On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"
An Interview with Brooks by George Stavros
Q. Let me ask you about some of your poems that are in specific forms, however—sonnets . . . .
A. I like to refer to that series of soldier sonnets.
Q. "Gay Chaps at the Bar."
A. A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation—I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking of extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that title in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.
from "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).
["Gay Chaps at the Bar" is] A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation--I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.
Harry B. Shaw
It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely." Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country. The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave. Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . . [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure. Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."
. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity. Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries. Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .
"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause. The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"
Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves. The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream. Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society. To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society. The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment. Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto. They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots. The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.
Shaw, Harry B. "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 136-59.
Gladys Margaret Williams
Gladys Margaret Williams
soldiers encountered not only the foreign enemy, but also] the discriminatory practices of
the American Armed Forces in World War II. The
Navy continued its practice of automatically assigning Negroes to menial duties as
stewards, cooks, and launderers. The Army Air
Force, only with the greatest reluctance, agreed to train Negroes as pilots and
navigators, yet it rejected fully qualified applicants for officer candidate school and
would not admit Negro officers into specialty programs.
The experience of the Negro trainees and cadets at Tuskegee (Alabama) was
especially demoralizing. Negro and Caucasian
teaching officers were separated in eating, sleeping, and toilet facilities, and trained
Negro officers were not allowed to take over administrative responsibilities at the base,
as they had been promised in an agreement to be overseen by a civilian aide hired to ease
Negro-white military tensions early in the war. The
ultimate indignity was that Negroes were not permitted to police themselves in Tuskegee,
that responsibility being assigned to members of the Alabama State Police Force.
Tuskegee (Alabama) was especially demoralizing. Negro and Caucasian teaching officers were separated in eating, sleeping, and toilet facilities, and trained Negro officers were not allowed to take over administrative responsibilities at the base, as they had been promised in an agreement to be overseen by a civilian aide hired to ease Negro-white military tensions early in the war. The ultimate indignity was that Negroes were not permitted to police themselves in Tuskegee, that responsibility being assigned to members of the Alabama State Police Force.
This is the background of prejudices and practices against which Brooks's first sonnet series must be read.
Williams, Gladys Margaret. "Gwendolyn Brooks's Way with the Sonnet." CLA Journal 26 (1982): 215-40.
D. H. Melhem
The sonnet form was not an eccentric choice for Brooks. It had already been favored by many Harlem Renaissance (or "Harlem Awakening," in Arna Bontemps's preference) poets such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. The sequence of twelve sonnets is based on letters to the poet written by black soldiers. Each fourteen-line poem is composed in pentameter, mainly iambic, with modifications of Shakespearean/Petrarchan rhyme schemes. The alternate scansions possible in several poems, and elsewhere in Brooks's metrical work, attest to the theoretical difficulties of accentual-syllabic meter, as well as to the poet's intuited sense of rhythms that derive from content. She herself depreciates her own concern for meter or stress, preferring their spontaneous apprehension.
Dedicated to "Staff Sergeant Raymond Brooks and every other soldier," the poems represent contemplations of and by American servicemen in World War II. The sequence merits close attention for several reasons. First, formal confines are meaningfully relaxed by slant rhymes and assonance in terminal and internal positions, with the important line initial carefully attended. Second, dramatic rendering of contemporary life deepens. Bronzeville and even the individual portraits are largely sociological in conception; "Negro Hero" is archetypal. The sonnets, however, probe subtleties of situation and psychology and test the meaning of black life and American ideals under fire. Of the twelve poems (numbering added), the rhyme scheme of one (no.7) is Petrarchan, identified as "P"; another (no.1) varies the Petrarchan, identified as "Pv"; six (nos. 2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12) combine the Shakespearean, "S," with the Petrarchanthe latter appearing in the sestetand such combinations are identified as "S/P"; three (nos. 3, 4, 5) are Shakespearean ("S"); and one (no.9) varies the Shakespearean, identified as "Sv." The Petrarchan is rhymed as octet and sestet; the Shakespearean/Petrarchan as two quatrains and sestet; the Shakespearean as three quatrains and couplet. Prosody of the first sonnet, examined in detail, typifies the careful crafting of the rest.
