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Patricia Smith on Gwendolyn Brooks

"You need to know Chicago if you're going to learn to miss her"

According to my mother, the sage of
Aliceville, Alabama,
There are three things that really
piss the Lord off:
Lies told in the name of vanity,
which, once you ponder, all lies are.
A girl or woman, no matter how old
she is or claims to be,
wearing pants past the threshold of
a Baptist church.
And calling on Jesus when you don't
really need Him.
In her dimming eyes, the tip of this
latter sin
pokes heaven in its tender belly.
The Lawd too busy to be bothering with you chile,
with your little worries, that sudden raging blackhead
upside your nose, that lightskinned boy
who won't look twice at your dark and scrawny.
The Lord don't hear you when you will
that Monday morning run in your stocking not to be there,
when you wonder if you have married the wrong man,
when at 2:57 in what you assume is a kickass slam poem
you spot a dead face in the audience,
drifting away from your passion,
and you forget the other thousands of people,
you pray that just he, that one disconnected soul,
will suddenly be irreparably twisted by what you say.
In three seconds.
In two.
In one. 

Here in this snaking cavern, where we peel away our
overload of skins to find what is shaking and bony beneath,
I confess to calling on Jesus quite recently, somewhat idly
but with a growing sense of bewilderment, daring Him to
appear before me and explain His latest move in a
mysterious way. Winter, with its sudden twists of ice and
circumstance, is gone now. It is time for warmth returning.
So why is Gwendolyn Brooks still dead? 

To understand the question, you need to know Chicago. 

You need to feel the slivers of ice in its breath, ride its wide
watery hips, you need to inhale a kielbasa smothered in
slippery gold onions while standing on a corner in a
neighborhood where no face mirrors your own. You need to
know the West Side, the hurting fields, the home of Q Ali,
the home of Regie Gibson, the chocolate city burned to its
bones in '68. You need to know how flap-jowled Mayor
Daley walled us in, forced us to build our own language and
our own castles crafted carefully of dirty dollar bills and free
cheese. Every colored girl on those streets had to be a poet,
or die. We all scanned the world with Gwen's huge and
hungry eyes. 

You need to know Chicago if you're going to learn to miss
her. You need to know about The Alex, the only movie
theater on the West Side, where rats as big as toddlers
poked slow noses into your popcorn. We strutted pass
sawdust storefronts with brown meat crowding the
windows, where you could buy the head of a hog with no
questions asked. We walked pass service stations with
pump jockeys eyeing our new undulating asses, pass
fashion palaces where layaway kept us yearning for
glamour with its cheap threads already unraveling. You
need to come with me to the corner store where you could
buy 45s and vanilla-iced long johns and school supplies and
fat sour pickles that floated in a jar in the corner. And when
you asked for one Miss Caroline would plunge her hammy
forearm into the brine and pull out the exact pickle you
pointed to, plop it into a single-ply paper bag and if you
were truly West Side you'd shove a peppermint stick down
the middle of that pickle and slurp until the battle between
salt and sugar dizzied you. You gnawed candy dots off
columns of white paper, gobbled Lemonheads, sucked in
spaghetti licorice, pushed pink sweatsocks down on
Vaselined legs and put that last dime in the jukebox to hear
Fontella Bass or Ruby Andrews or whatever gospel WVON
was preaching. 

And you constantly bumped into borders:
Don't go downtown where the stares will wither you,
don't go into Cicero where the white folks will spit on you,
stay right here where everything is comfortably brown,
where you can get your hair pressed until it lay
black and flat upside your head like ink,
where you can put on lace socks and stiff pinafore
and sit at the Walgreen's lunch counter with your mother
and have a veal cutlet in deep sluggish gravy and a
chocolate milkshake. Stay here, baby girl,
where normal looks like you,
where a sister in riotous headwrap
and thick beige stockings
pens your soundtrack cause she knows,
because she is skinny, and unsure,
and only has at her disposal
every single word
ever written. 

I wonder if the shell of her is thin and papery while leftover
poetry rumbles wildly inside, bouncing off the walls of the
body that held her. I wonder where the words go, the ones
she didn't have time to use, the phrases left unturned, I
wonder if her final room was crowded with them, if the
mourners felt giddy and disturbed because there were so
many things around them begging to be said. 

Gwendolyn Brooks, undisputed queen of the colored girl,
was buried in Chicago. She undoubtedly went to glory in
stockings that sagged, dressed as if dressing never
mattered, perhaps in a print with gazelles leaping and trees
swaying and her thin silver hair hidden beneath an African
gasp with the sound of her laughing beneath. Someone
probably commented on how small she suddenly looked
and, if there is a God, at least one person demanded that he
show Himself and explain this, His skewered timing, His
wacky choice of angels.

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