Until this year, I had not read Gwendolyn Brooks beyond a few anthologized poems, most notably and ubiquitously, “We Real Cool.” This particular poem has such a breezy voice, I mistook this for the tone of Brooks’ poems in general; rather, the poem is indicative of her work in a different way: she is a master of creating tone that reflects each poem’s characters.
I finished Brooks’ Selected Poems, originally published in 1963, this January, in which I found the painstakingly exact craft of the master. Some of the poems were so honed that the process of reading became for me like mentally lifting lead weights. Each phrase was densely packed, its smallness belying its depth of meaning, so that when I hefted it, I found it much heavier than my initial glance judged.
The poems from Annie Allen were especially this way, and I read and reread some of these poems in an effort to decode them. It was tough work, but I could also see through my own fog how perfect each poem was. Perhaps too perfect. Perhaps their tight construction actually kept the humanity they described from being fully realized. In an interview with Studs Terkel from 1961, Brooks said of Annie Allen,
By the time I began to write Annie Allen I was very much impressed with the effectiveness of technique, and I wanted to write poetry that was honed to the last degree it could be. . . . I no longer feel that this is the proper attitude to have when you sit down to write poetry, but that’s how I felt then. . . . I feel that my poems at any rate should be written more in the mood that I had when I wrote A Street in Bronzeville. I was just interested in putting people down on paper and, although it is rougher than Annie Allen, I feel that there’s more humanity in it. (24)
Incidently, I found that many of my favorite poems from Selected Poems came from A Street in Bronzeville, and this interview relieved my fears that perhaps I was just an inferior reader, considering that Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. But if Brooks, looking back, found merit in the Bronzeville poems, I think I can safely say that I’m in good company.
The poem that struck me most on a first reading and stuck with me over the past couple of months is “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” a long poem about a black man living in a poor, urban neighborhood. Satin-Legs Smith is a man with aspirations, though, and presence: Brooks begins the poem with heightened, religious or kingly diction: “Imoratas, with an approbation, / Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination” (1-2). As Satin-Legs Smith awakes and gets ready for his day, Brooks builds kingly description: “royal,” “reign,” and “power” describe this man (4, 6, 13). But even from the beginning, Brooks makes us aware this is a facade. Here is the fourth stanza:
He sheds, with his pajamas, shabby days. And his desertedness, his intricate fear, the Postponed resentments and the prim precautions. (9-11)
In sleep, Satin-Legs Smith is vulnerable to his poverty, to his mortality and shortcomings. But as he dresses for the day, he armors himself with lavender scent, a feather in his lapel, and “wonder-suits in yellow and in wine, / Sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt” (48-49). Brooks couches this armor in stark contrast to true kingliness, which the reader has perhaps mistakenly attributed to Satin-Legs Smith:
Would you have flowers in his life? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Maybe so. But you forget, or did you ever know, His heritage of cabbage and pigtails, Old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No! He has not a flower to his name. (17, 25-28, 32)
And his showy clothes also hem him in, with “Ballooning pants that taper off to ends / Scheduled to choke precisely” ( 51-52).
At this point in the poem, Brooks steps briefly out of the close description of Satin-Legs Smith with a brief couplet, a well-earned moment of telling after two pages of images: “People are so in need, in need of help. / People want so much that they do not know” (57-58). This is what I’ve heard Tyree Daye describe as “coming up for air” after a deep swim in imagery. It works so well if, like Brooks, you can pull off the timing. Here, Brooks brings us to a moment of deep feeling for this not-king, this man dressing in a gaudy show of imaginary wealth and power. Perhaps Smith has fooled himself. Perhaps he has us fooled. But Brooks sees the truth of it.
On the next page, Brooks turns to a deep description of Satin-Legs Smith’s community, a very human place, a place of a certain amount of depression and dilapidation. But as Brooks describes Smith walking through his neighborhood she says “He sees and does not see” the run-down poverty of the place–presumably because the wreckage is so part of his average landscape that he no longer takes any special note of it (92). And in the midst of this woe comes blues music–
The Lonesome Blues, the Long-lost Blues, I Want A Big Fat Mama. Down these sore avenues Comes no Saint-Saëns, no piquant elusivegrieg, And not Tschaikovsky's wayward eloquence And not the shapely tender drift of Grahms. But could he love them? Since a man must bring To music what his mother spanked him for When he was two: bits of forgotten hate, Devotion: whether or not his mattress hurts: The little dream his father humored: the thing His sister did for money: what he ate For breakfast--and for dinner twenty years Ago last autumn: all his skipped desserts. (105-117)
In other words, blues is the language of the life Smith has lived. Could he love something so foreign as high-culture classical, music indicative of wealth as well as whiteness and respectability? Certainly Smith wants respect and see himself as cultured, but, just as with his gaudy dress, what those with true power and true wealth deem as classy are out of reach for Smith. Smith may love himself, but Brooks believes Smith has no real agency. He is trapped in his fate by history and racism. She says, “The pasts of his ancestors lean against / Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity” (118-119).
We see this same dichotomy again when Satin-Legs Smith goes to the movies: “the heroine / Whose ivory and yellow it is sin / For his eye to eat of. The Mickey Mouse, / However, is for everyone in the house” (126-129). White supremacy has deemed him unworthy of the high-class heroine, so it creates a racist, farcical mouse for Smith. This line packs a severe punch and points the finger more directly at white America’s racism here than anywhere else in the poem.
He takes a different woman out for Sunday dinner every week, but they are all same in that they dress in sickly extravagance just like Smith’s own dress–a style that’s “scheduled to choke” (53). The restaurant is cheap, one where “You get your fish or chicken on meat platters” and “You go out full” (147, 148). Immediately following this line, Brooks once again comes up for air, after pages of imagery, and she does so in a parenthetical: “(The end is–isn’t it?–all that really matters” (150). Smith goes out with a Hollywood-esque happy ending, one that fills but is also cheaply manufactured, and only thinly veils poverty and ancestral pain.
The final eight lines are shorter, indented, and, after the first two, in italics. They are also tighter in meter. All this suggests the falseness of Smith’s happy ending–rather than true satisfaction, it is another forgetting, another not-seeing. He loses himself in his date’s body, but even this is cheap, “brown bread” rather than oysters, and “Woolworth’s mignonette” (153, 154). In the end, he is buried in her body which “is like summer earth, / Receptive, soft, and absolute…” (157-158). There is no escape, and such Sundays of false comfort and imitation kingliness, Brooks implies, will be the entombment of Satin-Legs Smith’s whole life.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Studs Terkel Interviews Gwendolyn Brooks, 1961.” P.S. in Selected Poems, Harper Perennial, 2006, pp. 18-33.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith.” Selected Poems, Harper Perennial, 2006, pp. 12-18.