Tag Archives: Maud Martha

Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha

Maud MarthaMaud Martha was stunning.

Every line of it was beautiful, thoughtful perfection. You can tell this was written by a poet. When I started reading it those first few pages made me keep putting the book down with a shiver of joy at the language. It is amazing to have two authors, Dybek and Brooks, remind me in just the past couple of weeks what a very visceral, physical pleasure reading can be.

WHAT she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions. (1)

Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.  (2)

This is so much about home and its creation and its effects, but in that the fucked-upness of segregated American cities is omnipresent, and every now and then you glimpse a direct view of the city of Chicago in the background. And the sky.

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. (4)

There were lives in these buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. (5)

How she loved a “hike.” Especially in the evening, for then everything was moody, odd, deliciously threatening, always hunched and ready to close in on you but never doing so. East of Cottage Grove you saw fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces.  (9)

On every page I could find you a line to love. But we shall jump ahead to the tautness of Chapter 8 as they wait for Maud Martha’s papa to come home from a visit to try and get an extension on the mortgage to save their home of 14 years.

There was little hope. The Home Owners’ Loan was hard.

HOLC. I have read so much about them in rather more abstract terms. Just as everything this book reflects on poetically is so much more often written about in terms abstract or worthy. Very different from these vivid scenes brought alive through feelings, colours, sounds, smells…

And these things–roaches, and having to be satisfied with the place as it was–were not the only annoyances that had to be reckoned with. She was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. the color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh–all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostril as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs–these were gray.

Organising tenants you see a whole lot of gray — though I don’t know that gray is the right colour for walls yellowed with tobacco smoke and damp and dirt. To me the word of horror was always dingy, that is the word contains all the smells and sounds of these buildings unified by poverty and overworked exhaustion and absentee landlords. I lived in those dingy places a long time, they strip life of its color. They get you down.

But oh, there is still some vibrance in the lives within them. You meet the people who live in the kitchenette building, meet all the hang-ups about shades of blackness and pretensions to class, all the terrible frustrations, the wonderful children whose faces light up like candles, the nameless ones who scream about the house, the two people who really love each other. They are vivid despite the gray.

There are moments of hate, moments of fear. A child being born. A life passing by and it is no one but the world’s fault that the dandelion world of the child should shift to the gray of the kitchenette building and the pressure of parenthood and adult life. Disappointments. Settling. Still finding those moments of beauty, but less often perhaps.

Near the end there is an inspired meditation on segregation and race and violence through Maud Martha’s disgust at cleaning out a chicken — refusing to touch it, hacking at its insides with a knife to do what butchers once did before the war:

And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the though of her meal. (153)

There is a kind of genius in that. I love that it sits alongside those crystalline lines and images of beauty that open Maud Martha, and are scattered throughout.

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