Searching for Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks at her typewriter.

Often, when I look back at the poems that have found their sudden ways to me—the ones that have chosen me in particular, to move through me and onto the page—it is hard to imagine they are related to one another. It is hard to believe the poems that sprawl wide, the poems that play their tricks, the poems that exhume and resurrect, that breathe strange and speak with different tongues, all share a common denominator. It is hard to believe all the differently hued poems I’ve written have come from my own throat, born of the same place but perhaps of a different season, fruit of the same tree perched on a different branch. 

How is one of my poems that sounds like “How Great,” by Chance the Rapper—a song that I love—related to another poem that I would not have written without reading Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches? How is a poem I wrote about my late father’s gold chain related to a poem I only fairly recently discovered?

This is the natural order of being descended from one common lineage, so much of the work I love the poetic offshoot of one common ancestor. Those that have taught me my best lessons have all learned from Gwendolyn Brooks, or have learned from someone who had learned from Brooks. Today, if I squint hard enough, if I ask the right questions, it seems everything—the poems, the music, the seasons—points me back to her. 

*

My poetic lineage is constructed, as I see it, via the long list of all the poems, visions, music, stories, and every syllable of any bit of good language that I’ve encountered in my life. What becomes cardinal in that lineage is the bits that manage to sear my inner skull with their light and bring me new ways of seeing. 

One entry point into my lineage can be found in the poetry of Ross Gay, and more specifically, his poem, “Sorrow Is Not My Name,” and, even more specific still, his line, “My color’s green. I’m Spring.”

I was first assigned Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude while in an undergrad workshop, and I consumed it so quickly I made small gusts of wind as I turned the pages. Gay’s ability to wield the hues of joy made me hunger. His poems taught me how I myself might enter language through the wide threshold of rapture. 

Gay is known to enter delight through many different doors, but in “Sorrow Is Not My Name,” Gay decided the door would be death itself. Death and the many tools it has sharpened and dipped into fire. Death and its claws tapping through the frost on our bedroom windows. I have been in close proximity to the reaper and his wide blade, and so it feels familiar to watch Gay’s speaker name death as it appears throughout the landscape:

just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me

He names it again as he finds death even closer:

the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes

And yet, there is delight. There is a sense that Gay’s speaker will surely perish eventually, maybe even soon, but certainly not today, not in this particular poem. Today, Gay’s speaker feels only delight rupturing through his body. 

…yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name.

The speaker remembers, almost like a prayer, that their name is not endued with sorrow. And thus, the poem ends with a line that has clogged the cogs of my thinking; clogged them with glee:

I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.  

*

At the top of the poem, right under its title, Ross Gay attached the words “after Gwendolyn Brooks,” after serving as a dangling thread to be followed. I put great effort into finding the Gwendolyn Brooks poem that inspired Gay. I wanted to trace the impetus that made Gay write such a splendid thing, that made him feel so alive that he saw himself akin to an entire color, an entire season.

I googled, I asked friends, I skimmed as many poems by Brooks that I could find online and searched every book of hers I could get my hands on. I had little luck. All my friends knew of the Ross Gay poem but knew nothing of Brooks’s influence. I decided, ultimately, that it was enough to just adore Gay’s work, to read it over and over again in my head, to study its nuts and bolts. At the time, I didn’t yet have the gall to reach out to him directly, but I thought maybe someday, if I ever met him in person, I could ask him myself.

Almost half a year after I put my search to bed, a friend happened to share a Brooks poem on social media that I had never read before. I knew immediately that it was the poem I had so desperately looked for. The poem found me as if it were inevitable, and when I read it, I lost my shit entirely. 

