Unless we’re toiling away in an English PhD program, most of us don’t pause in our daily lives to read poetry– to read anything closely, really. We might scrutinize a job offer or rental contract, or devour a Facebook feed. Seldom, however, do we allow ourselves to pause over a verse, to wade into a line of poetry or prose and stop, feeling the chill, or the sting, or the pleasure of a series of words, before moving on.
Every month, “Versing Clio” will feature a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine.
This series is less about figuring the “meaning” of a poem — of cracking open a poem’s shell to find a juicy moral that might be hiding inside– than about locating and considering moments of interest or ambiguity that might come to bear on our understanding of gender, history, and medicine.
The cry of “Black Lives Matter” has resounded with particular force over the events of the past couple of years, from the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, north to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, west to the Ferguson police department and its ingrown institutional racism, and south to the calculated executions at the AME Church in Charleston. Across the country, protesters are insisting that we “Say her name,” grasping onto the names of black people killed at the hands of law enforcement or unprosecuted vigilantism, so easily erased or forgotten while their killers walk free despite the blood on their hands.
While the call to “Say Her Name” and the insistence that “Black Lives Matter” may have been borne out of the deaths of women like Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, and Alexia Christian and men like Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, these imperatives are not new. They were sown in free communities of color in the North after the Revolution, ripened in abolitionist speeches, harvested in the Jim Crow South, and devoured in the newly-diverse urban centers of the North in the years of the Great Migration. Poets have led the rhetorical charge in all of these settings, drawing attention to the essential and endangered state of the black body in America.
Gwendolyn Brooks – a modernist Chicago poet – was one such writer who managed to represent the black American experience, and in particular the experience of poor black women and their bodies, with unparalleled grace, power, and lyricism. Gwendolyn Brooks captured such iconic scenes as a run-down “kitchenette building” that burst past capacity with mothers trying to care for their children without sufficient resources. She depicted the pent-up energy and longing of the red-lined streets of Chicago’s South Side in such oft-anthologized poems as “a song in the front yard.”
Today, in the spirit of Versing Clio, we’ll look at a less-read Brooks poem that draws our attention to the relationship between gender, race, and the body. “Jessie Mitchell’s Mother,” published in 1963, tells an intergenerational story of a mother and daughter confronting the unrelenting physical forces of poverty, maternity, and misogyny, and the effects that those forces have on the female black body.
The poem begins from the perspective of a daughter – Jessie Mitchell – presumably tasked with caring for her aging mother.
Jessie Mitchell’s evaluation of her mother does not display the kind of empathy that might comfort an aging parent, or a reader. Instead, the poem uses metaphor to put us on edge immediately, both by describing the physical discomfort of “the ballooning body” — almost as if she were already dead — and by displaying Jessie’s harsh understanding of her mother’s mental and emotional state as “jelly-hearted” and with “a brain of jelly.” Jessie’s categorization of her mother as “irrelevant” and “not essential” seems to go beyond the typical disdain of the younger generation for its elders, while it evokes the same tropes that have historically been used to neglect and oppress black women. Jessie’s internal quip that “Only a habit would cry if she should die,” uses internal rhyme to achieve an almost sing-song effect, in turn drawing attention to the internalized casualness and callousness with which Jessie, and society at large, cast off black bodies. Jessie is not immune to the social forces that would diminish the emotional and mental vitality of her mother, deeming her simply “a pleasant sort of fool without the least iron….” With these ellipses, Jessie cuts off the sentence that she’s running in her head, perhaps meaning to say “irony.” But in its present truncated form, as iron, it contrasts with jelly — it is sturdy and solid, evoking strength, but also, perhaps, something more sinister, like shackles.
Jessie Mitchell’s mother, however, proves her daughter’s internal quips wrong with the strength of her retort, and maintains a powerful position from which to “review” her daughter:
Again, we see Brooks using metaphor as a through-line between generational differences. Jessie Mitchell’s mother, Brooks implies, has already been bent – by the weight of men, of sex, of children – resulting in her current state: a physical presence likened to a “stretched yellow rag.” A rag, here, is a symbol of domestic work and poverty: rather than the “rags to riches” story we’re used to, Jessie’s mother has followed a “rags to rags” path. We come to see Jessie’s bending as inevitable, subject to forces beyond her control, simply as the lot of “things in life that were for poor women.” Jessie Mitchell’s mother envisions these forces “Coming to them grinning and pretty with intent to bend and to kill” – a vision made more threatening and frightening by the harsh trochaic rhythm and consonance. Otherwise innocuous or even pleasant syntax (“grinning” and “pretty”) develops a hard edge, as consonants emerge with glimmering teeth when paired with the curt and biting “intent to bend and to kill.”
The bending of women, Jessie Mitchell’s mother reflects, is not equally the domain of all women, but of black women in particular. The comparison between generations impregnates Jessie’s mother with both a painful satisfaction and a troubling premonition:
Here, for the first time, we hear Jessie Mitchell’s mother vocalize her internal monologue about her daughter. Because “Jessie’s black,” she has no choice other than to follow the same path, trodden by her mother and those other women who came before, that would break or bend her thin and straight youth. And, her mother implies, Jessie’s “way will be black, and jerkier” than her own, perhaps even because of a more visible blackness than she embodied in her “exquisite yellow youth.” If this description of Jessie’s mother as “exquisite yellow” can be interpreted as a proud reference to a lighter skin tone, then Jessie’s mother’s “old sly refuge” may even point to a conflicted sense of racial superiority, pitching mother against daughter, the old toward the young, black women against each other. And still, although both mother and daughter harbor bitterness and resentment toward one another, each falls short of hatred – Jessie’s mother “almost hating her daughter” but ultimately relying on her care.
In this poem, and as often has been the case throughout history, each generation thinks itself superior to the other. But in striving to convince themselves of their own superiority, both Jessie Mitchell and her mother amplify the same racist and sexist forces that weigh them down. In “Jessie Mitchell’s Mother,” Brooks paints a nuanced portrait of an intergenerational pair who are so inundated by external oppression that they themselves become agents of their own mutual destruction; we see a pair that is so overwhelmed by its lack of freedom – simultaneously the product of racism, age, and the oppression of women generally (especially poor and nonwhite women) – that this un-freedom and oppression is itself internalized and manifested physically. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his Between The World and Me, the forces of oppression are embodied and systemic, exacerbating internal conflicts within communities and families like the Mitchell family in this poem.
It’s worth noting, too, that Jessie Mitchell’s mother doesn’t have a name of her own. Her identity has been completely subsumed and submerged by the same forces that she fears will “bend” her daughter. Perhaps this is Gwendolyn Brooks’s way of demanding, half a century before it gained cultural traction, that we “Say her name.”