Gay Chaps at the Bar

James Smethurst: "And We Still Wear Our Uniforms": Modernism, Community, and the African-American Sonnet in A Street in Bronzeville

A Street in Bronzeville closes with a sequence of twelve off-rhyme sonnets, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," which invoke both the African-American speaking subject and the tradition of "high" literature as it is popularly understood and yet undermine those invocations. As in the "Hattie Scott" series, the narratorial consciousness is absent from what is represented as ostensibly the unmediated voice of an Afircan-American officer, or series of African-American officers, at the front during World War II. However, the voice of the soldier is so clearly "literary" that the reader is constantly and consciously reminded that this mask is indeed a mask, as in the title sonnet that begins the series: "We knew how to order. Just the dash/Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste."

The "literariness" of the speaker's syntax is clearly self-mocking. On the face of it, the speaker, a "middle-class," self-consciously sophisticated, college-educated African-American man, mocks his own "attainments" in the face of death. But, as mentioned earlier, the very literariness of the syntax, and the choice of the archetypal "high" literary form of the sonnet sequence, reminds the reader that this satiric voice is not the soldier himself, but a narratorial consciousness that, when seen within the larger context of the collection, the reader assumes to be female. That the sonnets are narratorial reconstructions (and distortions) is further emphasized by the epigraph, which is drawn from a letter to Brooks and which, while self-consciously literate, is far more chatty and less "literary" than the following sonnets. The literariness of the poem's syntax is reinforced by the fact that a close reading inevitably draws the reader back to other poems in the collection. The lines "And we knew beautifully how to give to women / The summer spread, the tropics, of our love. / When to persist, or hold a hunger off" recall "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith" as the mannered self-control (and mannered abandon) of the speaker demands comparison with the uncontrolled hunger of the poverty-stricken Smith. While the narratorial consciousness is obviously not unsympathetic to the speaker of the sonnet, there is a certain critique of the middle-class individual whose self-aware sophistication lacks the spirit of rebellion of the working-class subject, a rebellion that is viewed by the narratorial consciousness with a horrified admiration. A similar critique is found in the relation of the ninth line "But nothing ever taught us to be islands" to the poems immediately preceding the sonnet sequence, in which the experience of black women constantly prepares them to be "islands."

Formally, the choice of the sonnet sequence to end the collection may seem at odds with the self-reflexive meditation on the relation between "high" culture and "mass" culture in the construction (and the destruction) of community that has characterized the collection, in that "mass" culture or "popular" culture seems virtually missing from these closing poems. However, on closer inspection, the choice of the sonnet is apt. For the "Middle-class" American, black and white, with a reasonable amount of formal education, the sonnet as a literary form epitomized "high" culture. If an American of that era (or this one) were asked to name a type of poem (and could), he or she would almost certainly name the sonnet, unless they were among the relatively few avid readers of poetry (and even an avid reader of poetry would probably think first of the sonnet rather than, say, the sestina or the rondeau). In short, the sonnet as a form could be seen as a popular-culture emblem of "high" culture (and in turn a sort of commercial marketing strategy) in much the same way as the name "Shakespeare." That the sonnet was in the popular mind the archetypal "high" poetic form particularly associated with notions of a pre-modern or traditional "high" European culture made it a particularly inviting target for numerous American modernists, black and white, male and female, who variously attempted to capture, recapture, recast, deform, or destroy it.

The sonnet was a form especially favored by African-American writers in the twentieth century until at least the early 1950s. Houston Baker Jr.'s concepts of "mastery" and "deformation of mastery" are both useful in considering this tradition, in which some African-American authors demonstrated their "mastery" of the archetypal "high" form in fairly straightforward fashion while others "deformed" the sonnet in various ways, often by writing overtly "political" or "social" poems rather than the love lyrics generally associated with the form. Much more rarely do African-American poets "deform" the sonnet through the recasting of the sonnet in a representation of African-American vernacular speech and other forms of vernacular culture--though some have fragments with a double identity as vernacular speech (for example, "holler" in "gay chaps at the bar") embedded in them--with, as we have seen, Hughes's "Seven Moments of Love" section of Shakespeare in Harlem one of the few examples. Sometimes the sonnets written by African-American writers do not follow exactly the rhyme scheme of either the Petrarchan or Shakespearian sonnets seen as most "traditional" by American readers and writers, as in the case of a number of poems in the "Vestiges" section of Southern Road. However, nearly all make use of exact rhyme and are conservative in their use of typography, line break, punctuation, and so on--unless, again, one counts Hughes's "un-sonnet sequence." This relative African-American formal conservatism contrasts with the formal radicalism of the sonnets of many white modernists, notably e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens. If one can speak of the African-American sonnet tradition, it is one that can be generally seen as both self-consciously "deformative" in content and conservative in its execution of formal "mastery"--at least on the printed page since, as noted in chapter I with respect to McKay, a spoken version might be another thing.

Thus, while it is worthwhile to link, as D. H. Melhem does, Brooks's use of the sonnet here to the sonnets of various New Negro Renaissance writers (though why Melhem leaves out earlier writers, notably Dunbar, in her brief genealogy of the African-American sonnet is puzzling), Brooks's sonnets are formally quite different from those earlier sonnets. This difference is most obvious in Brooks's avoidance of exact end-rhyme, employing instead near rhyme, slant rhymes, assonance, alliteration, and, on occasion, no suggestion of rhyme. This avoidance of end-rhyme calls attention to the rhyming conventions of various types of sonnets while avoiding them even as the conventions are invoked, particularly when the rhyme scheme of the not-quite rhymes fits, or nearly fits, the pattern of a "typical" sonnet, as in the seventh poem in the series, "the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men," which would be a regular Petrarchan sonnet if the not-quite-rhymes were exact. These sonnets self-consciously remind the reader of a "regular" sonnet, the popular middle-class icon of 'high" literature, and the use of the various sonnet forms by African-American writers, and yet evade that regularity. This studied invocation and evasion parallel both the mocking "literariness" of the syntax of the "middle-class" African-American soldiers speaking--in fact writing--and also the horrified inability of these soldiers to quite put all their sophisticated understanding of the rules of sports, love, college and "good" grammar back together again in the face of the war.

As Ann Folwell Stanford points out, the war here is not simply the war in Europe and the Pacific but also the war "at home" against racism, with the sonnets embodying the slogan of the "Double V" (victory abroad and victory against Jim Crow at home) first popularized by the African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Perhaps the sonnets also, as Stanford claims, "are, finally, prophetic warnings: They look back at the devastation of war, and forward toward a time of revolution and rebellion that was to come in the Sixties" (though this seems to remake Brooks from the standpoint of her later participation in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s). There is a sense of past and present apocalypse in the sonnets, particularly in the final sonnet:

How shall we smile, congratulate: and how Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step Of iron feet again. And again wild.

