Gregory Corso was born in New York City on 26 March 1930. His mother, sixteen years old when Gregory was delivered, abandoned the family a year later and returned to Italy. Afterwards, Corso spent most of his childhood in orphanages and foster homes. His father remarried when Gregory was eleven years old, and he had his son stay with him, but the boy repeatedly ran away. He was removed to a boy's home, from which he also ran away.
The complexity and effectiveness of Lucille Clifton's "I Am Accused of Tending To the Past" rests largely on the unity of the poem's ungarnished form and its resonant message. The simple free-verse lines of the text encapsulate the tremendously complex process involved in the recovery of those narratives that have been obscured or erased from the account of history. Written by Clifton, a female African American poet whose poetry establishes history--both individual (family) and collective (the people)--as one of its central themes, the poem tackles the problem of historical recovery from the perspective of the specific sensibility rooted in the speaker's racial and gender identity. This particular situatedness of the speaker endows the poem's central image-a woman tending to a baby--with a wealth of meaning. The metaphor of a nurturing mother locates the text as a participant in the historical undertaking of re-claiming and re-narrating the story of the African- American past, as well as positions it within the female-centered African-American oral tradition of story-telling as a means of preserving the culture. The speaker of the poem, whose perspective is both that of a historian and that of a story- teller engaged in the circulation of a culture, creates the context for the project of this historical recovery by personifying history as a baby and by herself adopting the perspective of the baby's foster mother. Thus, history becomes an orphan, or a foundling who "was waiting" for the narrator's attention and commitment. This metaphorical structure of the poem provides a productive matrix for the historical and political frame of the text. The relationship of the foster mother to the baby translates directly into the speaker's investment in the project of historical and cultural preservation. The speaker did not enter the relationship with the "orphan" through a direct, physical experience of the labour, but rather "came" and "with my mother's itch / took it to breast," thus accepting the responsibility for the life she did not create. This social rather than biological motherhood signifies the speaker's participation in re-shaping history rather than generating it. The speaker thus begins by rejecting the "accusations" that she is somehow involved in the production of history:
i am accused of tending to the past as if i made it, as if i sculpted it with my own hands. i did not.
The denial of this "charge" has two immediate implications that reflect on the speaker's positionality. The fact that the speaker is "accused" of claiming agency to originate the historical narrative points to the accusers' assumptions about her unsuitability for this role and their usurpation of this particular position of power. Moreover, the speaker's rejection of the accusation-notably reinforced by the uniform lowercase type which includes the "lyrical I's/i's expression of identity-indicates her bitter awareness of the extent to which historical account has been monopolised by exclusionary forces. Thus, the forthright disavowal of any collaboration with the making of history points to the speaker's subject position, as well as to the subject positions of all those who have been excluded from active participation in the creation of the Grand Narrative. The speaker emphasises her detachment from the account of the past since she, presumably as an African-American and a woman, did not have the privilege of incorporating her own definitions, viewpoints, and interpretations--her own narrative--into this fixated chronicle. As she says, the past was not created "with [her] own hands." Hence, history's delineation of her own identity and other identities marked as "other" is divorced from their own definitions of themselves. Therefore, confronted with this history, the speaker perceives it as "a monstrous unnamed baby." The consequences of this metaphor are twofold: history is something unpleasantly foreign--in that the speaker does not see herself in its narrative; however, being "unnamed," historical account is also nameable-like a baby whose identity can be shaped by the care-takers. Thus, the speaker adopts "the baby" and names it History. Being the only capitalised word in the entire poem, this new-old name given to the narrative of the human past marks a separation from the earlier, distorted historical accounts, accounts full of omissions and disregard for difference.
The naming then is a performative act in which the fiction of the Grand Narrative becomes transformed into a living organism--a story of a living people who have the desire and faculty to define themselves and their past. Moreover, History in its new form acquires one more attribute which designates its meaning within the context of African American culture: it becomes a gendered "she." Through the gendering of History and through the poetic textual act itself, the transformation of the Grand Narrative involves the revival of the female-centred institution of the circulation of history through story-telling.
