The sonnet form was not an eccentric choice for Brooks. It had already been favored by many Harlem Renaissance (or "Harlem Awakening," in Arna Bontemps's preference) poets such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. The sequence of twelve sonnets is based on letters to the poet written by black soldiers. Each fourteen-line poem is composed in pentameter, mainly iambic, with modifications of Shakespearean/Petrarchan rhyme schemes. The alternate scansions possible in several poems, and elsewhere in Brooks's metrical work, attest to the theoretical difficulties of accentual-syllabic meter, as well as to the poet's intuited sense of rhythms that derive from content. She herself depreciates her own concern for meter or stress, preferring their spontaneous apprehension.
Dedicated to "Staff Sergeant Raymond Brooks and every other soldier," the poems represent contemplations of and by American servicemen in World War II. The sequence merits close attention for several reasons. First, formal confines are meaningfully relaxed by slant rhymes and assonance in terminal and internal positions, with the important line initial carefully attended. Second, dramatic rendering of contemporary life deepens. Bronzeville and even the individual portraits are largely sociological in conception; "Negro Hero" is archetypal. The sonnets, however, probe subtleties of situation and psychology and test the meaning of black life and American ideals under fire. Of the twelve poems (numbering added), the rhyme scheme of one (no.7) is Petrarchan, identified as "P"; another (no.1) varies the Petrarchan, identified as "Pv"; six (nos. 2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12) combine the Shakespearean, "S," with the Petrarchan—the latter appearing in the sestet—and such combinations are identified as "S/P"; three (nos. 3, 4, 5) are Shakespearean ("S"); and one (no.9) varies the Shakespearean, identified as "Sv." The Petrarchan is rhymed as octet and sestet; the Shakespearean/Petrarchan as two quatrains and sestet; the Shakespearean as three quatrains and couplet. Prosody of the first sonnet, examined in detail, typifies the careful crafting of the rest.
1. "gay chaps at the bar" (Pv) The slant rhyme, subtly deployed, offers no trite or predictable couplings. Surprise abounds, along with the intellectual quality of half-rhyme. The poem takes its title from a letter written to Brooks by William Couch, an American officer in the South Pacific during World War II (see chapter 4,Maud Martha, and RPO, 191). He saw men return from the front crying and trembling, men who had been "Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York." The poet speaks through the collective voice of such an officer: black, schooled in the social codes of segregation ("bar" especially evokes the color bar, justice, and the "bar" between life and death, as in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar"). Limits and dimensions of such conduct determined "Whether the raillery should be slightly iced / And given green, or served up hot and lush" (ll. 3-4). But the soldiers were not taught "to be islands" or "how to chat with death." The color green is central. Transposed into the tropics it becomes an island, untamed, menacing the soldiers who pave not been prepared "To holler down the lions in this air." Linguistic levels, from "raillery" (1.3) to "holler" (I. 14), which also summons the Negro "holler" in music, move the language from standard to vernacular as the soldiers move into the untamed environment. References to learning and knowledge emphasize the youth of the servicemen who are mostly fresh out of school, with its mock-battle sports, and cast into deadly encounters for which they lack "smart, athletic language" (1. 10).
"We knew how to order. Just the dash / Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste" (ll. 1-2). The break after "dash " punctuates as a dash itself might do, further emphasizing "Necessary." The sentence fragments connote restrictions of decorum and indirectly comment on the brevity of life itself. Yet the second line struggles successfully to escape the confining pentameter. "Necessary," ordinarily a four-syllable word, can be compressed in quick, affected or Anglicized speech, the latter plausible following "Just the dash." Still, the meter breaks into six stresses. The long a's of gaiety and taste reinforce each other so that, again, a limit (taste) is imposed upon feeling (gaiety) through the connection.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women The summer spread, the tropics, of our love. When to persist, or hold a hunger off. Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen. But nothing ever taught us to be islands. [ll. 5-9]
Images of heat, food, and instruction continue as they will to the end of the poem. But the "tropics" of love hardly prepare anyone for the heat of the island, of war, solitude, death. And what is taught? To whom? Roles become tentative, arbitrary, confused. The lexical mode of this theme appears in white, which connects through consonantal taught with assonant islands, associating the ironic white / taught / islands. (Taught will also be recalled in brought, I. 12.) Islands refers by consonance toomen. (Note that women, deprived of its first letter, yields its half-rhyme omen, the look which now replaces the feminine presence.) Along with white / taught, it bridges the octet to the sestet:
But nothing ever taught us to be islands. And smart, athletic language for this hour Was not in the curriculum. No stout Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought No brass fortissimo, among our talents, To holler down the lions in this air. [ll. 9-14]
But, pivotal, turns from positives in the octet—the known and comfortable, the lexicon of decorum—toward negatives in the sestet—the unknown and threatening, the ferocity of death. But echoes the b of beautifully and alliterates with brought and brass, which accompany no.