But the sonnets also explore the difficulties and contradictions of such revolutionary moments where apocalyptic events have dislocated past knowledge of community and identity determined by the interface of race, region, class, and gender. This identity crisis is seen as good in many respects since the old system of social identity was oppressive in the extreme, especially for the African-American subject. And yet such a crisis is profoundly unsettling, notably for the "middle-class" black subject who feels he or she has something to lose as well as gain. Thus these subjects in the sonnets are preoccupied with often imprisoning social guideposts--etiquette, religion, patriotism, racial and economic caste, romantic love--that they feel they are losing even as they desperately try to retain them so that their lives can continue to make sense. In this, the ending of Brooks's collection is closely related in spirit to Hughes's Montage of A Dream Deferred, in which a spirit of edgy rebellion and fear pervades. The problem for the individual is coming to terms with what it would mean to win the wars at home and abroad, with what such a world would look like, and with how community, and the identity of the individual within the community, could be imagined.

The relation of this to Brooks's own project is obvious. A Street in Bronzeville is obsessively concerned with the problems of the literary representation of the individual African-American subject in an "authentic" manner that is also "literary" and of the relation of the "folk," "popular," and "high" discourses to social hierarchy and social power. Much of the collection before the final sonnet sequence calls upon the resources of these various discourses while investigating what the cost of such usages might be. The stance of the narratorial consciousness in these meditations on the problems of "authenticity" and artistic "achievement" is quite ambivalent. A sort of Faustian pact is seen as necessary to create the poems, with the narratorial consciousness aware at all times of the cost--not the least of which is the inability to speak with absolute sincerity and conviction. The sonnet sequence prominently links the question of the process of artistic construction to the recurring themes of manners, tradition, and belief in the construction (and reconstruction) of identity with the inevitable attention to form that the adoption and unusual adaptation of the sonnet as a poetic vehicle inevitably entails for even a casual reader. Finally, the narratorial consciousness is able to imagine the breakdown of tradition, manners, and language itself. But it is unable to imagine the new order; the "iron feet" bring dread, not elation--which is not to say that this inability to see a clear future means that this chaos is bad, simply that it is terrifying. In this respect, Brooks's sonnets here have to be among the most successful poems dealing with the terror of modernity in American letters.

Margaret Walker's claim that she was a "thirties" writer, while Brooks was essentially a "forties" writer, has a certain validity insofar as Brooks was considerably removed from the 1930s folkloric-high culture model associated with Sterling Brown and shaped in the ideological debates of the late New Negro Renaissance and the Third Period. Yet as we have seen, her work is closely related in form and in spirit to the self-reflexive work of many writers during the Popular Front, including such African-American writers as Hughes and Frank Marshall Davis, who were concerned with issues of class, racial, and/or gender oppression while meditating on the problems of attempting to write for a imagined popular audience in a way that was authentic, literary, and truly popular. There is an obvious, and much remarked, relationship of A Street in Bronzeville to the "modernists," which became even more pronounced in Annie Allen (1949) as the cold war intensified. But this relationship did not distinguish Brooks from many writers of the literary Left who had similarly complicated relationships to "high" modernism. While Brooks in A Street in Bronzeville, like the writers of the Popular Front, is concerned with issues of social justice and injustice, she creates a model where constructs of counter-hegemonic community, racial and class solidarity, and a simultaneously "popular" and "literary" discourse are provisional, imperfect, and unstable. This does not mean that this community is not "real," only that it needs to be constantly questioned with the result that the narratorial consciousness of the poems and the African-American speaking subjects which the poems attempt to represent and give voice to are never easy in communal identification. Neither is there the certainty--as there is generally is in Hughes's work--that the narratorial consciousness of the poet-intellectual-outsider is able to authentically recreate the folk or popular voice if he or she is sufficiently honest and receptive.

Brooks examined critically within an African-American context many of the thematic and formal concerns of Left writers in the 1930s: the connection of political vanguardism and artistic vanguardism; the problems of "realistic" formal representation and re-creation of the working-class-popular subject by a non-working-class artist; the relationship of "high" modernism and folk or popular modernism; the nature of mass culture; the relationship of class, gender, race, and nationality and the construction of community; the compatibility between a jeremiadic revolutionary or apocalyptic rhetorical mode and a liberal, progressive rhetorical mode.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford University Press.

Susan Schweik: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

From the start, "Gay Chaps" links itself directly and indirectly both to soldiers' letters and to soldier poetry. Its title and epigraph derive explicitly, as I have said, from a letter to the author from a "Lieutenant William Couch, in the South Pacific." After an opening dedication to Brooks's brother ("souvenir for Staff Sergeant Raymond Brooks and every other soldier"), words from one of Couch's letters immediately follow: ". . . and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. . . . " More implicitly, but in ways which would probably have been legible to many regular readers of the wartime Negro Story, the poem reworks another text written by Couch--not a letter from the front, but a war poem printed in that journal five months before the first publications of the sonnets which would comprise "Gay Chaps." Here, too, the governing figure of the "bar" occurs:

To a Soldier

Here

        where the cock sounds his synchronized song

        in a sunless morning

        and the caravans of young move towards the

        battlefronts ...

 

(0, brother say!)

       

        The planted cannon replies to the        

        last word, living urge of flesh        

        that aimlessly scratched the ground with        

        bayonet point        

        or, valiant, alert, stealthily moved into hell

        

                                (0, brother)

 

 

        but this is a neat note        

        and we shall not shed tears        

        home from the bar in silence ...

Couch’s poem presents itself as the painful, self-limiting address of a soldier to a soldier, of a brother to a brother; it counters its own calls for authentic response to the horror and alienation of the battlefield ("O brother say!") with the tight-lipped obligations of masculine self-censorship ("but this is a neat note / and we shall not shed tears"). Brooks's "Gay Chaps at the Bar," taking up from Couch both the subject of the soldier's language and the central bar image, inserts itself within this straining dialogue, interrupting what brothers have to say to brothers with what promises momentarily to be a sisterly response ("souvenir for Staff Sergeant Raymond Brooks").

From the first word of the first sonnet, however, it is clear that the poetic voice of "Gay Chaps" will answer back as the voice of a brother--or rather, of brothers, since the poem has multiple speakers; it represents the collective voice of the veteran combatants which Wilfred Owen, in his "Insensibility," had called the "We Wise." The "souvenir" for soldiers promptly metamorphoses into the memory of soldiers (that is, owned by soldiers). Like the troops in the British Great War poems which inaugurated the modern literary tradition of war poetry, the "We" of "gay chaps" are angry recorders of an aftermath. The poem is structured around a clear ironic contrast between after and before, front and homes:

[. . . .]