The evolution of History from its "monstrous" form into its orally-and female-centered account brings together various threads of the text's fabric and helps to discern the direction for History that the speaker seems to favour. Both orality and womanhood are brought to the foreground as indicators of the new, fresh quality of the revived History. The recovery of the oral tradition manifests itself in the poem's form which also serves as a structural reinforcement of the text's central organising image of motherhood. The lowercase spelling of almost the entire text suggests the poem's departure from the rigidity of a page-oriented transmission, and its entrance into a more flexible realm of the spoken language. Orthographical rules are thus sacrificed in favour of the special emphasis given to the most significant words of the text; in the case of Clifton's poem, this exceptional stress falls on the word "History" in its new, recovered meaning as a female- centered narrative. The orality in the poem is also implied by the refusal on the part of the text to yield to any of the traditional forms of poetry, which here may signify the constraints of the written word. The irregularity of line lengths points to the autonomy of the oral circulation of culture as self- regulating and unbound by the tradition of literacy. It may be useful to theorize that the distinction between the "freedom" of orally-oriented forms and the limitations of classical written forms deploys another binary: that between the more natural spoken language and the artificial written language.
Such a "natural" quality is also associated with customarily depicted motherhood, and is supported by the poem's images of the mother nursing the baby. Hence, the speaker's affection reflected in her breast-feeding and nurturing of the child conflates with her intimate relationship to the historical narrative; a relationship that-through its oral mediation-is more successful than the impersonal and often incomplete written histories.
The reading of Clifton's poem from the perspective of its racialised and gendered historical project positions it within a dialogic space created by numerous African-American narratives--both fiction and poetry-- that engage in the literary acts of a black subject's, and especially black female subject's, reclaiming of the past. Through paralleling the historical recovery with the resurrection of the tradition of black women's role in the community as oral transmitters of culture, Clifton's poem enters this dialog and offers a vision of history that strikingly resembles what Toni Morrison, in her novel, _Beloved_ (1987), introduced under the notion of "rememory." "To 'rememory,'" as Carolyn Jones explains in "Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison" (1993), "is to make an act of the moral imagination and to shape the events of one's life into story" (616). Clifton's History, which nota bene becomes "more human" upon being recovered from the dehumanising, stifling grasp of the dominant culture, carries out the project of "rememory" by "remembering faces, names and dates." In _Playing in the Dark_, Morrison writes: "My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers" (90). The ending of Clifton's poem opens a possibility of the "reborn" History's ability to escape the entrapments of falsifications and erasures. The speaker's prophecy of History's "travel on her own" suggests its insistence on immediate confrontation with the forgotten narratives, its determination to "rememory." The final two lines of the text resonate in unison with Morrison's project-they envision the future in which historical narrative will have the capacity to transform the narrated into the narrators:
when she [History] is strong enough to travel on her own, beware, she will.
Copyright © 2004 by Agnieszka Tuszynska.
The absences in Lucille Clifton’s dramatic dialogue “brothers” enunciate a port-war theology that calls for a response to its queries, its speech, and its recording of a mythological and concretely historical past. The sequence, “a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God” omits one of a pair of its speakers. God’s silence – ironically and significantly – is amplified by the poem’s allusion to Carolyn Forché, a poet and historian whose work to witness the violences of the twentieth century bears a special significance to “brothers.” This striking replacement – Forché speaks while God remains silent – in the sixth of eight short poems in the sequence, when the conversation ceases its rehearsal of the Genesis story and wanders into the sins of the twentieth century, signals the entrance of a third speaker into the drama between Lucifer and God, the speech of human memory and history.
Such a change in the terms and speakers in a debate as old as Milton invites a revision of the vocabulary in which a god might speak, one whose context is the chronological time of Clifton’s one-act dialogue, “the time long after.” “brothers” asks the simple, but fundamental question, “after what?” Clifton’s situation of a God’s silence in a specific time implies a mutable relationship between poets (and humans) and gods. The temporal component of such a poetics pinpoints these absences and silences in specific contexts. In “brothers” the context might simply be, “after Auschwitz,” although I would like to qualify this chronological context, by suggesting that the entry of a human, poetic voice into the mythical debate between Lucifer and God is itself an intervention into the time of that God’s presence, turning mythical time into time that can be measured: it suggests the entrance of God into history.
