Thursday, June 7, 2007

Poem of the Week

The Boy Died in My Alley

to Running Boy

The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."

"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.

The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.

Policeman pounded on my door.
"Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled.
"A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?"

I have known this Boy before.
I have known this Boy before, who
ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.

I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

-- Gwendolyn Brooks
I've decided to add some weekly features to the blog, so I have a little structure. It helps keep me on track. That being said, this is my first POEM OF THE WEEK, "The Boy Died in My Alley" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

I came across this poem in a wonderful anthology called Cornerstones, edited by Melvin Donalson. All too often, as is done with most prolific writers, we see the same poem(s) anthologized over and over again. Don't get me wrong, "We Real Cool" is a good poem, but it isn't all Ms. Brooks had to offer. It has become her most famous poem, but is not in any way a scope into the complexity of her work.

In "The Boy Died in My Alley" Brooks recounts the story of a boy--perhaps one of the pool players from the Golden Shovel, maybe just some kid who carried groceries in the neighborhood to make spare change--who is killed in the alley outside her home. In the first stanza, Brooks sets up a simple rhyme scheme, a-b-c-b, and tells the story in a nutshell. The police have come, no one seems to know the boy and no one seems to have noticed his death, least of all the speaker. This changes as the poem moves forward. Brooks allows the speaker to reflect on the violence occurring close to home, the lost boy and the speaker's own part in the matter.

One thing that I love about this poem, and many of Brooks' gems, is the spectacular word choice and usage. The lines, "careening tinnily down the nights / across my years and arteries", for example, are wonderfully descriptive without being trite or predictable. "Arteries" isn't a word readers would expect to find at the end of that line, but it's an accurate one. Not only does Brooks call up the physical violence that is taking place here, but also the fact that the violence has become so commonplace that it has infiltrated the speaker's life, even the speaker's body, in an intimate way. Later on in the poem, the boy "ornaments" the speaker's alley instead of just running through it or lying in the street. She acknowledges her responsibility in the matter, though she does not know the boy personally, with the lines, "I joined the Wild and killed him / with knowledgeable unknowing... / I saw him Crossed. And seeing / I did not take him down." The use of the word "Crossed" as a created verb that alludes to the crucifixion is brilliant; the layers are endless.

After my first reading of the poem, the last couplet echoed in my head for weeks, "The red floor of my alley / is a special speech to me." These two lines work on so many levels. First, the "red floor" as an allusion to the boy's blood, the stain of his lost life, etc., seems like a simple. However, usually, an alley isn't a place that one would refer to as having a floor, but a home is. This is the speaker's home--the neighborhood, the block--in its entirety, and now it speaks to her almost as loudly as the shots that ring out so often. The repetition of the consonant sounds in the last line, "... special speech...", slows the reader down a bit. This is an important shift in movement, as the lines have gotten shorter in the last few stanzas and we've been catapulted down the page by the rhythm and the shorter lines and end rhymes create. But when the reader reaches the last couplet, there is space and a quiet shift, a reverence for the Running Boy and his life.

There is no hard and fast rhyme scheme or traditional meter in the poem. The rhythm is fluid, heightened by the scattered rhyme, the use of repetition and the variation of line lengths. Whenever I get up on my free verse high horse (mostly, I'm sure, because I am often intimidated by form) I return to Brooks, who infused her work with elements of form in such an innovative way that it's sometimes difficult to define the technique she uses in poems such as this. Brooks was able to take familiar subject matter and make it fresh by using elements of formal and free verse to create a narrative that captures the scenery and the many of the elements in her neighborhood, in most of our neighborhoods really. We have all "...joined the Wild..."

Clearly, Brooks does more here than I can discuss, but I just wanted to highlight the poem and drum up some discussion on the genius of Ms. Brooks' work. There are some folks holding down the fort as far as Ms. Brooks is concerned. Of course, everyone at Chicago State who had/has a hand in making the Gwendolyn Brooks Center a reality and keeping all of the books--even Maud Martha, Brooks' only novel--in print. Not to be forgotten is the Furious Flower herself, Joanne Gabbin, who always makes sure to uphold Ms. Brooks' legacy and delivered an outstanding keynote address on Ms. Brooks' importance at a non-literary conference ( I attended in March, and had the interdisciplinary crowd riveted, I might add.

I'd be interested in hearing about/seeing any poems that allude to the work of Ms. Brooks or to her life from those who'd like to share. Does anybody have any suggestions on where to find poems/poets who following in Ms. Brooks' footsteps?