Gwendolyn Brooks | Critical Essay by R. Baxter Miller

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Gwendolyn Brooks.
This section contains 4,711 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by R. Baxter Miller

SOURCE: "'Define … the Whirlwind': Gwendolyn Brooks' Epic Sign for a Generation," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 160-73.

In the following essay, Miller examines the major themes and structure of In the Mecca. According to Miller, Brooks draws upon Anglo-American poetry, Judeo-Christian myth, and folklore to explore the paradox of the American Dream within the context of African-American experience.

For twenty-three years, Gwendolyn Brooks tried to write her epic In the Mecca (1968). Her portraits of the Black community began with Street in Bronzeville (1945) and continued with Annie Allen (1949), Maud Martha (1953), and Bean Eaters (1960). But these books did not fulfill her ambition to write in the heroic genre. An epic should rank with the classics; it should portray the narrator's journey, the obstacles encountered, and the final vision of victory.

Brooks tried to write a Black epic in the title poem of Annie Allen but failed. Because the style was too lofty for the theme, an unintentional mock epic resulted. She had heeded the critics too carefully; their requests had led her to substitute Germanic mythology for the Black folk life that she knew. If Latin and Greek diction replaced the Black vernacular, the folk voice would not be evident.

Before Brooks attempted an epic again, she wrote Maud Martha. In this autobiographical novel, she practiced the technique of focusing upon the life of one woman and the characters and problems come upon. Brooks tested, too, her skill for creating an undramatized narrator, the fictional self conceived in the work, who can enter characters' minds or withdraw into objectivity. Her next book, The Bean Eaters (1960), continued some good poems, especially those concerning the fifties, yet few of these verses demonstrated majestic finish and thematic depth. The poems did not rival the fine sequences of sonnets that end her first two volumes. Once again she wanted to attempt a long poem. Could free verse and ballad succeed where rhyme royal and sonnet had not? The next book would tell. A year after its publication (1969), George Starvros, an interviewer for Contemporary Literature, would question: "Let me ask you about the character in your poetry and in your novel Maud Martha. In the Mecca, your most recent volume, portrays life in a large city building. A Street in Bronzeville gave similar vignettes of people in the city. The same, I think, can be said of all your work." Brooks replied, "It's a fascination of mine to write about ghetto people there." One can evaluate her success in this effort, first in light of the Anglo-American tradition of poetry, next in the paradox of the American Dream, and finally in some skillful use of techniques such as Christian myth, parody, and narrative distancing. In the Mecca is a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption.

Before an explication of the title poem, one needs to know some background. In her interview with Starvros, Brooks comments:

… when I was nineteen and had just gotten out of junior college, I went to the Illinois State Employment service to get a job. They sent me to the Mecca building to a spiritual advisor, and he had a fantastic practice; lucrative. He had us bottling up medicine as well as answering letters. Not real medicine but love charms and stuff like that he called it, and delivered it through the building …

Brooks's explanation here closely correlates with the description of Mecca that appears on the back of her title page:

… a great gray hulk of brick, four stories high, topped by an ungainly smokestack, ancient and enormous, filling half of the block north of Thirty-Fourth Street between State and Dearborn … the Mecca building is U-shaped. The dirt court-yard is littered with newspapers and tin cans, milk cartons and broken glass…. Iron fire escapes run up the building's face and ladders reach from them to the roof. There are four main entrances, two on Dearborn and two on State Street. At each is a gray stone and threshold and over each is carved "The Mecca." (The Mecca was constructed in 1891, a splendid palace, or showplace of Chicago).

The date of 1891 is significant because it designates the post-Darwinian world. In American history, industrialization had ended the dream of an agrarian world. The Chicago Mecca, in this light, becomes ironic when one considers the other Mecca, the holiest city of Islam and birthplace of Mohammed. Having wanted to write two thousand lines, Brooks settles for slightly more than eight hundred. She says: "This poem will not be a statistical report. I'm interested in a certain detachment, incisiveness. I wish to present a large variety of personalities against a mosaic of clarity, affairs, recognizing that the grimmest of these is likely to have a streak or two streaks of sun." The intention is to expand a dramatization of individual scene into universal type so as "to touch every note in the life of this block-long block-wide building would be to capsulize the gist of black humanity in general."