This poem sequence challenges the conception of Lucifer’s agency and God’s omnipotence, however, in its sixth poem, which explores the gaps left by God’s epochal silences and the ruptures caused by human agency. Seven of Lucifer’s eight poems address the events of the book of Genesis, poems in which Lucifer rehearses fundamental theological questions: the presence of evil or sin, the problem of faith, the capacity of a punishing God to forgive. Lucifer departs his line of questioning, which for all its inventive diction lacks an awareness of time past, in a stanza that alludes to biblical and much more recent history, however. Carolyn Forché’s enigmatic proof of God, presented as an epigraph, inserts a contemporary voice into the poem sequence’s dialogue. It is followed by a description of evil that draws on images of mass destruction and poetic crisis:
“the silence of God is God.” --Carolyn Forché
tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised Your hand
nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
that world and You said nothing.
In this stanza, Lucifer follows Jameson, historicizing God’s silence. The specific judgment for the incineration of countless babies is aimed at a “world,” punishment for a globe’s sins. Two World Wars, and the seemingly obvious allusions to genocide carried out as the burning of children “like cordwood,” locate these sins in the twentieth century. However, the densely packe image “confusion of a mountain/ of babies stacked like cordwood” suggests an overlap of Biblical and Holocaust images. The lineation here enjambs “mountain/ of babies,” which creates a visual and rhythmic division into two images: the confusion of th scene in which Moses receives and presents a first covenant with his Lord, and the Holocaust that signals, in its enormity, that covenant’s end. The first scene, of direct speech between God and humans, is a new covenant that recasts the fallen world and secures divine protection for the Israelites in the face of persecution. The second, in juxtaposition, is doubly tragic: genocide accompanied by a casting out of God’s presence, an irony rather cruelly alluded to in the pun “excommunication.” In this stanza, though, God’s silence, noted in each of the previous stanzas, returns with a difference: in an historical (not mythical) context, and following the utterance of human (not angelic) poetry.
Following Lucifer’s allusions to a twentieth century of evil, Lucifer retreats into the ahistorical position of faith, and, even, to an ethical position that links theological inquiry and poetry together as endeavors that ultimately produce confusion and pain. Lucifer thus critiques both the absence of God following his second week and in our twentieth century, and Lucifer’s own objection to that silence. That God did not, but “could have called” Adam and Eve, and that he did not answer “the language of assault” during more recent violence, requires the enunciation of Lucifer’s poetry to correct. That Lucifer and “that world” of contemporary violence doubted God’s ways during their own excommunications requires the “certitude” of faith in poem seven, whose epigraph reads “still there is mercy, there is grace”:
could I have come to this
marble spinning space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single certitude?
could I, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.
Lucifer’s faith and poetics propel him, as if in perpetual circular motion, into doubt. “How otherwise,” he repeats three times, a refrain signaling not entrapment in a physical or spiritual hell, but in a static dialogue, a dialectic without movement. Lucifer’s inability to find the comfort of alienation from his position in relation to God has him aching for another way. He is searching for an “otherwise” to the recoiling “certitude” of God, itself a “safe and still” circle. Lucifer’s compromise in poem seven completes the drama of a declination narrative that begins with Lucifer’s invitation in the poem’s opening lines: “come coil with me/ here in creation’s bed/ among the twigs and ribbons of the past [. . .] let us rest here a time/ like two old brothers who watched it happen and wondered/ what it meant.” Here, at the end of yet another act of contrition, does Lucifer the hopeful colloquist capitulate to the embarrassing corporal punishment prescribed him in Genesis, retold in the present time of the poem, wearily, “as the bruising of his heel, my head,/ and so forth.”