1. "gay chaps at the bar" (Pv) The slant rhyme, subtly deployed, offers no trite or predictable couplings. Surprise abounds, along with the intellectual quality of half-rhyme. The poem takes its title from a letter written to Brooks by William Couch, an American officer in the South Pacific during World War II (see chapter 4, Maud Martha, and RPO, 191). He saw men return from the front crying and trembling, men who had been "Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York." The poet speaks through the collective voice of such an officer: black, schooled in the social codes of segregation ("bar" especially evokes the color bar, justice, and the "bar" between life and death, as in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar"). Limits and dimensions of such conduct determined "Whether the raillery should be slightly iced / And given green, or served up hot and lush" (ll. 3-4). But the soldiers were not taught "to be islands" or "how to chat with death." The color green is central. Transposed into the tropics it becomes an island, untamed, menacing the soldiers who pave not been prepared "To holler down the lions in this air." Linguistic levels, from "raillery" (1.3) to "holler" (I. 14), which also summons the Negro "holler" in music, move the language from standard to vernacular as the soldiers move into the untamed environment. References to learning and knowledge emphasize the youth of the servicemen who are mostly fresh out of school, with its mock-battle sports, and cast into deadly encounters for which they lack "smart, athletic language" (1. 10).
"We knew how to order. Just the dash / Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste" (ll. 1-2). The break after "dash " punctuates as a dash itself might do, further emphasizing "Necessary." The sentence fragments connote restrictions of decorum and indirectly comment on the brevity of life itself. Yet the second line struggles successfully to escape the confining pentameter. "Necessary," ordinarily a four-syllable word, can be compressed in quick, affected or Anglicized speech, the latter plausible following "Just the dash." Still, the meter breaks into six stresses. The long a's of gaiety and taste reinforce each other so that, again, a limit (taste) is imposed upon feeling (gaiety) through the connection.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics, of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands. [ll. 5-9]
Images of heat, food, and instruction continue as they will to the end of the poem. But the "tropics" of love hardly prepare anyone for the heat of the island, of war, solitude, death. And what is taught? To whom? Roles become tentative, arbitrary, confused. The lexical mode of this theme appears in white, which connects through consonantal taught with assonant islands, associating the ironic white / taught / islands. (Taught will also be recalled in brought, I. 12.) Islands refers by consonance to omen. (Note that women, deprived of its first letter, yields its half-rhyme omen, the look which now replaces the feminine presence.) Along with white / taught, it bridges the octet to the sestet:
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air. [ll. 9-14]
But, pivotal, turns from positives in the octetthe known and comfortable, the lexicon of decorumtoward negatives in the sestetthe unknown and threatening, the ferocity of death. But echoes the b of beautifully and alliterates with brought and brass, which accompany no.
The linking of positive with negative underscores the thematic irony and ambivalence. Brass, an almost comic touch, connotes army "brass," or officers. The eccentric "fortissimo" clips exactly the right pretension. And "brass fortissimo," very loud brass, invokes "sounding brass" (1 Cor. 13:1). Devoid of charity and, therefore, of spiritual power (note allusiveness of talents), brass can provide no sound/force to defeat the lions (a power image, also biblical) "in this air"literally the attacking bombers. The last line's colloquial and unrestrained "To holler," an inappropriate if not useless defense, offers antithesis to the restrained beginning, "We knew how to order." And how ineffectual the knowledge, the order, and, finally, how false! The poem moves from social restraints to natural onesdeath and the jungle; from the officers' known place in the ordered, white-dominated world of the past toward the spontaneous, unknown islands of their present and future and, by analogy, of their selves.
2. "still do I keep my look, my identity . . ." (S/P). Leaving the collective "we" for third person, the poet meditates upon death that fixes the body in the meaning of its days, so that the look "Shows what / It showed at baseball. What it showed in school." General observations open each quatrain of the octet ("Each body has its art . . . / Each body has its pose"), then shift to concrete images (castle, shack, rags, robes). Harsh alliteration counters the liquid I's. Placed on a "crawling cot" or "chasty pall," released from grimace and pain into the benign past, the anonymous casualty claims identity.
