Marilyn Hacker on Gwendolyn Brooks, plus 5 Questions

The Rites for Cousin Vit

Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

from Annie Allen (1950)

This sonnet is from Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen, the first book by an African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Brooks, born in 1917 in Kansas but a Chicagoan for her eight decades, is a poet whose strongest work combines contemporary (though rarely demotic) diction with a love of word-play and supple, elaborate syntax recalling Donne or even Crashaw (and frequently Eliot) which she brings to bear, with affectionate irony, on her subject. Annie Allen is a collection of poems which, taken together, chronicle and counterpoint the life of a young woman and of her community: a black working-class neighborhood in Chicago during and just after World War II. That community, and its subsequent transformations, from working-class aspiration to urban decay to the radicalized youth movement of the ‘sixties, remained Brooks’ major focus through later books. Through a more than a half century in which an autobiographical aspect was predominant in American poetry, even in the discretion of Elizabeth Bishop or the verbal legerdemain of cummings, Brooks constantly eschewed this vein: even in poems spoken in the first person, there are indications that we are reading a dramatic monologue. One could say that the protagonist of each book, and of the work as a whole, is not an individual but a community.

The movement of Annie Allen is that of the character, Annie’s moving out of romantic self-absorption, and beginning to observe that community – which , for her as for Gwendolyn Brooks, is not limiting, but a source of energy, information, support, and, most of all, of stories implicit in the quotidian lives of its citizens. “The Rites for Cousin Vit” is, an elegy as well as a sonnet, but it is an elegy so overflowing with the life-force of its subject that, with no overt religious context, it constitutes a denial of death. Although subordinated to the imperative “surmise” which makes this rising an act of imagination, the verbs “rises in sunshine” and “ must emerge” metaphorically equate the sensual, down-to-earth Vit with the risen Christ – who then “does the snake-hips with a hiss,” becoming both Eve and the serpent , until , after the communion of the “bad wine” and the purely human interaction of “talks,” these transcendental identities are resolved with the final verb, a one-syllable sentence of affirmation: “Is.” All this is contained – or rather, turned loose – in an Italian sonnet of two envelope quatrains and a sestet framed by the end-words “emerge” and “is.” Nothing is accidental here, certainly not the title, in which Vit’s name echoes the Latin for “life” – and her identification as “cousin” implicitly creates a narrator/ speaker with a familial relationship to her, confirmed by that imperative “surmise” which the only mark of that speaker. “Cousin” also claims her as a community and family member, a fact which informs the “outlaw” aspects of her behavior: the plural “love-rooms,” the bad wine, shiny dresses and dirty dancing. “Outlaw” perhaps, but not outcast.

Originally published as “The Sonnet As A Wild Woman’s Blues: On Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Rites for Cousin Vit.” Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, #61, Fall 1999. Reprinted with permission of the author.

5 Questions for Marilyn Hacker

LH: Marilyn, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you read Brooks’ sonnet, “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” and you read it as passionately as if it were your own. Does Brooks’ voice have a particular meaning for you?

MH: Brooks’ lyric observation, narrative skill, use of the dramatic monologue (which this poem becomes if one reads the almost-absent speaker as Annie Allen) and of quotidian portraiture have always aroused my admiration and desire for re-reading, as does, perhaps even more so, the sheer verve, the joy in her sculpting of English syntax.

LH: As one of our great sonneteers, I wanted to ask you about contemporary approaches to the form. Your own engagement with it is both contemporary and traditional in that you are using it—as Brooks did—as elegy, monologue, mourning, etc. but you are also very much in conversation with the forms early masters, Donne, for instance. Do you feel the form is open for endless variations? Can you see some traces of your idea of sonnet in a computer-generated sonnet for example?

MH: I admit to a lack of interest in computer-generated poetry. I do feel that the sonnet form is adaptable to near-infinite variations made by human beings, most of which include some kind of implicit dialogue with previous practitioners of the form. It intrigues me into how many disparate languages the form has travelled. Mahmoud Darwish included in one of his later book a series of sonnets in Arabic, which may (I could be wrong) be the first passage of the sonnet into that language, but which is entirely indicative of Darwish’s own continual dialogue with other poets and poetries, Lorca being one of his interlocutors. One of my favorite contemporary sonnet-writers in English is George Szirtes, now British, born Hungarian, who also translates widely from the Hungarian — and the sonnet is vital in contemporary Hungarian poetry, including the “heroic crown” of 15 sonnets in which the last sonnet is made up of the first lines of the 14 others. A lovely English example of that feat of legerdemain is British-Iranian Mimi Khalvati’s “Love in an English August”. But so, in another register, and in the United States, is Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till, which brings the sonnet back to (as it happens) one of the horror/martyr stories of American racism also commemorated by Gwendolyn Brooks. Karen Volkman’s linguistically surreal sonnets in her new book Nomina are a fascinating permutation of the form.

LH: You’ve been reading and thinking about poetry and essays—Montaigne—can we expect a collection of essays from you any time soon, or do you fold that thinking into your poetry?

MH: I have been working on a collection of essays that is being “looked at” now. I hope something will come of it.

LH: What is the last book that took your breath away?

MH: Violette Leduc’s Trésors à prendre Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic My Arabic textbook when I sit down to do my homework.

LH: What are you working on now?

MH: Trying to finish a book of poems. Also a collection of “Selected Translations” of ten contemporary French poets.

Marilyn Hacker is the author of nine books, including Squares and Courtyards, and Winter Numbers, which received a Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Award of The Nation magazine and the Academy of American Poets in 1995; Selected Poems, which was awarded the Poets’ Prize in 1996, and the verse novel, Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. Her most recent book, Desesperanto, was published in 2003 by W.W. Norton. She has translated Claire Malroux and Vénus Khoury-Ghata. She lives in Paris and New York where she is Professor of English at the City University. You can hear Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool,” and you can hear Hacker reading “Migraine Sonnets“.

Marilyn Hacker reading at the Dodge Festival, 2004.

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