The poem sequence resolves Lucifer’s queries in a way Lucifer’s faith and God’s silences do not. Its final poem begins by eliding the words of Carolyn Forché in its epigraph, after which Lucifer, who has shown the wit and spite which has endeared him to us, bites with particular sharpness:
“. . . . . . . . . . . .is God” so.
having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
you kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.
Forché’s name and God’s silence are here absent. But ‘brothers’ confuses the meaning of its absences in this stanza. In stanza six, God’s silence presented itself to the violences of the twentieth century. In stanza eight, God’s silence is elided briefly because the poem withholds Carolyn Forché’s formulation. Put simply, God lacks the words before which he can appear as he has appeared to Lucifer. Lucifer’s “so,” an abrupt transition that signals the end of his speeches, also signifies his surprise. Since Lucifer’s attempts at dialogue and theology have posited speech as the primary movement in a conversation with God, the erasure of language in this stanza’s epigraph seem like a new way of calling to him. Lucifer, then, seems rebuked not by God, but by a poet.
The tonal shift of this final poem, in a series of poems that figures Lucifer as jester, cynic, sycophant, and ironist, is tragic. Lucifer recognizes his flaw as miniscule and condemning: “even i,/ with my little piece of it/ have said too much.” As the brightest of angels, the farthest from God’s ear, Lucifer has transgressed with a little of God’s tongue, a little speech. The little speech that invites God’s presence is language that evokes silence: the elided word, the signifier “silence.” The poem ultimately plays with the possibilities for poetry that at once speaks and does not speak, that creates absences in which God might appear.
The poem goes about its work, which is to justify the ways of God, dialectically: in its own “little piece” of speech, it constructs a space in which God’s silence can register, a word before which God can be. The poem concludes: “before the word/ You were./ You kiss my brother mouth./ the rest is silence.” These lines, suggesting the necessity of speech/language to demarcate God’s being, highlight the importance, if not the totality, of language’s effect. The image of the kiss reinforces the dialectic performed, between speech and silence and between Lucifer and God, which results in the third term of human existence. The silent exchange of tongue and breath, metonymies for the opposed terms of speech and God both in this poem and in a rather classical theological tradition, unite an eternal and changeless God and the agent of human history in the act of a kiss. This unification, however, occurs under the sign of poetry, in the space of a sequence of Lucille Clifton’s poems and the sign of Carolyn Forché.
Copyright 2001 by Andrew Moss
Lucille Clifton's poem "to my last period" offers a radical revision of the tradition of ode writing that parodies the conventions used in this form by male poets and explores the problematic construct of femininity generated by male-authored odes. This reworking of the ode is performed both on the level of authorship-through the appropriation of this literary form by the female poet and female speaker-and on the level of poetic structure which displays departure from the form and content commonly associated with the ode.
The substitution of the traditional relationship of a male speaker (implemented in the poem by a male poet) and a female addressee for a female speaker's relationship to her own body plays an important role in the poem's investment in the rejection of the fetishising gaze. Clifton's speaker exposes the objectifying implication of the established convention embodied in a male speaker's address to a woman who often becomes elevated and praised as both the source of poetic inspiration and the icon of beauty. In the process, the woman becomes a silenced object of superfluous glorification and the definition of her identity is entirely controlled by the male voice. By giving the woman the authority of being both the author and the subject of the poem and by transforming a physiological function of the female body into the poet's muse, Clifton equips the form of the ode with a new feminist potential.
The opening line of the poem: "well girl, goodbye" boldly, though nostalgically, announces the difference between the relationship that the speaker has with the subject of her ode and the traditional relations of power revealed in male-authored poems addressed to women. Rather than putting the addressee of her poem on the pedestal, the speaker establishes the image of her "last period" which emanates intimacy and affection. This closeness-juxtaposed against the distance of alienating fetishism of many male-authored odes-results from the speaker's understanding of her complex identity as a woman. Rather than expressing estrangement from this aspect of her experience, she establishes it as deserving an endearing name: "girl." This term frames the relationship between the speaker and "her last period" as friendship of "thirty-eight years" (3). The speaker embraces both the inconvenience:
[. . .] you never arrived . . . without trouble for me (3-6),
and the inevitable loss of this bitter-sweet element of her experience as a woman: "now it is done" (8). Unlike the female muse of a male poet who is doomed to become the ultimate "other" in the process of being talked about rather than talked to (despite the poem's being an ode), the subject of Clifton's poem--the speaker's now-gone period--is an inherent part of the speaker's self, even in its absence. The incorporation of these rarely celebrated aspects of womanhood foregrounds these elements of the female identity that are usually left unacknowledged by male poets' "homage" to feminine qualities.