3. "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell" (S). A soldier tells of the honey and bread of his past life that must, during war, be stored "In little jars and cabinets of my will." He seeks patience to endure hell, "keep eyes pointed in," that his spirit not be coarsened by this experience; and hopes not to become "insensitive / To honey and bread old purity could love." (Cf the "labeled cabinet" where "the Keeper" stores the chains of enslavement in "The Third Sermon on the Warpland.") Tight structure probes anxiety lest the soldier be unable to resume his past life and sensibility, to "remember to go home."
4. "looking" (S). The poet urges a mother to look at her soldier son in farewell, since words are inadequate. Although the poem enriches the sequence thematically, several problems make the piece less successful than the others. In the first line, "you have no word for soldiers to enjoy," the plural is used, rather than the singular, but an individual soldier, the son, "him," is referred to from the fourth line on. "'come back!' the raw / Insistence of an idle desperation / Since could he favor he would favor now" addresses the mother with a terseness verging on the cryptic. Nor does "beat back the storm" contribute more than a stock image.
5. "piano after war" (S). This is the most Shakespearean sonnet of the group, in structure and style. "But suddenly, across my climbing fever / Of proud delight" recalls the Bardic turn. Brooks makes all features of the poem her own, however. A soldier imagines what peace will be like, a room in which a woman will play the piano, retrieving the "old hungers" which "will break their coffins." But the Lazarus allusion collapses into "A cry of bitter dead men." Their intrusion on the speaker's reverie connotes not only human sacrifice, but also the inevitable postwar reappraisal. Premature, useless death serves an embittering retrospect to survivors and casualties (their shades) alike. And so the future will always be fingered by that cold. The "thawed eye will go again to ice. / And stone will shove the softness from my face." "Shove," crudely suggesting "shovel," provides the poem's inexorable moment.
6. "mentors" (S/P). The soldier continues to meditate upon his dead comrades, knowing that "my best allegiances are to the dead," and "all my days / I'll have as mentors those reproving ghosts." In the sestet, terminal full rhymes of the second tercet (wears, theirs) rhyme with each other and half-rhyme with whisper and her in the first. The quatrain rhyming is also complex. Terminal words in each group slant rhyme consecutively as well as alternately.
Brooks will not permit "mentors" and "piano after war" to be quoted separately. As a unit, they consider the tainting of postwar life. All is "changed utterly," Yeats observedmore positivelyin "Easter 1916."
7 ."the white troops had their orders but / the Negroes looked like men" (P). This excellent sonnet, the only regular Petrarchan, is the most impassioned. Severely controlled, it gains strength from the tension. White soldiers reluctantly prepare to accept the strange Negroes with "A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze," and are perplexed by their ordinariness. The apartheid of coffins("A box for dark men and a box for 'Other'") had, nevertheless, become a nuisance; often "the contents had been scrambled." The four feminine endings in the sestet contribute to the sarcasm about such mishaps that seemed to offend neither the universe nor the weather. At this dramatic turning point of the sequence, the critical edge sharpens. The incident jolts faith in American democracy and its God. Brooks takes the path of style indirect fibre (third person narration in a subjective mode; see chapter 4, Maud Martha).
8. "firstly inclined to take what it is told" (S/P). "Thee sacrosanct, Thee sweet, Thee crystalline, / With the full jewel wile of mighty light". These words introduce the soldier's profound reassessment of his patriotism, addressed within the context of received beliefs. Alluding to "America" (the lyrics proclaim, "My country, 'tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty," whose fathers' God is the "author of liberty"; a country that enjoys "freedom's holy light" and will "Protect us by thy might, / Our [or 'Great'] God our King."), the sonnet dissects the unrealized pretensions of the anthem. There is an interesting aural association, with vital semantic difference, between Christ (from the Greek chriein, to anoint) and crystalline (from Greek krystallos, ice, crystal; kryos, krymos, icy cold, frost), reinforcing the God/country duality. The Trinitarian emblem appears clearly in the three Thees of the first line and three Thys of the fifth. In the poem, unlike the song, duality becomes duplicity, betrayal of the youthful inclination toward belief and the soldier's need to be committed "To a total God. / With billowing heartiness no whit withheld" (11. 13-14). "Freedom's holy light" has hardened into "jewel wile of mighty light," precious yet stony (unfeeling), deceitful power. After the harsh reality and irony of no.7, succession by no.8 stresses the idea that conventional beliefs are also becoming war casualties. The remarkable phonic density, with its complex internal assonance and consonance and terminal ambiguities of half-rhyme render the ambivalences here as Brooks pushes allusion and metaphor toward symbolism.