The simple plot and structure of "In the Mecca" (the poem) present an urban setting. For convenience one can divide the narrative into three sections. Part I sets forth the return home from work of Mrs. Sallie Smith, mother of nine. The focus here is on the neighbors that she encounters and on the characterizations of her children. In the second part, the shortest, the woman notices that Pepita, one of her girls, is missing. This prompts the first search through the tenement and allows for further characterization and biblical parody. Part II also concerns the paradox of American myth. The longest section is Part III, which constitutes almost half of the verse. Here the police retrace the Smiths's search. Because of its themes and styles, Part III is probably the richest. The following contribute to its power: militant declarations, interracial lovemaking, rhetorical questions, and Christian myth. The poem ends with the discovery of Pepita's corpse under the bed of Jamaican Edward.

"In the Mecca" represents opposite strains of the Anglo-American tradition. One finds a naturalistic version of Walt Whitman, by way of the industrial age, and the redemptive, if frustrated, potential that characterizes the world of T. S. Eliot. But these influences work so that the peculiarities of the Black American experience transform them into a new and creative vision. By adapting to the social forces of the sixties, the poet uses a new milieu. Her canvas is a most demanding time in American history. For this and other times, Gwendolyn Brooks holds to light the soundness of body and mind against the decline of courage and assurance, a lapse which emerged with modernity and the shadow of the holocaust. She continues to believe that imaginative and verbal power challenge and balance finally the danger which posits the insignificance of human life and the indifference to human extinction. For her generation, the defining emblem is ultimately the whirlwind, the collapse of self-confidence, the failure to transform social ill once more into epic victory and to reclaim from the time before the holocaust, and the later accusation of "reverse discrimination" in the United States, the heroic and blues-esque will of Black hope. Whereas for Margaret Walker, cleansing has been the metaphor for the perspective which woman takes on historical and cosmic evil, the depth here every bit as great as Melville's "mystery of iniquity," for Brooks the sign is medication. The artistic process itself plays out the action of healing, while the poem serves as both epic quest and sacramental liberation.

Mary Melodie, one of Mrs. Sallie's daughters, shows this turmoil. She likes "roaches, / and pities the gray rat." To her, headlines are "secondary," even though she knows that "blood runs like a ragged wound through the ancient flesh of the land." The imagery implies the naturalism of Richard Wright and others, for to such writers people are manipulated by forces beyond their control. Yet Brooks's point is not that life is crushed inevitably, it is, rather, that even the most lowly insect is sacred. Such a proposition returns a reader to Emerson's belief that each individual reflects all Being. It leads similarly to Whitman's indebted idea that a leaf of grass indicates Eternal Reality. In her description of Mary Melodie, the narrator disorients the reader. Although the imagery indicates naturalism, the statement suggests transcendentalism. To Mary, the deaths of roaches signify what pervades all Life. The naturalism after 1850 tempers the romantic vision, when the undramatized narrator withdraws from Mary's mind:

      Trapped in his privacy of pain
      the worried rat expires,
      and smashed in the grind of a rapid heel
      last night's roaches lie.

This suggestion of the post-Darwinian universe reinforces the date of 1891 on the copyright page. Similarly it recalls the imagery that helps depict Prophet Williams, an "engine / of candid steel hugging combustibles." Mrs. Sallie describes three of her children—Emmett, Cap, and Casey:

          skin wiped over bones
      for lack of chub and chocolate
      and ice-cream cones,
      for lack of English muffins
      and boysenberry jam.

The ensuing question is a twentieth-century one and could suit well the wasteland: "What shall their redeemer be"? That Brooks' version has a concrete setting in Chicago adds to the intensity of her effect.

The poverty of the three children mentioned above is as real in the second part as in the first. The levels of the narrator's dramatization in verse in the second part move from the particular to the general: personal, racial, urban, and human. By giving a setting of the city, the narrator implies a need for the pastoral, since the human mind conceives by contrasts. It is striking, indeed, to find in her compressed style, resembling that of Pound and Eliot, the truth of Thomas Gray. Still it was this eighteenth-century poet of graveyards who wrote once on the same theme of death concerning the human potential and the genius that can redeem reality.