“To the Young That Want to Die,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is, as I have proclaimed to homies, a banger: it’s a powerhouse, a marvel, a jewel. It serves as a manual, a list of instructions, but it also doubles as a song, a prayer, a mantra for those who might be sorry, overwhelmed, and wishing for an end. “Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.” is how Brooks’s speaker begins, addressing “the young” that the title alludes to, employing periods instead of commas to signify that each one of these steps are whole and singular and calling for our undivided attention. The poem, like Gay’s, is about death, but it is also about patience, about time:

The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall call in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:

Like Gay, Brooks lists the weapons that might be eager to harm. But here, Brooks seems to tell us that everything that wants to devour us will wait. So why won’t we? 

Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait.

Brooks turns to those who so desperately wish for release and says plainly, “You need not die today. / Stay here.” In my head, I can hear the plea between the lines. I can hear, “Stay here, please.”

And in the last bits of the poem, in a final couplet, is the seed that I assume Ross Gay held in his palms, watered, and grew into his own fruit—the lines that today make me feel most alive and furthest away from what dark and desolate corners might be calling my name. 

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring. 

*

Where (on God’s green earth!) did this gorgeous little poem come from? And why was it so hard for me to find? 

Which Brooks collection did it live in, if any? 

Which young (Her young? The young of the world at large?) was she singing to, prompting to come down and off the ledge?

Enamored with the Brooks poem that seemed, at first, so elusive, I wanted to know as much as I could about what spurred Brooks to write it. With the title in hand, the internet told me it was uploaded to a few Tumblr sites; pinned on Pinterest; shared in a post on Prison Culture, a blog about the effects of the prison industrial complex; referenced in George E. Kent’s A Life Of Gwendolyn Brooks; and mentioned in an essay on Brooks in the Kenyon Review. A few years ago, the poem went viral after the inimitable poet Natasha Oladokun shared it on Twitter, and it has gone viral a few other times, too.

But none of these appearances provided me with more context. I was hoping something could point me toward the year the poem was born, or at least toward the original source, a collection or an anthology, or anywhere the poem might have appeared with Brooks’s will attached. 

After posting on my social media, after asking everyone and anyone for clues, I only arrived at insights much later due to the kindness of a homie, Brian Baumgart, who had unearthed what I could not: a recording and a transcript of a reading by Gwendolyn Brooks herself, where she reads “To the Young Who Want to Die,” as well as a few other poems, at a celebration for Emily Dickinson and her legacy.

Giddy with the discovery, I whispered, “What year, Gwendolyn? What year?” to myself as Brooks’s voice poured into my ear, as I rewound and replayed the recording to ensure I caught each word, each detail. I had heard recordings of Brooks reading a poem or two before, but in this recording, Brooks has space to let her good mood sprawl, space to banter and make jokes. I could tell in the timbre of her voice—from her eagerness and satisfaction—that Brooks is in her element, and maybe exactly where she wished to be at the time.

And while there was no exact reference to the year of the recording, Brooks does, at one point, ruminate a bit about a time she read a poem about love in front of a group of young people, and how they snickered, how they must have thought she knew nothing of love, and by its consequence, they must have thought she knew nothing of romance. As a rebuttal, Brooks speaks to her experience with romance, and as a clue, she references her two children. Specifically, she mentions her daughter and how old she was at the time. And with that subtle, indirect marker of time, and a little bit of math, it became easy to deduce the particular year that Brooks—the one at my ear—was in. 

 

*

1985 must have been a difficult time for the young, as must have been the nineties, and also the turn of the millennium, as, too, has been the past decade, and the new decade, pulling us slowly but surely into its calamities. Today, all my young have friends that have wished for death, and some have friends who have actually found it. But, too, all my young have friends who found comfort through exchange, through speaking what must be spoken, through giving language to whatever inside them demands language. I have friends who turn to poetry to name their sadnesses and anxieties. I have friends that speak about the art that saved their lives, that made them feel seen, that gave them language for the cloud hanging heavy above their hair. Every year and every decade seems to want to, at some point, inflict its worse upon us, and so the balm needs to be perpetual; not so much universal as potent, and liberally available. Brooks’s poem is one such balm. “To the Young Who Want to Die” is, I believe, timeless. 