The linking of positive with negative underscores the thematic irony and ambivalence. Brass, an almost comic touch, connotes army "brass," or officers. The eccentric "fortissimo" clips exactly the right pretension. And "brass fortissimo," very loud brass, invokes "sounding brass" (1 Cor. 13:1). Devoid of charity and, therefore, of spiritual power (note allusiveness of talents), brass can provide no sound/force to defeat the lions (a power image, also biblical) "in this air"—literally the attacking bombers. The last line's colloquial and unrestrained "To holler," an inappropriate if not useless defense, offers antithesis to the restrained beginning, "We knew how to order." And how ineffectual the knowledge, the order, and, finally, how false! The poem moves from social restraints to natural ones—death and the jungle; from the officers' known place in the ordered, white-dominated world of the past toward the spontaneous, unknown islands of their present and future and, by analogy, of their selves.
2. "still do I keep my look, my identity . . ." (S/P). Leaving the collective "we" for third person, the poet meditates upon death that fixes the body in the meaning of its days, so that the look "Shows what / It showed at baseball. What it showed in school." General observations open each quatrain of the octet ("Each body has its art . . . / Each body has its pose"), then shift to concrete images (castle, shack, rags, robes). Harsh alliteration counters the liquid I's. Placed on a "crawling cot" or "chasty pall," released from grimace and pain into the benign past, the anonymous casualty claims identity.
3. "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell" (S). A soldier tells of the honey and bread of his past life that must, during war, be stored "In little jars and cabinets of my will." He seeks patience to endure hell, "keep eyes pointed in," that his spirit not be coarsened by this experience; and hopes not to become "insensitive / To honey and bread old purity could love." (Cf the "labeled cabinet" where "the Keeper" stores the chains of enslavement in "The Third Sermon on the Warpland.") Tight structure probes anxiety lest the soldier be unable to resume his past life and sensibility, to "remember to go home."
4. "looking" (S). The poet urges a mother to look at her soldier son in farewell, since words are inadequate. Although the poem enriches the sequence thematically, several problems make the piece less successful than the others. In the first line, "you have no word for soldiers to enjoy," the plural is used, rather than the singular, but an individual soldier, the son, "him," is referred to from the fourth line on. "'come back!' the raw / Insistence of an idle desperation / Since could he favor he would favor now" addresses the mother with a terseness verging on the cryptic. Nor does "beat back the storm" contribute more than a stock image.
5. "piano after war" (S). This is the most Shakespearean sonnet of the group, in structure and style. "But suddenly, across my climbing fever / Of proud delight" recalls the Bardic turn. Brooks makes all features of the poem her own, however. A soldier imagines what peace will be like, a room in which a woman will play the piano, retrieving the "old hungers" which "will break their coffins." But the Lazarus allusion collapses into "A cry of bitter dead men." Their intrusion on the speaker's reverie connotes not only human sacrifice, but also the inevitable postwar reappraisal. Premature, useless death serves an embittering retrospect to survivors and casualties (their shades) alike. And so the future will always be fingered by that cold. The "thawed eye will go again to ice. / And stone will shove the softness from my face." "Shove," crudely suggesting "shovel," provides the poem's inexorable moment.
6. "mentors" (S/P). The soldier continues to meditate upon his dead comrades, knowing that "my best allegiances are to the dead," and "all my days / I'll have as mentors those reproving ghosts." In the sestet, terminal full rhymes of the second tercet (wears, theirs) rhyme with each other and half-rhyme with whisper and her in the first. The quatrain rhyming is also complex. Terminal words in each group slant rhyme consecutively as well as alternately.
Brooks will not permit "mentors" and "piano after war" to be quoted separately. As a unit, they consider the tainting of postwar life. All is "changed utterly," Yeats observed—more positively—in "Easter 1916."