      And they [the children] are constrained …
      upon fright and remorse and their stomachs …
      are rags of grit.
      .......
      many flowers start, choke, reach up,
      want help, get it, do not get it,
      rally bloom, or die on the wasting vine.

From the narrator's observation, the plot reverts to a drama of poetry, where Mrs. Sallie still performs the lead. The image and tone suggest both the Old Testament and the folk ballad. "No More Auction Block." In the first part, one finds an emphasis on lost children; in the second, there is an implication of Black death, which is archetypal. The present only foreshadows Pepita's end: "One of my children is gone."

That Don Lee, a poet of the sixties, appears in "In the Mecca" recreates him as a man of its imaginative world as well as a man of history. The Lee in the poem lives at the midpoint between mimesis and reality. He wants "not a various America … a new nation / under nothing." One must remember that this Lee is a tenant in the building described, as are all of the other characters. Should the reader elect to jump from the mimetic world to the historical one, he may get into trouble. Like the real Lee (Madhubuti), he may find that only one portrait in the poem is truly distinguished:

      Way-Out Morgan is collecting guns
      in a tiny fourth-floor rooms.
      He is not hungry, even, though skillfully lean.
      He flourishes, ever, on porridge or pat bean
      pudding or wiener soup—fills fearsomely
      on visions of Death to-the-Hordes-of-the White Man.

Madhubuti, of course, has his own followers and his ideology. Here, however, the latter spoils his opportunity to appreciate fully the range of Gwendolyn Brooks. She does depict Morgan with the imagery and power necessary to make him real. But she portrays John Tom, too (no incidental name), St. Julia Jones, and others who have different beliefs. All live in this decaying city; only through imagination can the reader constantly sustain their opposing visions. But in Mecca sustentation is all.

The final two hundred lines show once more the influence of Eliot. The refrain, in particular, indicates a sordid world that has profaned what once was sacred: "How many care Pepita?" The prostitutes and harlots are unconcerned, as the phallic imagery shows: "the obscene gruntings / the dull outwittings / the flabby semi-rhythmic shufflings." Equally obscene are those people, young or old, who make vulgar love. Preoccupied with their own lives, past and present, the characters lack any answers, and the narrator will have to give her own. These inhabitants of the city can no more acknowledge the sacredness of procreation than Alfred, the confused poet, can see that divinity is already within him:

     Hush.
     An agitation in the bush.
     Occulded trees.
     Mad life heralding the blue heat of God
     snickers in a corner of the west windowsill.

Other characters inhabit this Mecca, Brooks's wasteland, though they number too many to receive more than passing attention. Among them are Dakara, the reader of Vogue; Aunt Tippie and Zombie Bell, who are undramatized; Mr. Kelly, the beggar with long gray hair; Gas Cady, a grave robber; the janitor, a political person; Queenie King, an "old poem silvering in the noise"; and Wallace Williams, proclaimer of his virility. To all, the narrator's answer to the rhetorical question applies equally: "these little care, Pepita, what befalls a / nullified saint or forfeiture (or child)."

Set against this background, the description of Alfred becomes particularly significant, for it suggests that the world has passed from hope to hopelessness. For his authorities, Alfred cites Baudelaire, Browning, and Neruda, but his best trick is to parody Whitman. To affirm the redemptive potential of the human spirit, the nineteenth-century poet wrote: "Good-bye and hail! my fancy." To deprive humankind of such belief, Alfred expresses the opposite: "Farewell, and Hail! Until farewell again." Tension separates the literary vision of the past from that of the present:

Other observations show that this is less the world of Thomas Gray and Walt Whitman than that of T. S. Eliot. Consider Aunt Dill, who wears "Tabu" perfume. Little Papa, probably her husband, has been dead for nine years, and all of her children were still-births. As a woman who loves God, she reminds the reader of St. Julia. More importantly, she illustrates the paradox that Pepita faced: to grow into a woman who should be shunned or to die in the innocence of youth. Dill

     Is not
     true-child-of God for are we ever to
     be children? are we never to mature,
     be lovely lovely? be soft Woman
     rounded and darling … almost caressable …
     and certainly wearing Tabu in the name of the Lord.