In my ear, Brooks tells me the poem came to be after she watched a film about two lovers who were barred from being together by their families, their parents, and their elders, and, in their desperation, decided to end their lives as a means to spend eternity together. Trying to handle the idea of suicide with care, Brooks hesitates for a bit, bouncing around what she wants to say by confirming that she is neither a therapist nor a psychiatrist, and she’s not fitted to speak on the phenomenon of suicide with authority. “But I’d just like to say,” she says, “to young people who might be thinking about doing away with themselves, feeling that they’re not important, that they have nothing to give, that they do have something to give.”

*

While searching for “To the Young Who Want to Die,” a broad view of Brooks’s indelible legacy became clear: Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, grew up in the historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago, and, by the age of twenty-one, she had published more than seventy-five poems in the Chicago Defender. Gwendolyn Brooks published Annie Allen in 1949; for it, she was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Gwendolyn Brooks taught in institutions across the United States and her books, awards, and accolades are as numerous as the cardinals and robins that populate Chicago. Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000. By that time, she had intersected with and played pivotal roles in the poetics of countless poets.

I bring up Brooks’s name to any Black poet and the effect is the same. On the subway with S. Erin Batiste, on the very same night I meet her, I speak of my interest in Brooks’s work and, after her face ignites with glee, she points me in the direction of Brooks’s sonnet ballads. Tiana Clark reads from her new book in a Brooklyn bookstore and later, in a bar, hovering above flickering candles at a table packed with poets, I shout Brooks’s name above the bar’s music and Tiana smiles as if remembering someone from a past life, and shouts back, “Queen!” In the office of Terrance Hayes (inventor of the Double Golden Shovel, a poetic form made with the intention of honoring Brooks), I explain that Brooks keeps coming up in my work, and, with a smile crawling across his face, he spins a story about her and Robert Hayden in the eighties.

I bring up Gwendolyn Brooks to any Black poet and each time the obvious is made more evident: Gwendolyn Brooks is an ancestor to us all; we are all writing in her lineage. 

 

*

“You are Spring.” I whisper the words to myself as I imagine Brooks might say them if she were reading them to me. In my imagination, I hear her voice as a lullaby, or a secret: soft and gentle. But in the recording of Brooks’s reading, she dances her way through each line, feeling out each word and adding her flares as she sees fit, peppering in her tiny melodies, as if to ensure no two recordings of her reading the poem would ever be the same. She arrives at the final line, that final phrase, “You are Spring” and says it as if it was the best news: the news that the war is over, that honey is still on the shelf despite the famine. She emphasizes Spring as if her speaking the word was spring itself, a spark in her voice, the sound of the word leaving her lips and bringing to life a landscape that wasn’t alive before.

 

*

And so I imagine it happened like this: Gwendolyn Brooks became herself as a teenager in Bronzeville and maybe, some number of blocks away and some decades later, Chance the Rapper leans into poetry while also beginning his lean into rap. His songs, like “Sunday Candy,” fall from my headphones as I walk through streets in Brooklyn. Gwendolyn Brooks becomes herself in Bronzeville and, some decades later, Eve Ewing pens a play about Brooks’s life before penning a manifesto for the young, brown-skinned girl she once was. Gwendolyn Brooks reads a poem in 1985 and says, “Remember … You are Spring,” and beneath a different sky in a different city, the poet we’d come to know as Ross Gay began to bloom. And later, Gay, himself an entire season, pushed tiny seeds into the soil of his garden before writing a line of his own and there, between the lines somewhere, is where I begin to appear. 

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems with phrases that rippled through time and built multiple lineages each.

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a line that asked her readers to stay alive and ain’t that a word. 

Gwendolyn Brooks said stay alive and we are still alive today, writing in her name. Put that in the notes sections of your books. Put that in your craft essays, in your literary canons. Put that on everything. 

 

Bernard Ferguson is a Bahamian poet and essayist. He’s currently working on a book of nonfiction about the climate crisis.

 

Read more: theparisreview.org

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