9. "God works in a mysterious way'" (Sv). The quotation ironically adapts a title from William Cowper's devotional Olney Hymns (1779), where the verb is "moves." Brooks continues to probe and prod the God/country duality. She uses double and internal rhyme to lighten the first quatrain, in which "the youthful eye cuts down its / Own dainty veiling, Or submits to winds." In effect she approaches the theme obliquely, even mysteriously. The objective tone of third person gives way to imperative address in the sestet, whose agitated rhythmic shifts subside in the closing tercet. At last the soldier directly petitions God, asking, "Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves. / Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves" (11. 13-14). If we were comparing the religion here with Eliot's in Four Quartets, three-quarters a wartime effort, we would conclude that the last line is one he could not possibly have written. Relentlessly devotional, he pursues an ecstatic personal redemption that Brooks's humanismpained, skeptical, critical, hopefulmust forgo.
10. "love note / I: surely" (S/P). In the next two poems, the soldier turns his skepticism to earthly attachments. "Surely you stay my certain own, you stay / My you. All honest, lofty as a cloud" (II. 1-2). Brooks augments the flag symbol into an astute conflation of personal/political allegiance, of flag and absent beloved. Together with the next poem, it deepens the resonance of doubt. The soldier knows he can still find his love's "gaze, surely ungauzed" (I. 7). But the flag, like democracy in "Negro Hero," is a woman the soldier has learned to mistrust. "Surely" ironically punctuates six times. No longer will the man believe her "Why, of course I love you, dear" (l. 6). (Compare also the personification in "Riders to the Blood-red Wrath.") Withdrawn from certainty, "From the decent arrow / That was my clean naivete and my faith" (11.10-11), he has learned to "doubt all. You. Or a violet" (1.14). He questions every aspect of his life, his received. politico-religious beliefs and, by implication, his personal relationships. The violet, a spring flower, connotes modesty, among other associations, and symbolizes a love returned.
11. "love note / II flags" (S/P). "Still, it is dear defiance now to carry / Fair flags of you above my indignation," (II. 1-2). The soldier's love of country is costly because it postpones addressing his racial indignation. (Cf "fair fables," I. 3, "ln the Mecca.") He will pull "a pretty glory" (Old Glory) into a foxhole, remembering "dandelion days, unmocking sun" of his freedom and innocence, before the present "scattered pound of my cold passion." "Glory," especially in context of flower imagery here and throughout the sequence, also invokes morning glory, spring, youth. "Pound" reverberates with its various other meanings: domesticated animal confinement, weight, a monetary unit, to crush, to pulverize, and it echoes Shakespeare's "pound of flesh." "Cold" evokes "crystalline" of no.8 and hints of death. "The blowing of clear wind in your gay hair" conveys the beautiful image of a personified flag. The word "gay" summons both the "gay chaps" in their innocence and a woman with hair streaming in the windher fickle love, "Love changeful in you." (The related "coquettish death " image of "the sonnet-ballad" develops in "The Anniad" and its "Appendix.")
12. "the progress" (S/P). "And still we wear our uniforms, follow / The cracked cry of the bugles" (II. 1-2). Now speaking for all troops, the soldier returns to the collective "we" of the first poem. "Still" in the first line and beginning lines 5 and 6 emphasizes the "lnitial ardor" that has been lost, persisting as a "cracked cry" recalling the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the broken coffins of no.5. We shall salute the flag, applaud the President, and celebrate, "rejoice / For death of men who too saluted, sang. "The "soberness" and "awe" of the soldier turns to fear and "a deepening hollow through the cold." "Cold" here connotes death. Victory will be ephemeral.
The word "hollow" and the line beginning, "How shall we smile, congratulate" (I. 12) somewhat evoke, respectively, Eliot's The Hollow Men and Prufrock ("And how should I presume?"). Both works also address will and belief. But while apathy, timidity, and Angst flatten into social alienation or cosmological egoism in Eliot's works, Brooks's soldier faces concrete fears. These culminate in the poem's last, terrifying image, prescient in 1945 with the end of the war in sight:
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.
