Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Ode to Gwendolyn Brooks

by Smita Sahay


Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith (editors), The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, The University of Arkansas Press, 2017. 400 pgs.


It all began with the birth of a new form—the Golden Shovel.

Terrance Hayes' 2010 National Book Award-winning Lighthead carried two poems under the name "The Golden Shovel" dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, the civil rights activist and poet. Peter Kahn, one of the editors of The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, was awestruck by the form when he first encountered it—words along the right-hand margin of "The Golden Shovel" poems are taken from Brooks' canonical 1959 poem, "We Real Cool" (bolding mine):

The Golden Shovel
By Terrance Hayes
after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da's sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won't be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy's sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He'd been caught lying or drinking his father's gin.

He'd been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake
. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire's ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won't creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.

When we read the last word in each line, in order from top to bottom, we find Brooks' "We Real Cool" staring back at us, waving like an old friend.

In his Forword to The Golden Shovel Anthology, Hayes asks, "Where do poems come from if not other poems? Where do forms come from, if not from other forms?" While reading, I found myself in earnest agreement with these thoughts and relived how deeply I was moved upon first reading, "Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes" by Adil Jussawala, a poem composed of eight verses, where the first lines of each verse are quotes, written by poets long gone.

Taking jolting pleasure at finding verses embedded within new poems, giddy with near magical revelation, readers of the The Golden Shovel Anthology are drawn closer to it; readers now share a secret with the poems, and then they embark upon a second poetic journey—if an encoded poem is a known one, the readers savour it again, if not, they learn of it in a rendering that defines its immortality and lasting relevance.

Prior to picking up this collection, I was already familiar with Hayes' "The Golden Shovel" and with some of Brooks most famous poems, but I was also aching to begin a book that carried works by Rita Dove, Nikki Giovani, Billy Collins and Mark Doty, among others. But I resisted, and before tackling the anthology, I decided to read more of Brooks' works. I was in love. I reread "a song in the front yard," "kitchenette building," "the mother." I laughed with "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," and I was struck with the "Anniad." Brooks' love for people, her warm humour and wonderfully original rhymes and rhythms gripped me. I read her poems aloud, savoured their music, revelled in their shifting tempos.

Brooks' was a remarkable voice—tender, courageous and masterfully crafted. Her poetry created unforgettable portraits of African Americans. Often mistaken for being a "place" poet, she said, "I start with people"; her poetic intent was "to put them on paper." Where did she go looking for remarkable people to write about? "You only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.'' She created a new form for Annie Allen, the Anniad, to celebrate the heroine, "a plain black girl." She used the sonnet to write a ballad and delighted in mixing up and creating new rhyme schemes, achieving flexibility and openness in form and strategically using black language and musical traditions to create poetry that gave voice to "her people." She guided readers through alleys, bars, pool parlours and kitchenettes. She felt that readers brought "something to a poem" and believed that poetry rightfully belonged to readers, including those who did know critical theory.

Much of The Golden Shovel Anthology is organised into sections named after Brooks' poems, contextualising the Golden Shovels for the readers. And it is remarkable how every poet's voice, hundreds of them, juxtaposed with that of Brooks, has produced hundreds of new, unique poems! Most share the same emotional palette as that of the works they invoke, or are extensions of them. There is always a connection, maybe not discernible at first, but slowly materialising; some Golden Shovels are mirrors, others tributaries or distributaries.

For instance, Ravi Shankar's "The Narcissist Breaks Up" embeds a section from Brooks' "The Sundays of Satin Smith-Legs Smith":

Severe narcissistic personality disorder is what he
tells her when he is about the break up with her. Looks

victimised by his own flaws, tragically submerging into
shallow pools of self-pitying, trying his best to hold his

breath underwater & using the sounds as a mirror.

Gregory Pardlo "The Wedding Planners" hides the line "Herein they kiss and coddle and assault" from Brooks" "The Lovers of the Poor." The last line of the Golden Shovel, "ceremony, beyond moderation, all our senses under assault," however, points me toward another section of the same poem: "The stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans, / Dead porridges of assorted dusty grains."

Tishani Doshi's "Strong Men, Riding Horses" holds up to its namesake. Maria Mazziotti Gillian's "In Honour of Gwendolyn Brooks: A Shovel Poem" is moving in its sincerity and offers a fresh reading of one of my favourite poems, "A Sunset of the City," as does Dorianne Laux's "Lapse." Linda Pastan's "One Day Soon" works for its starkness, and in Fiona Sampson's "Travel Literature:

"… Their echoes
disturb, disturb, disturb… Stories are what we are- "

brings me to

"Tin imitations of a quiet core to be my
Desert and dear relief
Come: there shall be such islanding from grief,"

Rita Dove's "From the Sidelines," Diane Seuss' "back yard song," Julia Glass' "Two Poems for Alec," Camara Brown's "What I Would ask of Manman Brigitte after seeing the African Burial Ground," Mary Calvin's "1950: Norco, Luisiana" and Sholeh Wolpe's "We, the Basij" are all powerful, memorable poems.

There are two more sections in the anthology beyond those named after Brooks' work, namely "Non-Brooks Golden Shovels" and "Variation and Expansions of the Form." While the poems in the former section reference Brooks' dedications to poets such as, "Of Robert Frost" and "Langston Hughes," the latter section stays true to her love for experimenting. Hana Beachy-Quick's "Golden Shovel," Ian Khadan's "Death in Brain" and Blake Morrison's "The Road to Wales" are richly evocative. Raphael Allison's "Double Golden Shovel," Ellen Bass' "Morning (a twisted shovel)" and Fred D'Aguiar's "Golden Shovel Borrowed from Derek Walcott and Gwendolyn Brooks" keep the mystery of solving new puzzles alive.

There are no weak links in The Golden Shovel Anthology, thanks to curatorial and editorial ingenuity. Contributors' profiles are diverse, and one finds poems written by students of creative writing next to those of revered poet laureate's. This democratisation makes the book relevant for classroom teaching as well. I, however, felt the absence of international voices.

Rereading this book never diminishes its delights, rather it allows one to roam from one room to another, discovering new emotions, uncovering forgotten moods. Patricia Smith writes in the Introduction, "When it was over and she (Gwendolyn Brooks) was gone, I went home to my poems. My poems, which suddenly were my home."

What could be a more fitting tribute to a poet whose deep commitment to language was matched only by her ingenuity at creating and recreating poetic forms? The Golden Shovel form presents Brooks' words on a fresh canvas; it allows an emerging poet to house within her verses the canonical words that inspired her. The reader gets to tease out layers, savour the deliciousness of solving nestling poems and then connect the two, for the Golden Shovel remains inert without the reader's anticipation, delight and satiation.

The anthology is a labour of love—Hayes, the editorial team of Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith and contributing poets guide us towards the brilliance, often forgotten, often taken for granted, in our literary histories. It is about recreating more than remembering and of letting form take lead. This reminds me of what Priya Sarukkai Chabria once told me, "While writing grief poets often employ strict forms in an attempt to corral it before making sense of it." The pain of loss preceded a tribute. While Hayes mourned the passing of Brooks, he sought to contain it, by devising a spine of her poetry for his own.

In her autobiography, Gwendolyn Brooks talks of the 1940s when she and her husband spent time with writers and artists: "Great social decisions were reached. Great solutions for great problems were provided … Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough." If we let go of this hope today, who will we be?


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