Usually ambivalent in attitude, Alfred hates Mecca, when he confesses,

     something, something in Mecca
     continues to call! Substanceless
     .......
     an essential sanity black and electric
     builds to a reportage and
     redemption
     .......
     A material collapse
     that is Construction.

From Alfred, however, one will hardly get the opinion of the undramatized narrator or the implied author. Since the beginning, Brooks has portrayed him as a weak man and an inadequate intellectual. Pepita, on the contrary, is a true poet, just as Alfred is a false one. Despite her youth, she responded to life with sincerity and sensitivity: "'I touch'—she said once—'petals of a rose. / A silky feeling through me goes.'" For a brief moment the reader receives an alternative vision set against the urban chaos of squalor and hopelessness.

The urban setting reveals the paradox of the American dream. At the beginning, the narrator shifts the focus from her reader to a persona. By combining the imperative and the expository, the verse commences: "Sit where the light corrupts your face. / Mïes Van der Rohe retires from grace. / And the fair fables fall." Thomas Earl, one of Mrs. Sallie's children, loves an American folk figure. In tone, however, the narrator questions the validity of John Chapman, now transformed into American legend. She does not mention Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but its reputation for uncultivability suits well the imagery and myth:

     It is hard to be Johnny Appleseed.
     The ground shudders.
     The ground springs up;
     hits you with gnarls and rust,
     derangement and fever, or blare and clerical treasons.

Characterizations in the narrative parody American myth. Melody Mary, Thomas Earl, and Briggs have "gangs rats appleseed." Examine each word within the quotation mark, first as an entity and then as a whole. Each of the first two images implies the urban experience, but the last suggests the frontier. The collectivity of the line leaves the reader with two questions. Is the idea that "gangs" or "rats," as social reality, corrupt myth and dream, "appleseed," beyond recognition? Or can myth, "Appleseed," redeem the ghetto from "gangs" and "rats"? By their very disjunction such inquiries mislead, for the purpose here is to create not a separation of perspectives but a unity composed of alternative points of view.

One must measure American ideals against the social reality of Mecca. In one scene Emmett, a daughter of Mrs. Sallie, seizes the telephone from John Tom. Considered on various levels of meaning, this incident becomes complex. In a fine wordplay on time and the American Dream, the narrator recreates the folk legend of the submissive Black: "Despite the terror and the derivation, / despite the not avuncular frontier, / John Tom, twice forty in 420, claims / Life sits or blazes in this Mecca." When the narrator intervenes, Tom has provoked already the "calm and dalliance" of law. On a second level, the narrator becomes unintentionally ambiguous. An exclamation that concerns the size of Pepita results in the American Dream ironically rendered. The twist is that one can be small in thoughts as well as in dimensions: "How shall the Law allow for littleness! / How shall the Law enchief the chapters of / wee brown-black chime, we brown-black chastity." With the arrival of the impersonal policemen begins a second trip through the Mecca, one which ends in the discovery of the dead child. The officers and the character Amos have different ideologies, since the latter is a bitter militant. He says of a personified America: "Bathe her in her beautiful blood."

"In the Mecca," the title poem, portrays the urban scene through a straight or ironic use of Christian myth and through parody. Throughout the plot, the verse changes the point of view between the narrator and her characters. The situation of Briggs, another of Mrs. Sallie's children, reworks a central motif in Maud Martha: at some point human concern passes from social reality—a difficult concept with which to deal—to religion and forgetfulness. The narrator first enters into the character's mind and then withdraws. In the initial description of the young man there comes ironic detachment, but after the reader learns about his problems with the gangs in his neighborhood, the vision comes from within: "Immunity is forfeit, love / is luggage, hope is heresy." The narrator, nevertheless, can step back from the character and speak directly; she can explain human psychology brilliantly: "there is a central height in pity / past which man's hand and sympathy cannot go."