Even so, this is a call to resistance. Brooks has projected strength, not elegy, throughout the sequence. The space between "again" and "wild"missing in Selected Poemssuggests a leap across an abyss, a giant step conjuring for this reader a soldier's marching stride.
"Gay Chaps at the Bar" meditates on war, the Black American experience, and postwar expectations. The sonnet sequence casts a periplum (in Ezra Pound's sense) of discovery. Each review plumbs interpretation as we mine the semantic ore. Slant rhymes throughout (together with assonance and consonance) help convey instability and tension and further the intellectual content. Brooks's tone is usually conversational as well as contemplative. Her strengths lie in powerful images, often paradoxical, striking concepts, such as the God/country duality and the woman/flag personification, both pairs involving the presence of death. She employs allusion, metaphor, symbolism, but little simile. Homogeneity of language, text, and context afford greater modulation, subtlety, irony, and complexity of psychological and thematic detail than in the preceding sections. Like the other poems, however, the sonnets demonstrate Brooks's dramatic projection, while they philosophically augment the volume's central theme of entrapment.
from Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by D. H. Melhem.
Ann Folwell Stanford
Contrasting extreme battle fatigue ("crying and trembling") with joviality and bravado ("gay chaps"), the epigraph perhaps stands as a before-and-after portrait of the black soldiers: "Gay" before the war, they are now "crying and trembling." Another reading, however, signals strategies Brooks will use in the sequence. . . . What if the soldiers are both gay and devastated?. . .
The first sonnet . . . structures a dialectic between knowing and not knowing, between before and after. The difference in behavior and understanding before the war and now, during the war, is as vast as the difference between being a "gay chap" and one who is "crying and trembling.". . .
These men know how to posture, how to function with ease and grace. . . . As long as the war is sub rosa (as much racist/sexist ideology and its ensuing oppressive systems are), undeclared and masked, these men can function, although tenuously.
. . . Nothing [, however,] has prepared them for being thrust into the "air" of war wherein bravado and cool are lost. . . . But not only is this the "air" of foreign war, it is also the atmosphere typical of black women's and men's lived experience in a racist culture. . . .
[T]he third sonnet . . . describe[s] the deferral of dreams that both war and racism entail. . . . The lighter, though determined, opening lines of the sonnet give way to an exhaustion that results from the constant effort of keeping all these dreams and works on hold. . . . Equally intense on the battlefield of World War II or in racial battlefields closer to home, a significant effect of war is psychic exhaustion and incompleteness. . . .
The focus in [the eighth] poem is less on the loss of belief than on the anatomy of belief, of what belief consists and what motivates the desire for faith in the "beautiful center." The process of dissecting and understanding that which has held one in thrall is the beginning of liberation.
. . . [T]he ninth sonnet . . . extends the reflective gesture to include a repudiation of former belief. . . . The disillusion caused by war, or war's wounding, becomes the catalyst for the soldier/speaker's awakening and subsequent healing.
. . . [T]he speaker warns, then "we assume a sovereignty ourselves.". . . By using a voice that opposes the god of "narcotic peace" (and patriotism with racism as its sub-text), the poem reverses the terms of the divine hierarchy, insisting that resistive and restorative action must grow out of belief, and if it does not, that belief is a blinding and destructive one. . . .
How indeed, the . . . speaker asks, can he possibly continue the charade of obeisance and patriotism, given what he now knows?. . . [T]he speaker of [the final] sonnet is alert to and hears the sound of "iron feet again." While this sound may be simply the never ending round of racial and military struggle, it also works as a muted threat.
Stanford, Ann Folwell. "Dialectics of Desire: War and the Resistive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks's 'Negro Hero' and 'Gay Chaps at the Bar.'" African American Review 26 (1992): 197-211.
The closeness of the end rhymes varies throughout the sequence, always reflecting the degree to which the persona has managed to come to terms with the jarring experience which surrounds him. Consider the end couplets of the sonnets, "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell":
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.
"God works in mysterious ways":
Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves.
Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.
"love note II: flags":
Like a sweet mournfulness, or like a dance,
Or like the tender struggle of a fan.
and the sestet of the series' final sonnet, "the progress":
But inward grows a soberness, an awe,
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.