This sonnet may be read as an extended meditation on and transformation of the conventional meanings of two word-kernels: "bar" and "order." Each has a doubled range of associations, one related to alcohol and to heterosexual pleasure, the other to struggle and to prowess in conflict. Thus to be "at the bar" means, in the poem’s world of before, "to be in the place where one knows how to drink, to seduce and tantalize women." But in combat and its aftermath, the bar takes on a range of other sinister meanings; a blockage or obstacle, a marker of lines, it signifies not only the "color bar" of racist structures which the Black soldier breaks through into battle but also, as in the crossed "bar" of Tennyson’s famous poem, judgment and death." "Order" begins as a verb indicating sure possession of language in the context of the barroom, and adds in the later part of the poem an additional military denotation, a more potent command; the sonnet ends, however, in an explicit denial of the efficacy of men's language. It concludes, on the battleground, after the carnage, with a series of nothings, nos, nots, inhibitions, losses.

At the outset of this group of sonnets, both "bar" and "order" summon suggestions of control, of competence, of male power--only for the first poem to dispel them. The epigraph which begins the poetic series establishes an image of shattered masculine selfhood and a pattern of traumatized return ("return from the front crying and trembling") which underlies the entire sequence. Only in the second poem, "still do I keep my look, my identity," does Brooks focus on the death of a soldier, with a characteristic combination of grim depiction of rigor mortis and loving insistence on the dead man’s individuality. The subject of the eleven other sonnets, over and over, is the veteran’s stunned survival and his "incompleteness," his resumption, as the third sonnet puts it, "on such legs as are left me, in such heart / As I can manage."

This hint of amputation recalls Owen's "Disabled," a comparison which reveals one important way in which "Gay Chaps" repudiates as well as duplicates the conventions of the modern masculine soldier poem. "Disabled"'s war-wounded protagonist notices with bitterness how the same women’s eyes which had goaded him to war "passed from him to the strong men that were whole." "Gay Chaps" records a similar transition from masculine power to impotence, but although the first sonnet places women in the barroom to gaze at the men in their glorious displays of nightlife style, it absents women entirely from the battlefield and its aftermath. It refrains - and this is crucial - from including a female spectator in the second half of the poem, and does so, I believe, to resist the image of the demonic, instigating female gaze which for Owen and other literary men in the ironic tradition constituted the beginning and the end of aggression.

This strategy of omission, within what otherwise reads as a strikingly oppositional and anti-heroic Second War poem, serves two functions. In its representation of trauma without emasculation, its refusal of symbolic castration, its insistence on the continuing dignity and authority of the veteran, it mounts a defense of the soldier. But it also, of course, defends the woman who defends the soldier. Transforming the "stuff of letters" written to a woman into a dramatic veterans chorus speaking to no one, "Gay Chaps at the Bar" from its first poem certifies that this act of mimesis, this masculine masking, will be undertaken in a spirit of feminine humility, that it has been motivated by the energy of empathy, and that when the soldier says "I am incomplete" he is not the victim of untoward female glee. One distinct sign of that commitment is the curious disappearance of women from the opening sonnet at the moment at which it first represents the consequences of combat; present neither as readers of soldiers' letters nor as spectators, women vanish, exempted from the antagonisms of sexual difference in wartime and from the war poem’s pressures of address.

The sequence's first poem, "gay chaps," seems to shy away, then, from the central image of the culpable modern female spectator whose various shapes I have traced in earlier chapters. But that figure, barely suppressed, soon reappears at the heart of the fourth sonnet, the one entitled, aptly, "looking." In "looking" alone, among those "soldier sonnets," the subject of the poem becomes a woman’s subjectivity. As its title suggests, this sonnet explicitly explores the situation of the woman who, left behind in war, looks on; enacting a paradigmatic wartime plot, it grapples with questions about the politics, the ethics, and the efficacy of women's language and of the female gaze:

[. . . .]

"Elsewhere of 'matter,’" Irigaray writes in "The Power of Discourse," beginning to map the imagined terrain which edges against and lies beyond the realm of masculine discourse. She proceeds to elaborate on what she means by "matter": "mother-matter-nature" (77). Irigaray's formulation of the mother's relation to mimesis is worth quoting at length at the outset of a discussion of "looking," for it bears on what the "matter" is within the representation of the maternal in this soldier sonnet. "If women can play with mimesis," Irigaray continues, "it is because they are capable of bringing new nourishment to its operation. . . ."

Because they have always nourished this operation? Is not the "first" stake in mimesis that of re-producing (from) nature? Of giving it form in order to appropriate it for oneself? As guardians of "nature," are not women the ones who maintain, thus who make possible, the resource of mimesis for men? For the logos? (77)

Women, Irigaray suggests, are in one sense the makers and founders of mimesis: it is women, the first reproducers, who are supposed to provide and tend the fertile ground of the "natural' upon which all linguistic and cultural reproductions build. Nurturer and embodiment of the "real' from which all figurations turn and to which all realisms attach, the woman-as-mother selflessly empowers the symbolic order. Brooks's "looking" develops, in part, a similar mythology of feminine relation to systems of representation mastered by men. Effective language, in this sonnet, is imaged repeatedly as masculine; words with clout are either "male" themselves ("brawny" and "heavy," like a burly Marine), or they are fed, with maternal affection, by a woman to a man. The woman's word, an apple handed to the son so he can chew it "with masculine satisfaction," is no forbidden fruit; this is not Eve's apple, not a challenge to the logos, but the word as snack, offered by a mother (or by a woman acting, in wifely or girlish submission, like a mother) who properly maintains her position as natural resource.

"Looking" represents this order of things, however, only in a state of acute disruption: "You have no word for soldiers to enjoy." The tone here, at the start of a series of melancholy and deprecatory imperatives, bears a close resemblance to the inflections of voice in the growing wartime genre of advice literature for soldier's families, whose dual purpose was to recognize new anxieties and promote a new kind of emergency good manners. The crisis of the war disturbed, redefined, even sometimes drastically altered, women’s understanding, and their cultures understanding, of their roles as nourishers of the symbolic order; "looking" records and responds to that upheaval.

Like some of the most interesting examples of home-front advice literature (a body of texts which Susan Hartmann has categorized, memorably, as "prescriptions for Penelope,") "looking" wavers ambiguously between prescription and description, between speaking to and speaking for its female subject . It may be read either as a removed - even condescending - scolding, or as a self-revealing monologue only barely masked by the guarded use of "you" instead of "I." The form of address maintains, of course, the fiction of mimesis, keeping the woman at a careful distance in a poetic sequence whose decorum demands the consistent perspective of the masculine soldier. But the choice of the second person as governing pronoun takes on other ramifications, both aesthetic and political, when we read it, in a female-authored text, as a strategy of feminine self-representation.