Thus, Clifton's poem is an affirmation of womanhood as it is experienced by women, rather than perceived and incorporated into discourse by men. The speaker undertakes the task of celebrating the beauty which has been silenced in male-authored paeans on feminine grace and charm. The poem discontinues the tradition of elevating surface beauty, and unearths those aspects of femininity about which have been forced to remain unspoken, and thought of as filthy and inelegant. The obejctifying praises of a woman's eyes, lips, or bosom, here become substituted with a tribute to the simple markers of the experience of womanhood and its stages: the speaker''s menstruation and menopause.
The speaker, however, does make use of the language found in traditional praises of women's appearance by men. She refers to her period as being "splendid" (5), and personifies its presence and influence by speaking of its "red dress" (5). This metaphor not only emphasises the magnificence of a woman's experience, but also breaks the silence which has traditionally been forced onto women's desire to speak their bodily experience. By drawing the reader's attention to such a sensory, unescapable aspect of herself as the redness of her menstrual blood, the speaker leaves no possibility for the reader to deny the existence of her subjectivity as a woman. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker continues and reinforces the theme of the splendor related to this physicality, when she nostalgically recalls the days of her youth. Here, she again personifies her menstruation as a young girl. She compares herself to
grandmothers who, after the hussy has gone, sit holding her photograph and sighing, wasn't she beautiful? wasn't she beautiful? (10-14)
While reminiscent of male-authored poems about women, the emphatically repeated words "wasn't she beautiful?" perform an act of displacement of the traditional value of beauty from the surface of the female body to its deepest inferiority.
The poem engages in the reform of the ode also on the level of poetic form. Clifton's characteristically minimalist style and lack of capitalisation stage a rebellion against the pathos and exaggeration that often mark odes written by men about women. The laconic expression of affection in "to my last period" poses a challenge to bombastic articulations of seeming adoration that often serve to disguise the claims to authority and domination. The brevity of Clifton's lines and the unadorned quality of her language at large also facilitate the rendition of the simple but genuine emotion that the poem expresses, and the fact that-as a woman-the speaker does not need inflated eloquence to capture the substance of the subject. Thus, the form of Clifton's ode reinforces the assertive statements that the poem's content makes about the experience of womanhood and the authority to define it.
Copyright © 2004 by Agnieszka Tuszynska.
Both of Clifton’s poems represent the female body as the essence, or site, of female identity while simultaneously situating them as separate from the woman herself. In “poem to my uterus,” the female reproductive organ is her “estrogen kitchen,” the very site of her physical femininity. However, the uterus is also the “old girl” that is somehow separate from the speaker. In “to my last period,” a similar representation of femininity appears. The end of her menstruation—either because of menopause or because the uterus has been removed—is figured as a loss but also as something separate from the speaker herself. She is the “girl” who has arrived for thirty-eight years bringing nothing but trouble. In these rather simple verses, then, Clifton embodies the feminine without equating the woman wholly with her body. The body aids in the perception of womanhood, and in some cases is the site of womanhood, but the poems each make clear that the voice of the poem speaks separately from the body itself.
