The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
“I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.” –Gwendolyn Brooks
Like so many American schoolchildren, my body’s notes were shaped by Gwendolyn Brooks’ prosody. On poetry’s basketball court, I remember Brooks as a blur, pivoting on breaks and caesuras, immune to gravity in“The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:
He wakes, unwinds, elaborately: a cat
Tawny, reluctant, royal. He is fat
I still find a force her syllables, thrown like elbows, to catch the poem’s prize, as in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon”:
From the first it had…the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches
A few years ago, I began a sequence of poems about growing up on, near, and across the “color line” (which is to say, in Washington D.C.). And as I have been reading, looking for models, I notice my mind continually drifting to Brooks, like an ancestor syllable.
Re-reading her, I have been struck anew by a quality of fearlessness–even aggression–in her verse. However “musical” it may be, pleasing the ear and the body, it still has a quality we’d otherwise recognize as “messing with us.” She declares, in“The Womanhood,”
First fight. Then fiddle…
…muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote.
As a “white” person, trained not to name (or observe) racialized perception–or the tinkling keys that attend it–I have found from her that “fighting” begins with naming, resisting transformation in favor of holding difference in view. This means, in my case, naming not only “the note,” or even “the music,” but also the “they”–as me, even we. It’s a poetry acrobatic that isn’t easy. I’ve found instructive Brooks’ descriptions of this slippage between individual and collective, between past and present, in “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:
The pasts of his ancestors lean against
Him. Crowd him…
Hundreds of voices advise so dexterously
He quite considers his reactions his.
I also found instructive her surplus of descriptions of the color line, its death-overtures, which frequently mention not only the body, but the erotic body. Whether “lemon-hued lynx,” or “cut from a chocolate bar,” or “…whose ivory and yellow it is a sin/ For his eye to eat of…,” the assertion of the erotic body is always, in her poetry, paired with “messing with” the color line—as if it is from this vital power that any freedom will come:
he knew beautifully how to give to women…
When to persist or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
This hyperabundance of naming as naming disrupts the forces of race-ing, even makes them her instrument. But in this insistence, which names not only an “us” but a “them,” as well as the myriad hues of skin and meaning, she is clearly also aiming at disrupting us–as if, in her verse, she’s cocked her eyebrow, and asked, “and WHOSE names are these?”
Writing my own experience with race quickly emerged some serious bitterness. But what I noticed, in Brooks, was that the “muzzling” of “their” note is always done “with hurting love.” At the center of not only her prosody, but her subject, is the body, all bodies. And her fierceness, which here protects the body, is rarely far from kindness, the nurturer of all bodies, as in“Negro Hero”:
I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.
…It was hardly the Enemy my
Fight was against
It was kinder than that, though, and I showed like a banner
We have yet to see a critical mass of white poets displaying this “race fearlessness,” as Thomas Sayers Ellis calls it, and magnificently illustrates, in his new Skin, Inc. This “mystifying silence” has been commented on elsewhere, in Major Jackson’s essay, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” But I am hopeful, especially about Martha Collins’ new work, White Papers, and Jake Adam York’s Persons Unknown.
By messing with us, by “first fight[ing],” Brooks has cleared a way, shown us to:
First…civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
And through what other door would possibility enter?