Reviewing the first 254 lines of the poem shows that they have described, first, Mrs. Sallie's return home; second, her children; and third, Alfred, the neurotic artist. But line 255 begins the inciting incident, which both the poem and its reader must resolve. Where is Pepita, Sallie's ninth and missing child? The abrupt shift from the narrator's heightened style shocks when Sallie's children reply emphatically in the Black vernacular: "Ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er / Ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er."

Like most characters in Mecca, Loam Norton worries more about his own concerns than about Mrs. Sallie's daughter. He remembers Belsen and Dachau, the prison camps of World War II, and possibly his own children. But in a parody of the Twenty-third Psalm the narrator interrupts and holds the stage:

         The Lord was their shepherd
      Yet did they want.
      Joyfully, would they have lain in jungles or pastures,
      walked beside waters. Their gaunt
      souls were not restored, their souls were banished.
      .......
      Goodness and mercy should follow them all the days of their death.

For her character St. Julia Jones, the narrator parodies with equal fidelity the same passage. There the effect was less a religious cynicism than a folk joy. Sallie Smith saw Julia, who asked:

    "Isn't our Lord the greatest to the brim?
    The light of my life. And I lie late
    past the still pastures. And meadows. He's the comfort
    and wine and piccalilli for my soul.
    He hunts me up the coffee for my cup.
    Oh how I love that Lord."

When Alfred dreams of being a red bush "In the West Virginia autumn," the image implies the appearance of the Lord to Moses (Exodus 2:3). The narrator knows that man, by being alive, is already divine; Alfred doubts: "the bush does not know that it flames." The force of the ending comes from a repetition of this tone. Jamaican Edward "thrice denies any involvement with Pepita," just as the Peter of the New Testament (St. Matthew 26:4) refuses to acknowledge Christ. The girl lies beneath Edward's cot in the dust. Despite differences in sex and age, she resembles Jesus.

If the title poem, Part I of In the Mecca, shows the callousness of the people in the ghetto, Part II, "After Mecca," offers a corrective or redeeming vision. Here Brooks takes historical figures from the sixties and elevates them to a level of myth where they transcend life. First she describes Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights leader assassinated in 1963. Never settling for a mere recording of history, she transforms fact into a tercet of prophecy: "Roaring no rapt arise-ye to the dead, he / leaned across tomorrow. People said that / he was holding clean globes in his hands." In this section, Brooks goes beyond description to symbolism. She reshapes history to make it reflect social vision, created form, and human imagination. Next she portrays Malcolm X, the Black leader slain in 1965. The emphasis, however, should fall not upon history alone but upon Malcolm's role as a political magician. Since the beginning of the volume, such a type of human being has evolved. An artist, like a magician, seeks to create a new order of reality, although the former wants to change the physical world and the latter to institute an imaginative one. By the power of words, the writer seeks to mesmerize her reader with the spell of form. Alfred was a poet, if not a great one; by her life and death, Pepita was more exemplary. The narrator of the verse in "In the Mecca" was, too, for only in her role as seer and harmonizer could she find irony and avoid despair. To envision Malcolm means to reconstruct the many types that precede, as word-maker, ironist, visionary, and prophet:

        in a soft and fundamental hour
     a sorcery devout and vertical
     beguiled the world.
     He opened us—
     Who was a key
     who was a man.

At the end of In the Mecca redemptive vision depends upon two poems: "The Sermon on the Warpland" and "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" (hereafter "Second Sermon"). The first demonstrates Brooks's ability to portray reality initially from one point of view and then from another, which clarifies the original. The poet reverts to her habit of coining words, as necessary. What does "Warpland" mean? If the word "Sermon" parodies Christ's speech on the Mount, "Warpland" implies not geographical place but military design—a "war planned"—and the problem of distortion, the "warpland." Yet the several strengths, the speakers in the verse, express the opposite yearnings of the human spirit: "Say that our Something is doublepod contains / seeds for the coming hell and health together." The voice of a Black militant, shortly afterward, recalls Amos or Way-Out-Morgan in the title poem. But in this world of pervasive irony and contradiction, speech must end in an oxymoron.