In “poem to my uterus,” the speaker and her sense of femininity will be forever changed by the loss of her uterus, but the poem also highlights the more important need to forge a new femininity. The speaker sees the uterus as her “black bag of desire” and asks it “where am I going/ old girl/ without you”? By inscribing the soon-to-be-removed uterus as the site of desire, the poem draws attention to a desire beyond the organ. It is not the uterus that desires itself here, but the woman speaking apart from the uterus who displays her desire for sexuality, a sexuality that may be endangered by the removal of the uterus. The poem displays a sense of self and subjectivity of which the speaker, herself, may be unconscious. The final lines, “where can you go/ without me” refocus the woman as the subject of the poem and reemphasize the agency we see in the first lines when she addresses the object, “you uterus.” The speaker may be experiencing a loss and may have doubts about the future of her femininity, but from the very beginning of the poem she represents herself as the active, speaking subject. She tells the silent organ, “you have been patient/ as a sock/ while I have slippered into you/ my dead and living children.” Though the uterus would ultimately be responsible for creating or destroying life, she illustrates her agency when she claims that she was the one who “slippered” them in.
Similarly, “to my last period” articulates a notion of the feminine situated in the body while allowing the speaker to always retain a separate subjectivity. Like “poem to my uterus,” it is not the loss of this natural process that will change her but the perception of that loss. The speaker hails her last period as “girl,” both an endearing and chiding greeting. For thirty-eight years, we are told, the “girl” “never arrived/ splendid in your red dress/ without trouble for me/ somewhere, somehow.” In these lines, the speaker separates herself, and consequently her identity, from the natural process that she embodies and that embodies her as a woman. Rather than say she has become like the grandmothers, the speaker uses the verb “feel” when she claims “I feel just like/ the grandmothers” when she talks of the loss of her period. The poem thus indicates that she understands this change to be a perception rather than an essential transformation. As both the “grandmother” and the “hussy,” the speaker articulates a version of femininity linked essentially to female biological processes, but not eclipsed by them. The word hussy encompasses both the more contemporary definition of the word as a hypersexual and immoral female and the more antiquated definition of the word as a housewife. Through its etymology, the word “hussy,” therefore encapsulates a spectrum of womanhood and femininity from the hypersexual to the heteronormative, while to be a grandmother reemphasizes that womanhood by always indicating past production and reproduction that menopause cannot erased. Further, to be a grandmother indicates that she is the beginning of a chain of reproductivity. Though the speakers entrance into menopause is figured here as a loss, it is not a loss of womanhood, for even as a grandmother, she refers to her own reproductive past.
By separating the self from the purely biological, femininity is portrayed as multi-layered and multi-faceted. In these poems, the loss of an organ or the entrance into menopause does not alone un-sex a woman. These events may alter her perception, they may highlight great losses in a woman’s life, but the distance between the speaker and what is spoken to or about always destabilizes a reading of the poem that would see the body as equivalent to the woman herself. Instead, Clifton moves to reclaim the body without allowing the female body to supercede the importance and voice of the woman herself. Both part of and separate from her body, the speakers in these poems call attention to the ways that corporality and a psychic sense of self inform one another.
Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Dunick.
Clifton gained national attention in l969 with her first volume, praised for its craft and its evocation of urban black life. Thus her early work is significant to the Black Arts Movement; however, four subsequent volumes demonstrate that hers is a poetry not of race but of revelation, in the manner of Denise Levertov. Characterized by brevity, simplicity of language, and polyrhythmical phrasing, her work celebrates the spiritual revealed in the ordinary. Many poems (e.g.
From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954, to a Mexican father and a Chicana mother; she has six brothers and is the only daughter in the family. She moved frequently during her childhood and visited Mexico often, to visit her paternal grandmother. Like Esperanza, the main character in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros recalls these moves as painful experiences: "'Because we moved so much, and always in neighborhoods that appeared like France after World War II--empty lots and burned-out-buildings--I retreated inside myself'" (Sagel 74).
In the introduction to Alfred A. Knopf's 1994, ten-year anniversary reprinting of her House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros recalls what initially inspired the now internationally acclaimed novel. As a graduate student in the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Cisneros felt alienated by discussion of Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space. She says, "What was this guy talking about when he mentioned the familiar and comforting 'house of memory'? It was obvious he never had to clean one or pay the landlord rent for one like ours" (xiii-xiv).
Chicago native Ana Castillo began to write as a young activist in the 1970s, using her poetry as a form of a social protest; as she says, "Being of Mexican background, being Indian-looking, being a female, coming from a working-class background, and then becoming politicized in high school, that was my direction . . . I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade--and I continue to write that way" (Baker 59).
