• Elina Arbo

THE ESSENTIAL GWENDOLYN BROOKS: BOOK REVIEW

Born in Kansas and raised in the South Side of Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks infuses community with observation in her book The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 and her writing continues to make an enormous impact on her readers. She breathes life and empathy into all she composes; poetic moments that often seem simple and unimportant become mystical in her verses.


Brooks writes with anger, sorrow, and hope. Capturing the Civil Rights era, there are mentions of Malcolm X and Black Power movements in Chicago. Of course, there are deeper connections Brooks makes, and the simplified moments become extravagant. Her employment of rhyme and repetition keeps readers enthralled in all she has to say:


“Pretty tatters blue and red,

Buxom berries beyond rot,

Western clouds and quarter-stars,

Fairy-sweet of old guitars

Littering the little head

Light upon the featherbed.”


The rhymes of her poetry create vivid feelings of nostalgia, bringing you comfort like the summer sun wrapping around your body. Spontaneous and unpredictable, these rhyme schemes are woven throughout the book and continue to accompany the soft consonance her words often create. Repetition also draws readers closer to Brooks’s interpretation of the world. However, her repetition does not create redundancy or boredom, rather a redirection of focus:


“You kiss all the great-lipped girls that you can.

If only they knew that it’s little today

And nothing tomorrow to take or to pay,

For sake of a promise so golden, gay,

For promise so golden and gay.”


Her words stay with you, reverberating in your mind. Numerous powerful stanzas and lines embedded throughout the poem planted themselves into my thoughts. For instance, without context “I cut my lungs with my laughter” is a common feeling described unusually (the sharp pain of laughing too much). Honing deeper into this poem “Ballad of Pearl May Lee”, she restates harrowing scenes of incarceration, injustice, and degradation. Laughter is not joy in this instance, it is a slow and painful emotion. Brooks shakes our perception of common objects and emotions by redefining them into a complete antithesis of what they are.


There is innovation in her technique and description that is successfully employed. Even though her words are untraditional, they are still easily understood. Her voice is extremely unique and identifiable through stylistic decisions. No matter the occasion, readers are instantly transported to the same moment Brooks writes of.


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