Sing an aria. Gwendolyn Brooks stamp. Poetic justice.

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.”

Today the Gwendolyn Brooks stamp goes on sale at the Post Office,
along with those of 9 of her esteemed colleagues, as Poetry Month 2012, winds down.
Brooks is “best remembered for distinctive, lyrical portraits of everyday urban life”.

To me, she is Gwendolyn Brooks, personal hero, and coincidentally the cousin of my sister’s life-partner.

It was her poem Kitchenette Building that we performed in Between the Times, a musical I toured with, throughout the US in the mid 80s. The power of that poem gave us the courage to speak to reluctant Catholic audiences about the inequity. About the haves and have-nots. About the power of hope.

Last week I told my own stories of growing-up poor – in a huge family, in a Midwestern town in the ‘60s. The show is Songs of a Catholic Childhood. I shared the stage with Michael Smith, a New Jersey native. He talked about his family memories. Of collecting dimes, and the reaction of a stoic Grandpa, who was a miner in the Pennsylvania hills. Of strolling down Main Street in Pittston, PA with his Aunt Kitty.

I summoned up the memories of life with 13 siblings crammed in a small, damp house – and talked about sharing the bathtub, heated by a kettle from the stove. Of asking Jesus to intercede with Santa on my behalf.  Of having no car, and no ride to Midnight Mass in a snowstorm, in a town with no buses.

I talked about singing. I sang the songs that pulled me through.

Afterward, people volunteered their own experiences as American Catholics during the Baby Boom era. Of big (7-8) families. Of “offering it up”, giving to the missions, and praying for the poor souls in Purgatory.
Of bland casseroles, and eating fish on Friday.

I reserve judgment about whether they had it as hard as we did. About whether they get that biscuits and applesauce, or fried potatoes and onions were sometimes a whole dinner. I think, my early years would read like a Dickensian novel on a tough day. Or, if I’m feeling romantic, maybe Yeats’ Cloths of Heaven.

Or…perhaps, like a masterfully written poem.

I think about Gwendolyn Brooks.


Gwendolyn Brooks as I met her

Kitchenette Building
by Gwendolyn Brooks

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks.

More about the commemorative stamp:


The Cloths of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


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