In the first two examples, the speaker is making desperate attempts, in the one case optimistically and in the other pessimistically, to come to a clear apprehension of his situation. His resolve to maintain his ability to love despite the horror of war is extremely artificial, a fact which Brooks underlines with the close juxtaposition of "insensitive" and "love." In the second example, the speaker has been forced to confront the illusion-shattering power of war and he demands that God prove his presence. His bitter rejection of all meaning, which can no more deal with the complexity of the experience than the simple resolve of "my dreams," is emphasized by the proximity and imperfect rhyme of "wolves" and "ourselves." In neither case will Brooks endorse the persona's attitude with the synthetic technical devise of an exact rhyme. Rather she draws our attention to their inadequacy. "Love note II," the penultimate sonnet, presents a more experienced persona, who has resolved to love in spite of a full recognition of the horrors of war. The rhyming of "dance" and "fan" is appropriate. The sound value of "dan" and "fan" is almost exact, indicating Brooks' tacit acceptance of the resolve. But the final sound (-ce) is missing from the final rhyme, reminding the reader that the resolve, as the persona realizes, is somewhat strained and artificial. The final sonnet, "the progress," abandons the couplet altogether in order to stress the continuing emotionally disruptive power of the war despite its increasing distance in time. The rhyme of "cold" and "wild" reflects Brooks' final statement on the nature of war and stresses the inability of the mind to come to terms with the radically apocalyptic experience.
Werner, Craig. "Gwendolyn Brooks: Tradition Black and White." Minority Voices 1.2 (1977): 27-38.
When Brooks began to write her famous sonnet sequence in her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), she must have had McKay's poetry in mind. Brooks plays her role in the mutual engendering of black men and women by providing a revision of McKay that becomes for black men a place to enter into gendered status without the trappings of rigid codes of masculinity. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks challenges the gender assumptions of McKay's call to male arms by subverting the male ideal of war, only to breathe life into the actual letters of black soldiers in World War II written to Brooks from the front. By re-engendering male racial discourse, she brings herself and other black women into Afro-American political identity, ironically, by speaking honestly about what it means to be black men. Brooks begins:
[quotes "We know how to order..."--the first sonnet of the sequence]
Although Brooks male speaker, writing about the war zones, begins with McKay's masculine bravado, his voice crinkles with anxiety, even from the beginning. Yes, the black soldiers could order drinks from the bar, thereby demonstrating their sens of power and control, but as black men they could not order other troops. Instead, they were ordered. Yet order is precisely what their world now lacks, and within the dislocation of battle, its hierarchies of gender have begun to erode as they fret over their identities as men. For while these troops may be adept at female seduction, war has rendered superfluous this point of masculine reference. However "stout" the lessons of their maleness, they have no language for conquering death with their flirtations. They do not want to die nobly, like McKay's speaker; they simply, understandably, do not want to die. The martial accents of the octave, along with its self-confident assertions and blustering swagger, give way in the poem's final lines to the incompatibility of dominant heroic male ideals and the real experience of war. In this sense, Brooks takes McKay to the Front and back as a way of showing him that the battle for male gendered selfhood must be waged with black women against the patriarchal imperatives of other men.
Just as Brooks insinuates her own female voice within the confines of the male "Gay Chaps" sonnets, she struggles to assert a coherent Afro-American identity within the destructive forces of American racism. By revising previous Afro-American sonnets, she does indeed find a vehicle for expressing the particular experience of black men and women. Within the subjective terms of her lyric "I"/"eye," Brooks witnesses and gives voice to the shared perspective of black men and women, setting it against the hypocrisy of a decidedly white male order. Brooks feminizes her black male subjects as a way of distinguishing and rescuing them from the authority of the social and political realm that generates both racism and sexism. By giving voice to their private desires, she pits their individuality against the public, patriarchal orders that her poems work to unsettle in devious ways. Rather than having black men imitate the problematic gender codes of white heterosexual men, Brooks liberates them from the phallocentric conventions of the heroic sonnet. In the process, her representations of black men refine and clarify the terms of their masculinity within a community bound by race and gender.
