On Gwendolyn Brooks, 'The Bean Eaters'

I’ll begin with vehement restatement: Gwendolyn Brooks is an under-read and under-understood great poet of the twentieth century. [1] This is perhaps a result of the artfulness with which she constructed her poems as rhetorical portals: “Black and female are basic and inherent in her poetry,” Hortense Spillers notes, while (particularly before the mid-sixties) “[w]e cannot always say with grace or ease that there is a direct correspondence between the issues of her poetry and her race and sex.” [2] The Bean Eaters in particular deserves attention and interpretation — its poems are layered, sometimes involuted, and also sometimes deceptively simplistic; a bit macabre; emphatically intellectual but with a practical bent; simultaneously abstract and concrete, like Stevens, but without the whimsy; socially penetrating and outspoken, minus pedagoguery.  And they are courageous, despite slant-stated sentiments to the contrary.  For instance, in “Strong Men, Riding Horses,” Brooks writes an assessment of the white masculinity on display in 1950s Westerns, over against her own chameleon-poet subject position: “what my mouths remark / To word-wall off that broadness of the dark / Is pitiful. / I am not brave at all.” [3]

Met with proverbial “mixed reviews” (from a mixed audience), the book was pivotal in Brooks’ oeuvre.  It was more overtly politicized about race, class and gender than her earlier work; at the same time, it was not yet directed more exclusively towards a black audience, but continued her engagement with literary structures linked with the white canon of the generation before.  Techniques, mainly Modernist, informing the work include: personae: Eliotic “impersonality,” etc.; allusion: here as often to contemporary events as to texts; compression: obliquity or ambiguity especially arising from the pressurizing of syntax; and reprisal of traditional forms: ballads (filtered through Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings), sonnets (filtered through Countee Cullen and Claude McKay), and hymns (filtered through Dickinson; indeed, truly remarkably so, as in “Priscilla Assails the Sepulchre of Love”: “I can’t unlock my eyes because / my body will come through / And cut her every clothing off / And drive herself to you”). [4] The poems are less given to fragmentation and montage than to phrasal paradox, elliptical, gnomic insight, closural decoy — and, of course, they mostly involve irony.  

Brooks’ irony in this book is not detached or bemused — it is often angry and provoking, as in her famous “The Lovers of the Poor,” in which white “Ladies” from “Lake Forest, Glencoe,” very wealthy suburbs of Chicago, arrive in the black ghetto “in the innocence / With which they baffle nature” of “Something called chitterlings” — “God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!”  Similarly scathingly sarcastic is “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” Brooks’ highly self-reflexive poem about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till — “From the first it had been like a / Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood. / A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches” — which ventriloquizes the vexed consciousness of Carolyn Bryant, the white Southern woman over whom he was killed. [5]

At times, Brooks’ irony doesn’t circulate easily between reader and author, but builds complex and even contradictory epistemic economies that refuse clear positioning of the reader vis-à-vis speakers, narrators, and author.  She does first-person voices suiciding in an artifice that their self-ironic lines make plain — and no, I don’t mean “We Real Cool” — but “A Man of the Middle Class”: “I’ve answers such as have / The executives I copied long ago, / The ones who, forfeiting Vicks salve, / Prayer book and Mother, shot themselves last Sunday.”  No utterance of redeeming self-knowledge, nor speech of an urbane smartass: it’s the author performing coming out the character’s neck, expressing an anger at a limited, condescending repertoire that could otherwise with good reason be used against the very persona in question.  “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” presents the thoughts of a reporter for the black weekly who, in the wake of Eisenhower deploying troops to Arkansas to enforce school integration, finds it hard to get his angle: “‘They are like people everywhere.’” And the narrator of “In Emanuel’s Nightmare: Another Coming of Christ” retells a story suspiciously similar to that of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a film in which a human-like alien is repeatedly killed while attempting to warn mankind of its bellicosity.  In Brooks’ poem, the man “born out of the heaven” leaves, forced to accept man’s love of war, while the narrator’s concern to name everything with the right words points to language itself as a fomenter of violence.  

But my favorite poem is “A Lovely Love” — not the Brooks you thought you knew:

Let it be alleys.  Let it be a hall […]
Let it be stairways, and a splintery box
Where you have thrown me, scraped me with your kiss […]
People are coming.  They must not catch us here
Definitionless in this strict atmosphere.

[1] See, for instance, Danielle Chapman’s claims in “Sweet Bombs,” Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks,  ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010), 91-102.
[2] Hortense Spillers, “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems,” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) 224.
[3] Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 63.
[4] For some discussion of Brooks’ relation to Dickinson, see A. Yemisi Jimoh, “Double Consciousness, Modernism, and Womanist Themes in Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Anniad’,” in Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010) 118.
[5] For an excellent reading of this poem, see Vivian M. May’s “Maids Mild and Dark Villains, Sweet Magnolias and Seeping Blood: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Response to the Lynching of Emmett Till,” in Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, ed. Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008) 98-111.