Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”

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). 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.

A Poem Up Close: Eulogy for the 40th

As I approach the graduation date for my MFA, I’m realizing how much I will miss exploring poets and looking closely at poems which I found intriguing.

So I’ve decided to publish some of these thoughts here. Some of the posts will be work I wrote in the MFA; others will be new poems I’ve encountered which I feel I’d benefit from dissecting. I hope you find these posts interesting; my goal here will be to keep delving deep in my reading, even though I won’t have mentors and deadlines asking this work of me.

Qwo-Li Driskell’s Walking with Ghosts exposes the intersection of two marginalized populations in the US: the queer community and the indigenous population. The focus of Driskell’s academic work, Cherokee Two-Spirits and Cherokee gender identities prior to colonization, seems to also be the focus of Driskell’s poetry. I think this intersection is important for me to consider because it is one answer to a question I’d like to explore further: how can the sacred (for Driskell, the sacred is embedded in cultural identity: language, heritage, tradition) and activism find common ground within poetry?

At the heart of the collection is the poem “Eulogy for the 40th.” A eulogy itself is a type of sacred text, a testament to a life, a meditation upon or prayer for a deceased loved one. This poem is a critique of America’s “sacred” grounds: war, bigotry, and Christianity, set up for us by an epigraph from the book of Matthew. Alongside these critiques, we find a counter-narrative of sacredness in Driskell’s ghosts, here referring, I think, to AIDS victims and other gay men who lost their lives during the Reagan administration.

Driskell’s use of the first person plural evokes a liturgical responsive reading: “We’re tired,” “We don’t care,” “We sing,” “We died” (8, 15, 42, 56). The imperative “say it” towards the end of section I and at the start of section II further sets the piece up as something spoken aloud as a group. Section II brings in a counter-liturgy for the oppressor, the “you” in the poem: “Go on, rewrite / history. Name him Father of Peace” (28-29). “Father of Peace” is the rewriting of “King of Lies” from section one. Both these titles have a biblical feel about them, “Father of Peace” being a conglomeration of “God the Father” and “Prince of Peace” (Jesus), whereas “King of Lies” brings to mind “Prince of Lies” (the Devil). Reagan is represented by these opposing views as a hyperbolic biblical figure of either good and evil, respectively.

Repetend, such as the repeating of the Matthew epigraph in lines 27-28 and 36-41, strengthens the cadence of “Eulogy for the 40th,” evoking song refrain, chant, or mantra, as well as public speech. The first line of the poems is also repeated, but as the poem progresses, words are removed to alter the meaning. This erasure mimics the lives lost to AIDS, but it also has redemptive power. The original phrase reads, “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” (1). It is repeated verbatim once and then is pared down over three repetitions to ultimately read, “When I kiss my lover, / a generation rises” (24, 68, 75-76). I am reminded by this final rising of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which may have been an intentional reference by Driskell.

The final repetition is the beginning of the letter to Reagan in the poem’s final section. Because the letter is written to Reagan a week after his death, it takes on a spiritual tone, bringing to mind an incantation. The power of the incantation lies in the gentleness of the language and the immediacy of the imagery. While other sections of the poem sweep across years and histories, this final stanza is a single moment at Reagan’s funeral. With this focused-in lens, the poem becomes tender, less a raging fire and more a candle flame, a spark of hope.

“Eulogy for the 40th” doesn’t address Driskell’s spirituality as directly as other poems in this collection. However, Driskell’s heritage of the sacred, informed by his Native American roots, is central to his identity and thus invades the poem in subtle ways. I think the central image of the poem, the ghosts rising, which is also reminiscent of the collection’s title, certainly has the feel of the spiritual. Ritual incantation and chant inform the structure of the poem. Also, because Christianity was forced on native peoples as a way to erase them, the use of the Matthew passage and the erasure of “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” create an anti-spirituality, a desecration of true sacredness, which, for Driskell, lies in the remembrance of ancestors and the rediscovery of lost culture.

Driskell, Qwo-Li. “Eulogy for the 40th.” Walking with Ghosts. Salt, 2005, pp. 40-45.