By embodying the male voices of her soldiers within the tiny boundaries of her feminized sonnets, Brooks clears a space for her later poems on womanhood and the female struggle for identity. She writes herself into the canon of Western literary history by "seizing" a poetic form steeped in male conquest and political struggle, then progressively remakes its racial and gender associations as her career as a poet develops. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks demonstrates that she can speak about men directly, without hesitation. In her sonnets published in Annie Allen (1949) and The Bean Eaters (1960), she stakes her claim to female authority based upon female subjectivity. Yet she makes it clear that black men are included within her discourse on womanhood. Ironically, Brooks reveals that the liberation of black woman is the secret to achieving a more realistic, democratic notion of black masculinity.
from "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet." In Engendering Men, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.
Gwendolyn Brooks identifies “Gay Chaps at the Bar” as a “sonnet series in off-rhymes, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation” (Brooks 9). By writing from the perspective of black soldiers who are experiencing the intersecting violences of war and racism, Brooks addresses their complex relationship to their “home” in a country that was still segregated and still motivated by racism, hate, and fear. Brooks' sonnet sequence addresses the sites in which racially defined relationships are both established and challenged, and she also speaks about some of the emotional and practical difficulties of the soldier's relationship to the United States.
Susan Schweik aptly identifies “looking” as both a significant sonnet in the sequence and a central trope of the sequence as a whole. In this sonnet, looking is not only feminized, but motherly, and Schweik uses Mary Ann Doane’s theorization of wartime “weepies” in order to analyze the “maternal look” of the poem (MAPS). Schweik is critical of the way in which this feminized gaze reinforces a conservative and conventional set of gender relationships, insisting that “Brooks's "looking" develops, in part, a similar mythology of feminine relation to systems of representation mastered by men” (MAPS). However, in other sonnets in the sequence, the gender of the “look” is complicated, as looking becomes the central mode of both identification and misidentification, the process through which the soldiers are racialized and the process through which that racialization is complicated, reversed, or undermined. The act of “looking” becomes even more fraught if we read “looking” in conjunction with two other sonnets in the sequence that are structured around sight or the act of looking: “still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” and “the white troops had their orders but the negroes looked like men.” In both these poems, visual performativity and the act of looking are foregrounded as potentially positive or re-humanizing agents, yet these potential affirmative readings are undercut by the each sonnet’s turn.
By stating that “Gay Chaps at the Bar” relies on letters that she received from soldiers overseas, Gwendolyn Brooks seems to impart her poem with the authority of those voices, relying on the testimonies of men who were “over-there.” However, the pretext of the authoritative, authentic male voice is almost immediately revealed as a guise, since the formality of Brooks’ sonnet sequence dispels any illusion that she is directly transmitting “letters from the front.” According to Ann Fowell Stanford,
By writing in male voices, by revising “the old stories,” Brooks resituates herself, moving from the peripheral “woman’s” place of observing war, to the center of the action. In so doing she both decanters the traditional male voice and reinscribes war with her multi-leveled meaning, resisting and refuting the traditional notion of women’s exteriority to war. The poet’s female and marginalized voice then, by cross-dressing in soldier’s garb, gains a more central position from which to speak (198).
Stanford’s reading of “Gay Chaps” as a kind of “cross-dressing” or drag opens up the gendered implications of the poem, allowing traditional male and female spheres to intersect with and affect one another.
In “the white troops had their orders,” the white troops’ racializing and “hooded gaze” becomes “perplexed” when it meets the “Negroes” face to face. These first lines complicate the act of looking; instead of establishing a racial divide based on the identification of skin color, “looking” actually confuses such an easy division. The poem also suggests that the cause of the white troops’ confusion is the fact that both white and black soldiers were fighting on the same side and that, therefore, distinguishing between black and white became much less important than distinguishing “friendly” soldiers from enemies:]
Besides, it taxed
Time and temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness.
The first octet works to suggest that war might have a democratizing influence that would confound racism. The “white soldiers” could no longer keep the “hooded gaze,” a phrase that suggests the Klansmen’s hoods, which allowed Klansmen to disguise themselves so that they had the privilege of looking at and murdering black men without that gaze being reciprocated or that power threatened. In this poem, however, both black and white men look and are looked at, so that the gazes are necessarily reciprocal.