Gwendolyn Brooks identifies “Gay Chaps at the Bar” as a “sonnet series in off-rhymes, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation” (Brooks 9). By writing from the perspective of black soldiers who are experiencing the intersecting violences of war and racism, Brooks addresses their complex relationship to their “home” in a country that was still segregated and still motivated by racism, hate, and fear. Brooks' sonnet sequence addresses the sites in which racially defined relationships are both established and challenged, and she also speaks about some of the emotional and practical difficulties of the soldier's relationship to the United States.
Susan Schweik aptly identifies “looking” as both a significant sonnet in the sequence and a central trope of the sequence as a whole. In this sonnet, looking is not only feminized, but motherly, and Schweik uses Mary Ann Doane’s theorization of wartime “weepies” in order to analyze the “maternal look” of the poem (MAPS). Schweik is critical of the way in which this feminized gaze reinforces a conservative and conventional set of gender relationships, insisting that “Brooks's "looking" develops, in part, a similar mythology of feminine relation to systems of representation mastered by men” (MAPS). However, in other sonnets in the sequence, the gender of the “look” is complicated, as looking becomes the central mode of both identification and misidentification, the process through which the soldiers are racialized and the process through which that racialization is complicated, reversed, or undermined. The act of “looking” becomes even more fraught if we read “looking” in conjunction with two other sonnets in the sequence that are structured around sight or the act of looking: “still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” and “the white troops had their orders but the negroes looked like men.” In both these poems, visual performativity and the act of looking are foregrounded as potentially positive or re-humanizing agents, yet these potential affirmative readings are undercut by the each sonnet’s turn.
By stating that “Gay Chaps at the Bar” relies on letters that she received from soldiers overseas, Gwendolyn Brooks seems to impart her poem with the authority of those voices, relying on the testimonies of men who were “over-there.” However, the pretext of the authoritative, authentic male voice is almost immediately revealed as a guise, since the formality of Brooks’ sonnet sequence dispels any illusion that she is directly transmitting “letters from the front.” According to Ann Fowell Stanford,
By writing in male voices, by revising “the old stories,” Brooks resituates herself, moving from the peripheral “woman’s” place of observing war, to the center of the action. In so doing she both decanters the traditional male voice and reinscribes war with her multi-leveled meaning, resisting and refuting the traditional notion of women’s exteriority to war. The poet’s female and marginalized voice then, by cross-dressing in soldier’s garb, gains a more central position from which to speak (198).
Stanford’s reading of “Gay Chaps” as a kind of “cross-dressing” or drag opens up the gendered implications of the poem, allowing traditional male and female spheres to intersect with and affect one another.
In “the white troops had their orders,” the white troops’ racializing and “hooded gaze” becomes “perplexed” when it meets the “Negroes” face to face. These first lines complicate the act of looking; instead of establishing a racial divide based on the identification of skin color, “looking” actually confuses such an easy division. The poem also suggests that the cause of the white troops’ confusion is the fact that both white and black soldiers were fighting on the same side and that, therefore, distinguishing between black and white became much less important than distinguishing “friendly” soldiers from enemies:]
Besides, it taxed Time and temper to remember those Congenital iniquities that cause Disfavor of the darkness.
The first octet works to suggest that war might have a democratizing influence that would confound racism. The “white soldiers” could no longer keep the “hooded gaze,” a phrase that suggests the Klansmen’s hoods, which allowed Klansmen to disguise themselves so that they had the privilege of looking at and murdering black men without that gaze being reciprocated or that power threatened. In this poem, however, both black and white men look and are looked at, so that the gazes are necessarily reciprocal.
