Wednesday, May 31, 2006

a sugar of the malocclusions

brooksaside from the heavily anthologized "we real cool" i hadn't read a line of gwendolyn brooks until the other day. the selected poems that's in print first appeared all the way back in 1963, adding only a few "new" poems after the bean eaters (1960), thus missing out on the entire impact of the black nationalist movement on her poetry. this too marks, as i understand it, her move away from mainstream publishing houses (harper & row) and her earlier formalist and more visibly and earnestly "modernist" style into free verse and a more direct kind of language and portraiture (fully realized in 1968's in the mecca).

curiously, and while i have not seen much of the former, it's the latter i'm more immediately drawn to, like the poems from annie allen (1949). stanzas like the following from her mock/mini-epic "the anniad":

Yet there was a drama, drought
Scarleted about the brim
Not with blood alone for him,
Flood, with blossom in between
Retch and wheeling and cold shout,
Suffocation, with a green
Moist sweet breath for mezzanine

* * *

Tests forbidden taffeta.
Meteors encircle her.
Little lady lost her twill,
Little lady who lost her fur
Shivers in her thin hurrah,
Pirouettes to pleasant shrill
Appoggiatura with a skill.

annie allenthis is supertight formalism: seven-syllable lines, three trochees with an extra strong beat at the end, and seven-line stanzas with three endrhymes (two in pairs and one in threes in no set pattern). the soundplay is rich, the diction alternating between plain and stylized, the syntax compressed, the imagery striking... all packs quite a punch.

here's an entire poem from the section of annie allen called "the womanhood," one that starts off in a seemingly uninteresting "observations about life" mode but quickly turns into a stunning array of sensible and sonic ingenuity, culminating in the phrase that serves as the subject line of this email.

People who have no children can be hard:
Attain a mail of ice and insolence:
Need not pause in the fire, and in no sense
Hesitate in the hurricane to guard.
And when wide world is bitten and bewarred
They perish purely, waving their spirits hence
Without a trace of grace or of offense
To laugh or fail, diffident, wonder-starred.
While through a throttling dark we others hear
The little lifting helplessness, the queer
Whimper-whine; whose unridiculous
Lost softness softly makes a trap for us.
And makes a curse. And makes a sugar of
The malocclusions, the inconditions of love.
the metaphor "mail of ice" tells me straightaway i'm in for something interesting. lines 5 and 6 have some great alliteration, and the movement line 8 from the infinitives to the extended modifiers is great. the third "quatrain" continues the rich play of sound and striking images "throttling dar," "whimper-whine," all of which set up the repetitions of the verb "to make" in the closing couplet and that stunning metaphor, "a sugar of the malocclusions."

it's really no curiosity why these lines appeal to me, but i can't help feeling like they're caught in an uneasy dynamic. i think of melvin tolson, a clear master of modern style, admired by allen tate but then dismissed by a younger generation of black poets for his embrace of white/european forms. it's a tension all over the early baraka, and you can see it in harryette mullen as well (in tall tree woman vs trimmings). with brooks it's clearly not a simple choice between anglo-modernism or afro-realism, since traces of both run throughout the 1963 selected poems. i'll have to check out her post-1968 work.

clearly this is also a major body of work whose time is right for for a collected edition of some kind or other.

1 comment:

Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

Readers should know that there has been a colleted edition of some kind for quite a while -- It's titled BLACKS, and is available from Third World Press -- has nearly all the poems AND the novel MAUD MARTHA -- there is also a posthumous volume from Third World Press titled IN MONTGOMERY, but you should be forewarned that this volume reprints a lot of material from the earlier collections --

BLACKS was published for several years by Brooks herself, before she turned it over to Haki Madhabuti's press