That hopeful moment is undermined by the sonnet’s turn, in which it becomes clear that one of the most significant challenges in distinguishing “dark men” and “Other” came in labeling the soldiers’ remains. Only after their bodies had been mangled beyond recognition were the white and black men truly indistinguishable, so that the establishment of equality relies on destruction and mutilation. The last lines confound sight, since the individual bodies have been reduced to “contents” that “had been scrambled/ Or even switched.” The racializing look has been perplexed, but not necessarily because “the Negroes looked like men,” but because all of the dead men had been equally reduced to corpses or “contents.” Therefore, the last two lines are doubly ironic. On the one hand, they announce that intimate racial mixing has occurred in the “scambl[ing]” of the body parts, yet “Neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled” at this supposed affront to the natural order. On the other hand, however, the lines refer to the fact that these men can die and be torn apart, yet the earth remains the same: “And there was nothing startling in the weather.” These last lines pose a direct challenge to people who were appalled by anything that challenged racial purity, but they also undermine the epic tradition in which heroes died and the earth “trembled.”
“the white troops had their orders” references both the persistent segregation that lasted throughout the war and the spaces in which that segregation necessarily broke down. Racism continues to exist on the battlefield, but the battlefield is also a place where the unreasonable and false bases of racism are starkly, and often grotesquely, revealed. An entry in The Crisis’s “Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield” (March 1942) presents the inverse of Brooks’ sonnet by informing readers that the president of the American Red Cross had announced that instead of refusing . . . to accept blood from Negro donors, the Red Cross would accept it, but keep it separate from “white” blood plasma. The Red Cross acknowledges that there is no scientific difference between “Negro” blood, and “white” blood, but repeats its belief that in the interest of democracy, the prejudices of men who may need blood transfusions should respected (100).
Here, a medical institution denies what would be best for its patients in favor of a false “democracy” founded on prejudice rather than knowledge. Such a policy was not only grossly insulting to the African Americans who donated blood and inimical to the health of the soldiers and the success of the Allies but, as Brook’s sonnet suggests, such a policy is potentially impossible to maintain.
Like “the white troops had their orders,” Brooks’ “Still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” begins with an affirmation of the solders’ humanity, though the ellipses that follow “identity” already suggest that the confidence of the title’s assertion will be challenged. The first lines echo the tradition of the love sonnet in their sonorous rhythms. Unlike the traditional love sonnet, however, the poem makes no pretence of praising only one person, but rather lovingly gives “Each body” its due: “Each body has its art, its precious prescribed/ Pose.” Each person receives his identity from being seen; his identity is a performance, a “Pose” that is re-enacted in every situation. As in “looking,” the gaze is here both romanticized and maternal, protective and eroticizing. As such, it is a feminized gaze, but not necessarily a woman’s, since the poem suggests a homosocial arenas in which men would know each other’s “Poses” more intimately than anyone else would.
Though the gaze is loving, careful to document each solder’s individual identity, the sonnet’s sestet once again undermines the significance of this romanticized gaze. The worth of the body is partially threatened in the third and forth line, when the fact that “grief has stabbed,/ Or hatred hacked” prefigures the destruction (or even the dismemberment) of the body and, therefore, of “its pose.” However, the next lines come to reaffirm each individual’s right to his own body: “No other stock/ That is irrevocable, perpetual/ And its to keep. In castle or in shack.” The last phrase of the octet, however, suggests the evacuation of the body’s meaning, since the poet insists that the body keeps pose “Though good, nothing, or ill.” The interposing of “nothing” in that line suggest that each body’s performance is empty, a mere repetition of meaningless gestures. Then, in the last lines, the affirmation of the body’s look is made ironic, even grotesque, by its violent death. After “Having twisted, gagged, and then sweet-ceased to bother,” the body can return to “the old personal art.” But the word “personal” has been emptied out of value, divested of individuality and potential meaning – it is no more and no less than a “look.” The identity that was once so lovingly transcribed has become a grotesque effigy of itself, and the body that could once both see and be seen – that could fix the other through his “look” – has now become an object that can only be gazed upon.
“Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield.” The Crisis March 1942, 100.
Brooks, Gwendolyn and George Stavros. “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Contemporary Literature 11.1 (Winter 1970), 1-20.
Stanford, Anne Folwell. “Dialectics of Desire: War and the Restive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Negro Hero’ and ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar.’” African American Review 26.2 (Summer 1992). 197-211.
Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer
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