This kind of address to a feminine second-person occurs in A Street in Bronzeville not only in this "soldier sonnet," part of a larger group of poems whose clear project is to mimic men, but also in what is perhaps Brooks's best-known dramatic monologue in a female voice: her representation of "The Mother." Barbara Johnson has illuminated the operations of the apostrophe to a "you" in the famous opening line of that poem, "Abortions will not let you forget":

The "you" can be seen as an "I" that has become alienated, distanced from itself, and combined with a generalized other, which includes and feminizes the reader of the poem. The grammatical I/thou starting point of traditional apostrophe has been replaced by a structure in which the speaker is simultaneously eclipsed, alienated, and confused with the addressees.

It is not, I think, accidental that "looking" shares with this poem about abortion the eclipses, alienations, and confusions of a self-objectified "I/ you." To willingly give up a son to the military in wartime can feel like a failure of nurture, like a murder of ones own child. "Any death of a child," Johnson writes, may be perceived "as a crime committed by the mother, something a mother ought by definition to be able to prevent" (198). In the face of the fear of that crime, and in the struggle between senses of guilt and of innocence, of coercion and of choice, maternal selfhood in both poems splits and blurs.

But here the two poems begin to differ, for if "The Mother," the abortion poem, violates taboos by too nearly severing abortion from criminality, "looking," the war poem, risks transgression if it too closely links maternal sacrifice to criminal negligence. In the forties, having an abortion was forbidden; letting the son of age be drafted or enlist was mandatory. Abortion would be done in secret; mother-son separation in the name of patriotism might be conducted with a show of public pride. At the same time, voluntary abortion was in some part an assertion of decisive will, while maternal sacrifice was in some part, as "looking" makes clear, a capitulation to the unpreventable. Brooks herself describes this difference sharply, in a comment on the persona of her abortion poem: the woman who aborts a child, she writes, is "hardly your crowned and praised and ‘customary' Mother; but a Mother not unfamiliar, who decides that she, rather than her World, will kill her children."

These distinctions underlie several important differences in the function and effect of the structures of address in the two poems; they help to explain why the feminization of the reader which Johnson describes seems startling in "The Mother" but conventional in "looking," and why "The Mother" can move from the second person to a female "I," while "looking" does not and cannot. The mother in the soldier sonnet, crowned an praised and customary, remains from start to finish locked within the systems of war and gender Nancy Huston has neatly summed up--"Women are required to breed, just as men are required to brawl."

"Looking" exacts this maternal service, but it also enacts the ways in which it takes its toll. In wartime, the poem suggests, linguistic system which the mother used to nourish collapse; an alternative is then proposed a maternal look - which scarcely suffices better. Unlike the masculine loss of words in "gay chaps," which is represented with clear irony and outrage, the feminine lack of words in "looking" seems guilty, the anger associated with it far more internalized and self-reflexive. The same holds true for the feminine look the poem counsels; here the female spectator, both the one who looks on and the one who is looked at looking on, struggles, anxiously and painfully, under the pressure of the advice which constitutes and represents her, to put on the right maternal face for the soldier.

But "even that is vain." "Looking" suggests the vanity of expression is a double sense. Not only will the possible arranged gestures for the woman on the threshold - words or looks - "little avail" against the buffeting storm of the war, but that woman’s expressions will also, in a sense, exist in vain, in vanity, signs of a constant awareness, as if she held a mirror up to her face, of the etiquette of feminine wartime response. It is in this representation of self-consciousness, I would argue, that we might find the most distinct traces of a critical feminine difference in this soldier sonnet. For the sad, odd rhetoric of advice-giving maintained throughout the poem raises a subversive possibility. If the proper feminine language and posture in the scene of parting do not surface unbidden from an originary reservoir of maternal feeling, if they may or must be stylized and scripted, then even mother-love itself, that most natural of resources, might be susceptible to, even composed of, mimicries.

In the end, though, "looking"’s subversive anxieties give way to a more conservative emotional appeal, a pathos best understood in the context of the very popular discourse in the mass culture of the forties which Mary Ann Doane has called "maternal melodrama." Like the wartime films Doane analyzes in her The Desire to Desire, "looking" enacts a scenario of mother/child separation, focusing on what Doane calls

the contradictory position of the mother within patriarchal society--a position formulated by the injunction that she focus desire on the child and the subsequent demand to give up the child to the social order. Motherhood is conceived as the always uneasy conjunction of an absolute closeness and a forced distance. The scenario of "watching the child from afar" thus constitutes itself as the privileged tableau of the genre.... (74)

And like the "weepies" Doane describes, "looking" exhibits "a distrust of language, locating the fullness of meaning elsewhere," aiming to "recover for meaning what is outside meaning" by affirming the primacy of "nonlinguistic registers" (85). Although, as I have said, "looking" makes the maternal look and gesture problematic by asserting their vanity, opening the possibility of a critical distance between the mother and her son, the mother and her motherhood, and the reader and maternal ideology, its closing lines accomplish the end defined by Doane: "The pathos which plays a dominant role in maternal melodrama works to close the gap between spectator and text" (178). The excessive language of pathos in Brooks's lines -"The touch or look or word, will little avail, / The brawniest will not beat back the storm / Nor the heaviest haul your little boy from harm" - the woman's language, "your little boy," confirms the presence of a spontaneous motherly grief, and affirms a maternal and filial bond which cannot be undone. In an exact reversal of the movement in "gay chaps" from masculine verbal potency to verbal impotence, "looking" gestures finally toward a redemptive silence, rooting it in boundless, inexpressible maternal power of feeling. This recuperation of the "spontaneously" maternal is, however, drastically limited, both by the poem’s governing structure of negation and by maternal melodrama’s stereotyped script.

In the midst of a series of poems which mimic masculine representations of soldiers' experience, "looking" anatomizes the position of the female spectator from "inside"--a second-person inside which tends disturbingly, until the final words of the poem, to fuse and be confused with roles externally imposed. It comes as no surprise that the one figure of feminine subjectivity and interiority these well-mimed soldier sonnets are able to admit takes the shape of a mother. The maternal self-consciousness which "looking" renders is far less transgressive and far more permissible within the war poem than other forms of more sexually narcissistic feminine self-regard. Irigaray ends her survey of the "elsewhere of matter" with a warning about the limits and the vulnerability of the mother's position: "Mother-matter-nature must go on forever nourishing speculation. But this re-source is also rejected as the waste product of reflection, cast outside as what resists it.... Besides the ambivalence that the nourishing phallic mother attracts to herself, this function leaves women’s sexual pleasure aside" (77). No sooner has "looking" with finely tuned ambivalence played out the scene, so central to war systems, in which soldier and mother must simultaneously embrace and detach than the troubling question of the "elsewhere of female pleasure" surfaces, with a disturbingly familiar ring, in "Gay Chaps at the Bar."

The next sonnets in the sequence depict desirable women, lovers of soldiers, who live wholly in the realm of a surface aesthetic which is unable to recognize, and which attempts to repel, the deep disturbances that war causes in past and distant places. Two companion pieces, "piano after war" and "mentors," share an identical pattern. In both, a soldier speaker who envisions his survival after war’s end rejects the imagined seductive image of a present woman for the company of dead, remembered fellow soldiers. He swears to imprison himself in recall - not to "thaw," not to "rejuvenate," not, in a real sense, to survive: "I swear to keep the dead upon my mind" (69).

The female objects of desire - and objects of the punishing repudiation of desire - in these poems are represented as sirens, in keeping with the older ironic, anti-heroic war poetry tradition upon which this sonnet series so insistently calls. Femmes fatales, they tempt soldiers and civilizations to ignore history, to forget the truth about military conflict, to dally in the realm of trivial detail. They wear flowers in their hair and dance at banquets, or play piano "on a snug evening" with "cleverly ringed" fingers. Possessing no observable self-knowledge or knowledge of destruction, they produce a powerful but superficial form of art without war.

Through these female figures, "Gay Chaps" takes up a question central to many texts within the developing canon of war literature in the Second War period (the war poems of Richard Eberhart and Richard Wilbur come immediately to mind): the place of aesthetic impulses in the war poem and in a world at war, or, as we might say, the proper aesthetics of war. Other texts written before and after this one embody the threat of an aesthetics which cannot incorporate pain in women. The veteran Krebs in Hemingway's paradigmatic "Soldier's Home," for instance, is represented as feeling this way about girls on his return: "He liked the look of them.... But the world they were in was not the world he was in.... They were such a nice pattern. He liked the pattern. It was exciting. But he would not go through all the talking. He did not want one badly enough. He liked to look at them all, though. It was not worth it." The speaker of Brooks's "piano after war," imagining himself haunted by the ghosts of soldiers, deadened and unable to respond to the attractions of the woman who serenades him, shares Krebs's world. Both texts place themselves within the broad field of home-front cultural discourses which represented the ex-soldier’s alienation. Both engage, too, in a common literary project: testing the power and the failure of aesthetic pleasure in wartime through stories about breaches between patterned women and battered men.

But there the resemblance ends. "Soldier's Home" and "piano after war" disclose an identical subject, the estranged veteran; they do so, however, in acutely divergent ways. I want to pause here briefly for a closer look at their differences in form and style, for in those disparities we might locate in Brooks’s sonnet a potentially severe disruption of the orderly processes of imitation and identification, exposing - if only momentarily - visible, crooked seams in the ostensibly smooth mask of the soldier.

The language of the narrative passage from "Soldier's Home" is curt, stuttered, telegraphic; it enacts exactly Krebs’s traumatized resistance to aestheticism and the feminine. This is, of course, classic Hemingway style: the art hiding its art, the masculine reticence which signifies, even as it suppresses, a hidden depth, the famous iceberg effect Hemingway described as "7/8 of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg." In this description of Krebs's frozen impassivity, form and content perfectly coincide.

"Piano after war," in contrast, strives after no iceberg effect; in fact, this sonnet courts melting, demands a thaw, revels in a liquid musicality:

[. . . .]

The visual imagery of "piano after war" replicates exactly the conventions of ironic masculine war poetry: the male gaze objectives a woman who is both seductive and sinister. But the poetic voice flows oddly counter to that perspective--pretty, polished, musical, it aligns itself with those manners and values which home-front culture and the poem itself define as feminine. Once again Mary Ann Doane's work on forties cinema is pertinent: in the classic "woman’s film," the love story, Doane writes, music is "the bad object . . . the site of overindulgent or excessive affect ... constrained by its confinement to female subjectivity" (103). Here, as "piano after war" represents the veteran’s paranoia in audaciously lyric, excessively melodious language, content and style rupture and work openly against each other.

The self-conscious Shakespearian rhetoric of a line like "That sometimes after sunset warms the west" suggests another context for interpretation of the poem’s form and diction: "piano after war" raises, more insistently than any previous part of the "Gay Chaps" sequence, the question of the soldier's relation to the sonnet. Brooks used sonnet form habitually and expertly throughout the forties; Stacy Carson Hubbard, in her groundbreaking analysis, has described the dynamics of form in another sonnet, "First fight. Then fiddle," published in Brooks's next book which also opposes combat to the lyric and to music:

Like a jazz riff, it undoes and redoes its own chosen model, stopping short where the line extends, racing past where the rhyme calls halt, and plying the stiffness of iambic pentameter with syntactical interruptions and occasional dactylic and spondaic intrusions.... This counterpointing of the sonnet's formal devices works to ironize from within both the poem’s relation to literary tradition and to non-discursive action.

In comparison to the nervy energy of "First Fight. Then Fiddle," "piano after war"'s relentlessly pretty negotiations with sonnet form seem placid and listless. Here, perhaps, the conservative pressures inherent in the particular mimetic project of "Gay Chaps" may take their toll. The struggle over which must have priority, war or poetry, is represented in "First Fight" as a productive argument within the self, an ironic tension worked out vigorously within the voice. But "piano after war," caught inside the reactionary sexual conventions of the dominant masculine ironic war poetry tradition, seems to divide these values and attributes between men and women, creating oppositional categories rendered as inert and essential, deploying all its irony at the expense of the female "other." Since its claims to represent male experience depend on stigmatizing a "feminine" lyric impulse which is, in fact, its own, "piano after war" might be said to fail miserably, interestingly, performing and enacting a crisis of mimesis.

How, then, to judge that "failure"? After all, the tricky play with mimesis as Irigaray formulates it works only to the extent that it manages to open a gap between style and essence, the "here" of the text and an "elsewhere." Otherwise it ceases to be playful or critical, becoming instead simply docile, sober: complicit mimesis itself. Couldn’t this "failing," then, constitute the success of "piano after war"?

Perhaps, but finally, like "looking" with its appeal to maternal pathos, "piano after war" aims less toward a radical crisis in gendered structures than toward a liberal conciliation. It is important to note that the piano-playing scene on which the poem centers takes place within a dramatic monologue and in the future tense: "On a snug evening I shall watch her fingers." The veteran’s denial of a feminine aesthetics is represented not as accomplished fact but as desperate fantasy, a process of shifting from longing to mistrust, from opening to foreclosure, from the will to survive to a deliberate deadening, which exemplifies the trauma of the soldier. The dynamic of "shall," its willed projection into the future, implicitly raises the possibility that the speaker might move beyond his impassivity, might heal; the woman’s music--a music the poem itself, the speaker's desire itself, releases--might, however suspect, be an integral part of that process.

Moreover, as in all Brooks's poems, a reading of sexual differences in "piano after war" is complicated, if not altered, by the presence of other factors: differences of race and color. The female figure here is not obviously a "fair lady" like the Negro Hero’s paramour; she is not racially marked with categorical certainty. But in the context of the entire collection of poems in which "Gay Chaps" was the concluding sequences book preoccupied, as Gloria T. Hull puts it, with "the browns, blacks, tans, chocolates, and yellows of Afro-American color ... especially as this schema victimizes [Brooks's] darker-skinned female character"--this woman’s racial ambiguity demands and frustrates identification. "On a snug evening I shall watch her fingers, / Cleverly ringed, declining to clever pink, / Beg glory from the willing keys": Are these the fingers of a Black or a white woman? The reduction of the female body down to this one small detail seems carefully designed to collapse the usual fine light and dark distinctions of heroine description, to suggest, cautiously, women of two races.

In Street in Bronzeville as a whole, however, Brooks's poetic voice characterizes itself not only by lush musicality but also, as Barbara Christian puts it, by "harsh cutting edges." And in that volume the poems repeatedly chart distinctions between privileged women who obey the standards of the upper middle class and poor women who can’t or won’t, between light- and darker-skinned women, between Black and white women. In this larger context, "piano after war"’s lady of the rosy-fingered sunset with lyric power at her fingertips wields only limited power and bears only limited guilt.

Still, within the more narrow compass of "Gay Chaps at the Bar," the failure of coherence between subject and enunciation in "piano after war," its odd disjunctive breaks between a mode defined as feminine and a perspective resolutely masculine, raise pressing questions about the possibilities of cross-gender identification and about the gender of voice and style. Those contradictions escalate and multiply in two heavily stylized later poems in the series, "love notes" I and II. The "love notes," as their generic titles make clear, openly confront the conventions both of the courtly love sonnet and of forties V-letter form. Here, finally, the "stuff of letters" from front to home, man to woman, is mimicked directly, but reworked in ways which disturb the norms of both Petrarchan tradition and its modern wartime counterpart. In these two poems, the focus shifts from character and dramatic scene (as in the earlier sonnets) to sheer rhetoric; the gendered conceits of the love note are mustered and disrupted one after another in a highly mannered display of stylistic ingenuity:

[. . . .]

Critics have frequently, and usefully, read these two sonnets as extended manipulations of one controlling metaphor: woman-as-flag, or flag-as-woman, a figure related to the female Democracy we viewed through the eyes of the Negro Hero. Like the Black soldier in that earlier poem, the speaker of the "love notes" strongly resembles the unrequited lovers of Renaissance sonnet tradition, vacillating, in eloquent alternations, between bitter despair and compensatory idealization. The flag/nation/lover here bears all the defining features of the Petrarchan lady; "she" is both the object of desire, tyrannical and fickle, who thwarts the speaker’s needs with careless cruelty and the chaste object of love whom he vows to serve faithfully. The wit of the "love notes" lies primarily in the way they translate received gestures of poetic courtship - in particular, the motivating ambivalence which seems to drive love sonnet tradition - into the battlefield, harnessing that familiar rhetorical volatility to express the emotional and intellectual struggle of the Black soldier.

To render democracy as a female figure is one thing. To collapse a woman into a flag goes one step further, reducing the representation of the soldier's allegiance to an almost entirely abstract sign-system, a pure semiotics of war, democracy, and gender. The "love notes" thus constitute "Gay Chaps"'s most condensed and sharpest engagement with the "stuff" of love and war poetry. Combined, they replicate a system in which the brandishing and embellishment of a female figurehead go always, inexorably, hand in hand with her punishment. Both poems invoke the intimate, hopeful modes of address of the Second War V-letter; each offers tempered declarations of the faithfulness of lovers to each other, of soldiers to their cause, of nations to their defenders. But the predominant tone, until the second sonnet's attempt to recuperate the lover at its close, is one not only of doubt but of active hostility.

Like the governing metaphor, "Woman’s face is a shield," which Nancy Vickers has analyzed in Shakepeare's Lucrece, the link of woman to flag in the "love notes" draws on the double meaning of the traditional blason whose workings I have already traced in the conventional V-letter poems of the forties: its association with military heraldry as well as with the poetic catalogue of praise - or blame - of a woman’s body. In the "bits of saucy color" worshipped and scorned by Brooks's soldier, as in the "heraldry of Lucrece' face" glossed by Vickers, "the colors of a woman’s flesh] ... are indistinguishable from the 'colors' of heraldry--which, in turn, are indistinguishable from the ‘colors' of ... rhetoric," and the consequence of these conflated figures is identical to that described by Vickers for the raped Lucrece: "a stylized fragmentation and reification of the female body that both transcends the familiar clichés of the battle of the sexes and stops the reader short ... the female body is mastered through polarized figurations that can only denigrate or idealize." The gendered tropes in "Gay Chaps at the Bar" end here, in a pair of "love notes," more hostile than wistful, which unsparingly mimic misogyny. What, then, are (and were) the political effects of that mimicry? Could this indictment of the "insolent" and "changeful" Democracy-as-woman avoid rebounding onto real women -including (and beginning with) the author herself?

Once again, the misogyny enacted here is first of all in the service of a protest against racial oppression. This represented soldier, as Elizabeth Young has put it, has received a "Dear John" letter from the nation. And so the "Love Notes" strip bare the consoling idealizations of dominant forties V-letter form, of poems in which the needs of the girl back home and the needs of the national government so seamlessly and comfortably entwine. These two ironic poems generally refuse the sentiment which poems like Karl Shapiro’s had reintroduced into the modern ironic war poetry tradition; they choose to emphasize violence - sexual violence, too - over violets.

We can read the mimicry of male sexual antagonism here, then, as part of a critique of U.S. racism, one accomplished through a turn back toward the harsh protest misogynies of earlier Great War poetry and away from the self-congratulatory morale-building of the current V-letter-as-sweet-love-letter vogue. But in "Gay Chaps at the Bar" overall, the ironic tradition of modern war poetry is also subjected to revision. By the end of the sequence all gender distinctions collapse. That collapse, as the series represents it, is a sign of reconciliation - but it is also, finally, in this war poem, a symptom of catastrophe.

On the one hand, these sonnets' adroit mimicries function to secure and exemplify universal empathy for the soldier. Poems like the "love notes," "mentors," and "piano after war" are, on the one hand, patently imitative of - even obedient to - the authoritative tradition of the modern masculine ironic war poem as it came out of the First World War; they render a world laid to waste by war by opening up a conventional gap, a wasteland, between men and women. But they also, by the sheer, known fact of their Black female authorship alone, swerve from that tradition. The "Gay Chaps" sequence displays a triumphant power of sympathetic identification which allows Brooks as author, not just reader, to become her soldiers - even to the point of giving voice to their sexual anxieties about and antagonisms with women. Paradoxically, Brooks mends the split between the woman and the literary soldier by writing war poems which insist upon that split. In effect, her demonstrable ability to mimic perfectly a modern masculine war poem subverts the gender division upon which such poems have been predicated, defending women against the attacks of the war poetry tradition by proving a feminine capacity for fellow-feeling, for the "right stuff."

But in its final poem, on the other hand, "Gay Chaps at the Bar" offers a bleaker representation of the power of mimesis. "the progress" depicts American Second World War society, both military and civilian, as a culture of mimicry, in which everyone - of all races, men and women - must assume the requisite alien masquerade:

[. . . .]

Here the "world elsewhere" is figured as a hollowness inside, mimesis as a deadening outward conformity imposed by militarism--even more harshly on men than on women. The extent to which all distinguishing categories collapse is suggested by the implicit reference to fascism as well as militarism in "the step of iron feet again"; fascism, often represented in American women’s Second War writing as an exaggeration of gender or other divisions, here is figured rather as a universal mechanical invariability. Across the wide white space in the last line, possibilities project themselves--wildness, resistance; but the repetition of "again. And again" suggests that in totalitarian total-war-making wildness is indistinguishable from iron uniformity.

In the light of this last poem, the "uniform" structure of the sonnets in this series, each with its own subordinated small letter title, comes to seem a kind of parody of the endless repeating round of salutes and songs represented here. "Brooks manipulates the image of the sonnet as confined and structured," writes Stacy Hubbard, "so as to highlight the paradoxical nature of those forms and rituals (poetry, war, funerals) which both define, immortalize, and kill." In 'the progress,' not only the war poem but all sanctioned behavior in the war culture are represented as capitulation in paradoxical forms; if ritual can render you, like Brooks's mother, "crowned" and "praised" and "customary," it can also kill you and your kind. As Brooks herself put it, in a poem entitled "Revision of the Invocation (The Negro: His Pleas Against Intolerance)" which won Negro Story's literary prize in 1945,

... Where massive horror is rhythmic in the world

This is game-playing.

But the toys are all grotesque

And not for lovely hands; are dangerous,

Serrate in open and artful places.

In such a world, at such a time, this poem and the final sonnet in "Gay Chaps" imply, playing with mimesis is no game. It is, as adults say to children, like playing with matches, or, as adults say to adults, like playing with fire.

From A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.

Christina Scheuer: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

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.

Works Cited

“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

Marcellus Blount: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

When Brooks began to write her famous sonnet sequence in her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), she must have had McKay's poetry in mind. Brooks plays her role in the mutual engendering of black men and women by providing a revision of McKay that becomes for black men a place to enter into gendered status without the trappings of rigid codes of masculinity. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks challenges the gender assumptions of McKay's call to male arms by subverting the male ideal of war, only to breathe life into the actual letters of black soldiers in World War II written to Brooks from the front. By re-engendering male racial discourse, she brings herself and other black women into Afro-American political identity, ironically, by speaking honestly about what it means to be black men. Brooks begins:

[quotes "We know how to order..."--the first sonnet of the sequence]

Although Brooks’ male speaker, writing about the war zones, begins with McKay's masculine bravado, his voice crinkles with anxiety, even from the beginning. Yes, the black soldiers could order drinks from the bar, thereby demonstrating their sens of power and control, but as black men they could not order other troops. Instead, they were ordered. Yet order is precisely what their world now lacks, and within the dislocation of battle, its hierarchies of gender have begun to erode as they fret over their identities as men. For while these troops may be adept at female seduction, war has rendered superfluous this point of masculine reference. However "stout" the lessons of their maleness, they have no language for conquering death with their flirtations. They do not want to die nobly, like McKay's speaker; they simply, understandably, do not want to die. The martial accents of the octave, along with its self-confident assertions and blustering swagger, give way in the poem's final lines to the incompatibility of dominant heroic male ideals and the real experience of war. In this sense, Brooks takes McKay to the Front and back as a way of showing him that the battle for male gendered selfhood must be waged with black women against the patriarchal imperatives of other men.

Just as Brooks insinuates her own female voice within the confines of the male "Gay Chaps" sonnets, she struggles to assert a coherent Afro-American identity within the destructive forces of American racism. By revising previous Afro-American sonnets, she does indeed find a vehicle for expressing the particular experience of black men and women. Within the subjective terms of her lyric "I"/"eye," Brooks witnesses and gives voice to the shared perspective of black men and women, setting it against the hypocrisy of a decidedly white male order. Brooks feminizes her black male subjects as a way of distinguishing and rescuing them from the authority of the social and political realm that generates both racism and sexism. By giving voice to their private desires, she pits their individuality against the public, patriarchal orders that her poems work to unsettle in devious ways. Rather than having black men imitate the problematic gender codes of white heterosexual men, Brooks liberates them from the phallocentric conventions of the heroic sonnet. In the process, her representations of black men refine and clarify the terms of their masculinity within a community bound by race and gender.

By embodying the male voices of her soldiers within the tiny boundaries of her feminized sonnets, Brooks clears a space for her later poems on womanhood and the female struggle for identity. She writes herself into the canon of Western literary history by "seizing" a poetic form steeped in male conquest and political struggle, then progressively remakes its racial and gender associations as her career as a poet develops. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks demonstrates that she can speak about men directly, without hesitation. In her sonnets published in Annie Allen (1949) and The Bean Eaters (1960), she stakes her claim to female authority based upon female subjectivity. Yet she makes it clear that black men are included within her discourse on womanhood. Ironically, Brooks reveals that the liberation of black woman is the secret to achieving a more realistic, democratic notion of black masculinity.

From "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet." In Engendering Men, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.

Craig Werner: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

The closeness of the end rhymes varies throughout the sequence, always reflecting the degree to which the persona has managed to come to terms with the jarring experience which surrounds him.  Consider the end couplets of the sonnets, "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell":

My taste will not have turned insensitive To honey and bread old purity could love.

 "God works in mysterious ways":

Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves. Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.

 "love note II: flags":

Like a sweet mournfulness, or like a dance, Or like the tender struggle of a fan.

 and the sestet of the series' final sonnet, "the progress":

But inward grows a soberness, an awe, A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold. For even if we come out standing up How shall we smile, congratulate: and how Settle in chairs?  Listen, listen.  The step Of iron feet again.  And again wild.

In the first two examples, the speaker is making desperate attempts, in the one case optimistically and in the other pessimistically, to come to a clear apprehension of his situation.  His resolve to maintain his ability to love despite the horror of war is extremely artificial, a fact which Brooks underlines with the close juxtaposition of "insensitive" and "love."  In the second example, the speaker has been forced to confront the illusion-shattering power of war and he demands that God prove his presence.  His bitter rejection of all meaning, which can no more deal with the complexity of the experience than the simple resolve of "my dreams," is emphasized by the proximity and imperfect rhyme of "wolves" and "ourselves."  In neither case will Brooks endorse the persona's attitude with the synthetic technical devise of an exact rhyme.  Rather she draws our attention to their inadequacy.  "Love note II," the penultimate sonnet, presents a more experienced persona, who has resolved to love in spite of a full recognition of the horrors of war.  The rhyming of "dance" and "fan" is appropriate.  The sound value of "dan" and "fan" is almost exact, indicating Brooks' tacit acceptance of the resolve.  But the final sound (-ce) is missing from the final rhyme, reminding the reader that the resolve, as the persona realizes, is somewhat strained and artificial.   The final sonnet, "the progress," abandons the couplet altogether in order to stress the continuing emotionally disruptive power of the war despite its increasing distance in time.  The rhyme of "cold" and "wild" reflects Brooks' final statement on the nature of war and stresses the inability of the mind to come to terms with the radically apocalyptic experience.

Werner, Craig.  "Gwendolyn Brooks: Tradition Black and White."  Minority Voices 1.2 (1977): 27-38.

Ann Folwell Stanford: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Contrasting extreme battle fatigue ("crying and trembling") with joviality and bravado ("gay chaps"), the epigraph perhaps stands as a before-and-after portrait of the black soldiers: "Gay" before the war, they are now "crying and trembling."  Another reading, however, signals strategies Brooks will use in the sequence. . . .   What if the soldiers are both gay and devastated?. . .

The first sonnet . . . structures a dialectic between knowing and not knowing, between before and after.  The difference in behavior and understanding before the war and now, during the war, is as vast as the difference between being a "gay chap" and one who is "crying and trembling.". . .

These men know how to posture, how to function with ease and grace. . . .  As long as the war is sub rosa (as much racist/sexist ideology and its ensuing oppressive systems are), undeclared and masked, these men can function, although tenuously.

. . . Nothing [, however,] has prepared them for being thrust into the "air" of war wherein bravado and cool are lost. . . .  But not only is this the "air" of foreign war, it is also the atmosphere typical of black women's and men's lived experience in a racist culture. . . .

[T]he third sonnet . . . describe[s] the deferral of dreams that both war and racism entail. . . .  The lighter, though determined, opening lines of the sonnet give way to an exhaustion that results from the constant effort of keeping all these dreams and works on hold. . . .  Equally intense on the battlefield of World War II or in racial battlefields closer to home, a significant effect of war is psychic exhaustion and incompleteness. . . .

The focus in [the eighth] poem is less on the loss of belief than on the anatomy of belief, of what belief consists and what motivates the desire for faith in the "beautiful center."  The process of dissecting and understanding that which has held one in thrall is the beginning of liberation.

. . . [T]he ninth sonnet . . . extends the reflective gesture to include a repudiation of former belief. . . .  The disillusion caused by war, or war's wounding, becomes the catalyst for the soldier/speaker's awakening and subsequent healing.

. . . [T]he speaker warns, then "we assume a sovereignty ourselves.". . .  By using a voice that opposes the god of "narcotic peace" (and patriotism with racism as its sub-text), the poem reverses the terms of the divine hierarchy, insisting that resistive and restorative action must grow out of belief, and if it does not, that belief is a blinding and destructive one. . . .

How indeed, the . . . speaker asks, can he possibly continue the charade of obeisance and patriotism, given what he now knows?. . . [T]he speaker of [the final] sonnet is alert to and hears the sound of "iron feet again."  While this sound may be simply the never ending round of racial and military struggle, it also works as a muted threat.

Stanford, Ann Folwell.  "Dialectics of Desire: War and the Resistive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks's 'Negro Hero' and 'Gay Chaps at the Bar.'"  African American Review 26 (1992): 197-211.

Gwendolyn Brooks: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

["Gay Chaps at the Bar" is] A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation--I did think of that.  I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking extensions.  I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Report from Part One.  Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Gladys Margaret Williams: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

 [Negro soldiers encountered not only the foreign enemy, but also] the discriminatory practices of the American Armed Forces in World War II.  The Navy continued its practice of automatically assigning Negroes to menial duties as stewards, cooks, and launderers.  The Army Air Force, only with the greatest reluctance, agreed to train Negroes as pilots and navigators, yet it rejected fully qualified applicants for officer candidate school and would not admit Negro officers into specialty programs.   The experience of the Negro trainees and cadets atTuskegee (Alabama) was especially demoralizing.  Negro and Caucasian teaching officers were separated in eating, sleeping, and toilet facilities, and trained Negro officers were not allowed to take over administrative responsibilities at the base, as they had been promised in an agreement to be overseen by a civilian aide hired to ease Negro-white military tensions early in the war.  The ultimate indignity was that Negroes were not permitted to police themselves in Tuskegee, that responsibility being assigned to members of the Alabama State Police Force.

This is the background of prejudices and practices against which Brooks's first sonnet series must be read.

Williams, Gladys Margaret.  "Gwendolyn Brooks's Way with the Sonnet."  CLA Journal 26 (1982): 215-40.

George Stavros: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Q. Let me ask you about some of your poems that are in specific forms, however—sonnets . . . .

A. I like to refer to that series of soldier sonnets. 

Q. "Gay Chaps at the Bar." 

A. A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation—I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking of extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that title in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.

from "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).

Harry B. Shaw: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely."  Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country.  The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave.  Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . .  [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure.  Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."

. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity.  Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries.   Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .

"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause.   The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"

Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves.  The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream.  Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society.  To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society.  The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment.  Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto.  They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots.  The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.

Shaw, Harry B.  "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks."  Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.  Ed. R. Baxter Miller.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986.  136-59.

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