     Prepare to meet
     (sisters brothers) the harsh and terrible weather;
     the pains;
     the bruising; the collapse of bestials, idols.
     .......
     the seasoning of the perilously sweet!
     the health, the heralding of the clear obscure!
     [emphasis mine]

To this voice, Brooks adds a corrective or balancing resonance. Perhaps her greatest gift is a talent for creating opposite viewpoints within the same poetic world. With equal adeptness she can imagine the militant and renew the meaning of Christ's words to His disciple. Peter (St. Matthew 16:18). In both instances she stresses universality within the framework of the Black American experience. To one who has read In the Mecca as an objective correlative, the narrator here becomes Pepita, resurrected and grown into womanhood. The figure is older and maternal:

     "Build now your church, my brothers, sisters.
     Build.
     .......
     Build with lithe love. With love like lion eyes.
     With love like morningrise.
     With love like black, our black—
     luminously indiscreet;
     complete; continuous."

Immediately following this poem, "Second Sermon" results in a final triumph for the human imagination: "This is the urgency Live: / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind." The verse has four parts. The first gives the theme quoted last; the second emphasizes the need to give form, to "stylize the flawed utility." In the third division one discovers the chaos against which the imagination conceives. At the end (IV), comes a description of Big Bessie, who stands in the wild weed.

What a metaphor that whirlwind is. From it, one can look at various angles and see diverse personalities, including the arrogantly indifferent, inhumanely callous, and hopelessly contemplative. The narrator's voice reaches back to the end of Annie Allen. There, for the first time in Brooks's verse, a speaker possessed some intuitive truth which neither the characters in the poem nor the readers outside fully understood. The observer here is not a well-rounded character; she is, rather, the Imaginative Mind that resolves disparities:

       Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
       not the jumbo brigand,
       not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
       shall straddle the whirlwind.
       Nevertheless, live.

The third and fourth parts show that imaginative vision can save the listeners in the world of Mecca. By perceiving this world, in its contradictions and ironies, the observer has ordered chaos. Is this the final paradox?

     All about are cold places,
     all about are the pushmen, and jeopardy, theft—
     all about are the stormers and scramblers but
     .......
     Live and go out
     Define and
     Medicate the whirlwind.

The noblest virtue of Big Bessie, the woman who concludes the volume, is imagination. Without disillusionment, she can look at life and survive. Brooks owes part of the imagery to Langston Hughes' Semple: "Big Bessie's feet hurt like nobody's business / but the stands—bigly—under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the / wild weed (emphasis added). By vision and endurance, the Big Bessies redeem the city in which the Pepitas are slain.

For twenty-three years. Gwendolyn Brooks had sought this balance of vision. In Street in Bronzeville, she had been a poet of the unheroic, but the folk religion lingered. It manifested itself at the end of Annie Allen and subsided in Maud Martha and Bean Eaters only to reappear more intensely in Mecca. By then Brooks had practiced ironic detachment and varying distance of narration. Drawing upon Christian myth and different strains of Anglo-American poetry helped her to enrich an epic in which the narrator is heroine. From a certain vision of Chicago as wasteland, Brooks moved to a double perspective of destruction and creation; from Pound and Eliot, her journey led back to Whitman. But the reason is not that Whitman is especially important. It is only that he is romantic in some way that Black folk are: rebelling against constraint, hoping for natural redemption from the depths of an industrial age. If the city corrupts the romantic vision, does it matter? Revealing the paradox of the American Dream suffices, for to show one's reader paradise is not the only way to save his soul.

In the aesthetic formulations, Gwendolyn Brooks remains the talented poet. She imposes the personal voice upon the sources and archetypes of the literary generation. Through the quest for epic form, she combines the impulse toward architectonic space with prophetic invocation, fusing at once the written and the spoken word. Often when she draws upon Judaeo-Christian, historical, and folk sources, through the ornate style or through the vernacular, she opposes the id to the superego, balancing the contradictory tensions which inform human existence. With metaphoric power and intellectual depth, she reconfigures the events of modern history into complex symbol. Whatever her invaluable contributions to the current era, especially from 1945 to 1986, her poetry still signifies two generations past. Yet her language subsumes and transcends historicity.

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