Review by New York Times Review
GWENDOLYN ELIZABETH BROOKS was born in Topeka, Kan., at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 7,1917. But her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and she was a Chicagoan until her death, in 2000. The author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, Brooks holds the distinction of being the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for her second book of poems, "Annie Allen"), and she received numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Arts and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In honor of the centennial year of her birth, two anthologies have arrived: "Revise the Psalm," edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku; and "The Golden Shovel Anthology," edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith. In their shared mission, these books complement each other without too much overlap. The novelist Richard Wright, in a reader's report for Harper & Brothers in the early 1940 s, declared Brooks essential: "America needs a voice like hers." Confirming Wright's claim are the hundreds of artists represented in these two new anthologies, poets who have used her work as a prompt or a point of engagement. "The Golden Shovel Anthology" structures itself around the form developed by the prodigious poet Terrance Hayes, whose own poem "The Golden Shovel" opens the book. A Golden Shovel poem sneaks an existing poem into the end words of each line. That way, the new poem always remains in conversation with its precursor. In his introduction, Shankar writes that the anthology is "an inherently collaborative effort, a dialogue, a response," and the same description works for Hayes's form, which unites all of the poems here. Read their end words, and you'll find a Brooks poem. In the foreword, Hayes says he came up with the idea when he was helping his 5-year-old son memorize Brooks's "We Real Cool," which starts with a sort of subtitle or epigraph: "The Pool Players. / Seven at the Golden Shovel." The words of Brooks's poem moved into Hayes's head space and became a lyric to push against or engage: When I am so small Da's sock covers my arm, we cruise at twilight until we find the place the real men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool. His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left in them but approachlessness. This is a school I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk of smoke thinned to song. We won't be out late. Standing in the middle of the street last night we watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin. The boy's sneakers were light on the road. We watched him run to us looking wounded and thin. He'd been caught lying or drinking his father's gin. He'd been defending his ??, trying to be a man. We stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz, how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June the boy would be locked upstate. That night we got down on our knees in my room. If I should die before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon. Nestled into the last word of each line is Brooks's canonical poem: "We real cool. We/ Left school_" Throughout this anthology, more than 60 other well-known Brooks poems can be read the same way, with lines from "The Mother" and "The Bean Eaters" tripping down the righthand side of the page. The anthology ends with "NonBrooks Golden Shovels" and "Variations and Expansions on the Form." The cross-section of poets with varying poetics and styles gathered here is only one of the many admirable achievements of this volume. "REVISE THE PSALM" brings a more expansive response to Brooks. The editors have included poetry, prose, photographs and paintings created in recognition of both Brooks and her work. Essays speak back to individual poems like "The Mother," or reflect on Brooks's impact or on personal encounters with her. We get a keen sense of the poet and her fierce commitment to community engagement. For example, Adrian Matejka writes about attending a reading where Brooks spent more time reading poems by elementary school children than reading her own work. The portraits represent Brooks at different points in her 83 years. Most notable is the author's photo by Roy Lewis, for her 1969 book "Riot," with Brooks wearing the Afro that signified her break with her mainstream publisher as she joined the voices of the Black Arts Movement. Lansana and Jackson-Opoku, the editors of "Revise the Psalm," use the phrase '"Gwendolynian' influences," describing their anthology as "a project of literary and artistic revision, the process of 'talking back' to works that inspire, teach, challenge and engage." Not surprisingly, given this endeavor, the book includes some Golden Shovel poems. More often than not, however, the poems in "Revise the Psalm" are more loosely inspired by Brooks's subjects. Consider "Daystar," by Rita Dove. (She is one of a handful of poets who appear in both volumes.) Though written for Dove's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Thomas and Beulah," "Daystar" takes on a subject that was of central importance to Brooks - the quotidian outer life and the rich inner life of AfricanAmerican mothers: She wanted a little room for thinking: but she saw diapers steaming on the line, a doll slumped behind the door. So she lugged a chair behind the garage to sit out the children's naps. Sometimes there were things to watch: the pinched armor of a vanished cricket, a floating maple leaf. Other days she stared until she was assured when she closed her eyes she'd see only her vivid own blood. She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared pouting from the top of the stairs. And just what was mother doing out back with the field mice? Why, building a palace. Later that night when Thomas rolled over and lurched into her, she would open her eyes and think of the place that was hers for an hour - where she was nothing, pure nothing, in the middle of the day. Whether one considers the breadth of writing inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks or drops down into the possibilities of the Golden Shovel form, Richard Wright was not wrong about her importance: She has served her readers across a century. CLAUDIA RANKINE is the Iseman professor of poetry at Yale. She is the author of five collections of poetry, including, most recently, "Citizen."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 27, 2017]
Review by New York Times Review