That hopeful moment is undermined by the sonnet’s turn, in which it becomes clear that one of the most significant challenges in distinguishing “dark men” and “Other” came in labeling the soldiers’ remains. Only after their bodies had been mangled beyond recognition were the white and black men truly indistinguishable, so that the establishment of equality relies on destruction and mutilation. The last lines confound sight, since the individual bodies have been reduced to “contents” that “had been scrambled/ Or even switched.” The racializing look has been perplexed, but not necessarily because “the Negroes looked like men,” but because all of the dead men had been equally reduced to corpses or “contents.” Therefore, the last two lines are doubly ironic. On the one hand, they announce that intimate racial mixing has occurred in the “scambl[ing]” of the body parts, yet “Neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled” at this supposed affront to the natural order. On the other hand, however, the lines refer to the fact that these men can die and be torn apart, yet the earth remains the same: “And there was nothing startling in the weather.” These last lines pose a direct challenge to people who were appalled by anything that challenged racial purity, but they also undermine the epic tradition in which heroes died and the earth “trembled.”
“the white troops had their orders” references both the persistent segregation that lasted throughout the war and the spaces in which that segregation necessarily broke down. Racism continues to exist on the battlefield, but the battlefield is also a place where the unreasonable and false bases of racism are starkly, and often grotesquely, revealed. An entry in The Crisis’s “Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield” (March 1942) presents the inverse of Brooks’ sonnet by informing readers that the president of the American Red Cross had announced that instead of refusing . . . to accept blood from Negro donors, the Red Cross would accept it, but keep it separate from “white” blood plasma. The Red Cross acknowledges that there is no scientific difference between “Negro” blood, and “white” blood, but repeats its belief that in the interest of democracy, the prejudices of men who may need blood transfusions should respected (100). Here, a medical institution denies what would be best for its patients in favor of a false “democracy” founded on prejudice rather than knowledge. Such a policy was not only grossly insulting to the African Americans who donated blood and inimical to the health of the soldiers and the success of the Allies but, as Brook’s sonnet suggests, such a policy is potentially impossible to maintain.
Like “the white troops had their orders,” Brooks’ “Still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” begins with an affirmation of the solders’ humanity, though the ellipses that follow “identity” already suggest that the confidence of the title’s assertion will be challenged. The first lines echo the tradition of the love sonnet in their sonorous rhythms. Unlike the traditional love sonnet, however, the poem makes no pretence of praising only one person, but rather lovingly gives “Each body” its due: “Each body has its art, its precious prescribed/ Pose.” Each person receives his identity from being seen; his identity is a performance, a “Pose” that is re-enacted in every situation. As in “looking,” the gaze is here both romanticized and maternal, protective and eroticizing. As such, it is a feminized gaze, but not necessarily a woman’s, since the poem suggests a homosocial arenas in which men would know each other’s “Poses” more intimately than anyone else would.
Though the gaze is loving, careful to document each solder’s individual identity, the sonnet’s sestet once again undermines the significance of this romanticized gaze. The worth of the body is partially threatened in the third and forth line, when the fact that “grief has stabbed,/ Or hatred hacked” prefigures the destruction (or even the dismemberment) of the body and, therefore, of “its pose.” However, the next lines come to reaffirm each individual’s right to his own body: “No other stock/ That is irrevocable, perpetual/ And its to keep. In castle or in shack.” The last phrase of the octet, however, suggests the evacuation of the body’s meaning, since the poet insists that the body keeps pose “Though good, nothing, or ill.” The interposing of “nothing” in that line suggest that each body’s performance is empty, a mere repetition of meaningless gestures. Then, in the last lines, the affirmation of the body’s look is made ironic, even grotesque, by its violent death. After “Having twisted, gagged, and then sweet-ceased to bother,” the body can return to “the old personal art.” But the word “personal” has been emptied out of value, divested of individuality and potential meaning – it is no more and no less than a “look.” The identity that was once so lovingly transcribed has become a grotesque effigy of itself, and the body that could once both see and be seen – that could fix the other through his “look” – has now become an object that can only be gazed upon.
“Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield.” The Crisis March 1942, 100. Brooks, Gwendolyn and George Stavros. “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Contemporary Literature 11.1 (Winter 1970), 1-20. Stanford, Anne Folwell. “Dialectics of Desire: War and the Restive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Negro Hero’ and ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar.’” African American Review 26.2 (Summer 1992). 197-211.
Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer