit fume
Of his most splendid honorable jazz
Escaped the closing and averted sight
Waiving all witness except of rotted flowers
Framed in maimed velvet. That mad demi-art
Of ancient and irrevocable hours.
Waiving all witness except of dimnesses
From which extrude beloved and pennant arms
Of a renegade death impatient at his shrine
And keen to share the gases of his charms.
They veer to vintage. Careening from tomorrows.
Blaring away from my just genesis.
They loot Last Night. They hug old graves, root up
Decomposition, warm it with a kiss.
The National Anthem vampires at the blood.
I am a uniform. Not brusque. I bray
Though blur and blunder in a little voice!
This is a tender grandeur, a tied fray!
Under macabres, stratagem and fair
Fine smiles upon the face of holocaust,
My scream! unedited, unfrivolous.
My laboring unlatched braid of heat and frost.
I hurt. I keep that scream in at what pain:
At what repeal of salvage and eclipse.
Army unhonored, meriting the gold, I
Have sewn my guns inside my burning lips.
Did they detect my parleys and replies?
My Revolution pushed his twin the mare,
The she-thing with the soft eyes that conspire
To lull off men, before him everywhere.
Perhaps they could not see what wheedling bent
Her various heart in mottles of submission
And sent her into a firm skirmish which
Has tickled out the enemy’s sedition.
They do not see how deftly I endure.
Deep down the whirlwind of good rage I store
Commemorations in an utter thrall.
Although I need not eat them any more.
I remember kings.
A blossoming palace. Silver. Ivory.
The conventional wealth of stalking Africa.
All bright, all Bestial. Snarling marvelously.
I remember my right to roughly run and roar.
My right to raid the sun, consult the moon,
Nod to my princesses or split them open,
To flay my lions, eat blood with a spoon.
You never saw such running and such roaring!–
Nor heard a burgeoning heart so craze and pound!–
Nor sprang to such a happy rape of heaven!
Nor sanctioned such a kinship with the ground!
And I remember blazing dementias
Aboard such trade as maddens any man.
…The mate and captain fragrantly reviewed
The fragrant hold and presently began
Their retching rampage among their luminous
Black pudding, among the guttural chained slime:
Half fainting from their love affair with fetors
That pledged a haughty allegiance for all time.
I recollect the latter lease and lash
And labor that defiled the bone, that thinned
My blood and blood-line. All my climate my
Foster designers designed and disciplined.
But my detention and massive stain,
And my distortions and my Calvary
I grind into a little light lorgnette
Most sly: to read man’s inhumanity.
And I remark my Matter is not all.
Man’s chopped in China, in India indented.
From Israel what’s Arab is resented.
Europe candies custody and war.
Behind my exposé
I formalize my pity: “I shall cite,
Star, and esteem all that which is of woman,
Human and hardly human.”
Democracy and Christianity
Recommence with me.
And I ride ride I ride on to the end–
Where glowers my continuing Calvary.
My fellows, and those canny consorts of
Our spread hands in this contretemps-for-love
Ride into wrath, wraith and menagerie
To fail, to flourish, to wither or to win.
We lurch, distribute, we extend, begin.