Jessie Mitchell’s mother – Gwendolyn Brooks
Another poem from the excellent ‘You Better Believe It: Black Verse in English’. The editor of this 1973 anthology, Paul Breman, tells me – or anyone else who wants to read his intro – that Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Kansas in 1917 but lived in Chicago all her life. She was says Brennan, “easily the most interesting of the early generation of female black poets”. Poemhunter.com tells me she died in 2000.
Into her mother’s bedroom to wash the ballooning body.
‘My mother is jelly-hearted and she has a brain of jelly:
Sweet, quiver-soft, irrelevant. Not essential.
Only a habit would cry if she should die.
A pleasant sort of fool without the least iron …
Are you better, mother, do you think it will come today?’
The stretched yellow rag that was Jessie Mitchell’s mother
reviewed her. Young, and so thin, and so straight.
So straight! As if nothing could ever bend her.
But poor men would bend her, and doing things with poor men,
being much in bed, and babies would bend her over,
and the rent of things in life that were for poor women,
coming to them grinning and pretty with intent to bend and to kill.
Comparisons shattered her heart, ate at her bulwarks:
the shabby and the bright: she, almost hating her daughter,
crept into an old sly refuge: ‘Jessie’s black
and her way will be black, and jerkier even than mine.
Mine, in fact, because I was lovely, had flowers
tucked in the jerks, flowers were here and there …’
She revived for the moment settled and dried up triumphs,
forced perfume into old petals, pulled up the droop,
triumphant long-exhaled breaths.
Her exquisite yellow youth.
We start with the callous opinion of Jessie Mitchell, shocked perhaps by her feelings for her mother, especially if we have been bred to believe all that sentimental stuff about mothers and daughters and respecting your elders. The throwaway “only a habit would cry if she should die”, seems particularly cruel.
But we are also led along with Jessie while we are busy disapproving of her from our lofty moral high-horse. The mother looks like a “stretched yellow rag” and do we not despise her a little for it? Then suddenly Brooks switches perspective as the line overruns and Jessie’s significantly nameless “mother / reviewed her.”
There is a flower motif. Jessie is “thin, and so straight”. Delighting in her own cruelty, the mother internally prophesies her daughter’s wilting. The agent of destruction is Brooks’s long noun phrase, “the rent of things in life that were for poor women”, almost a magic formula, a direct translation from another, less conceptual language. This “rent of things etc.” is then personified while the poor women themselves retreat into the almost inanimate third person pronoun: “coming to them grinning and pretty with intent to bend and to kill”. These “things” are crueller than the unloving daughter or mother.
And in Brook’s sharply observed tragedy of race and class, Jessie’s mother converts her jealousy (“almost hating her daughter) into petty triumphalism. She remembers that Jessie is black and she prides herself on the slight hierarchy of yellow, rather than black, skin. She exults in the memory of the dead flowers of her youth, vainly “forced perfume into old petals” and forgets the lesson that she herself has learned: that Jessie’s loveliness will be broken by the sufferings that poor, black women must go through.
The last line’s irony is magnificent. The flowers in reality have wilted in Jessie’s mother’s “exquisite yellow youth”.