7 ."the white troops had their orders but / the Negroes looked like men" (P). This excellent sonnet, the only regular Petrarchan, is the most impassioned. Severely controlled, it gains strength from the tension. White soldiers reluctantly prepare to accept the strange Negroes with "A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze," and are perplexed by their ordinariness. The apartheid of coffins—("A box for dark men and a box for 'Other'") had, nevertheless, become a nuisance; often "the contents had been scrambled." The four feminine endings in the sestet contribute to the sarcasm about such mishaps that seemed to offend neither the universe nor the weather. At this dramatic turning point of the sequence, the critical edge sharpens. The incident jolts faith in American democracy and its God. Brooks takes the path of style indirect fibre(third person narration in a subjective mode; see chapter 4, Maud Martha).
8. "firstly inclined to take what it is told" (S/P). "Thee sacrosanct, Thee sweet, Thee crystalline, / With the full jewel wile of mighty light—". These words introduce the soldier's profound reassessment of his patriotism, addressed within the context of received beliefs. Alluding to "America" (the lyrics proclaim, "My country, 'tis of thee, /Sweet land of liberty," whose fathers' God is the "author of liberty"; a country that enjoys "freedom's holy light" and will "Protect us by thy might, / Our [or 'Great'] God our King."), the sonnet dissects the unrealized pretensions of the anthem. There is an interesting aural association, with vital semantic difference, between Christ (from the Greek chriein, to anoint) and crystalline (from Greek krystallos, ice, crystal; kryos, krymos, icy cold, frost), reinforcing the God/country duality. The Trinitarian emblem appears clearly in the three Thees of the first line and three Thys of the fifth. In the poem, unlike the song, duality becomes duplicity, betrayal of the youthful inclination toward belief and the soldier's need to be committed "To a total God. / With billowing heartiness no whit withheld" (11. 13-14). "Freedom's holy light" has hardened into "jewel wile of mighty light," precious yet stony (unfeeling), deceitful power. After the harsh reality and irony of no.7, succession by no.8 stresses the idea that conventional beliefs are also becoming war casualties. The remarkable phonic density, with its complex internal assonance and consonance and terminal ambiguities of half-rhyme render the ambivalences here as Brooks pushes allusion and metaphor toward symbolism.
9. "’God works in a mysterious way'" (Sv). The quotation ironically adapts a title from William Cowper's devotional Olney Hymns (1779), where the verb is "moves." Brooks continues to probe and prod the God/country duality. She uses double and internal rhyme to lighten the first quatrain, in which "the youthful eye cuts down its /Own dainty veiling, Or submits to winds." In effect she approaches the theme obliquely, even mysteriously. The objective tone of third person gives way to imperative address in the sestet, whose agitated rhythmic shifts subside in the closing tercet. At last the soldier directly petitions God, asking, "Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves. / Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves" (11. 13-14). If we were comparing the religion here with Eliot's in Four Quartets, three-quarters a wartime effort, we would conclude that the last line is one he could not possibly have written. Relentlessly devotional, he pursues an ecstatic personal redemption that Brooks's humanism—pained, skeptical, critical, hopeful—must forgo.
10. "love note / I: surely" (S/P). In the next two poems, the soldier turns his skepticism to earthly attachments. "Surely you stay my certain own, you stay / My you. All honest, lofty as a cloud" (II. 1-2). Brooks augments the flag symbol into an astute conflation of personal/political allegiance, of flag and absent beloved. Together with the next poem, it deepens the resonance of doubt. The soldier knows he can still find his love's "gaze, surely ungauzed" (I. 7). But the flag, like democracy in "Negro Hero," is a woman the soldier has learned to mistrust. "Surely" ironically punctuates six times. No longer will the man believe her "Why, of course I love you, dear" (l. 6). (Compare also the personification in "Riders to the Blood-red Wrath.") Withdrawn from certainty, "From the decent arrow / That was my clean naivete and my faith" (11.10-11), he has learned to "doubt all. You. Or a violet" (1.14). He questions every aspect of his life, his received. politico-religious beliefs and, by implication, his personal relationships. The violet, a spring flower, connotes modesty, among other associations, and symbolizes a love returned.
11. "love note / II flags" (S/P). "Still, it is dear defiance now to carry / Fair flags of you above my indignation," (II. 1-2). The soldier's love of country is costly because it postpones addressing his racial indignation. (Cf "fair fables," I. 3, "ln the Mecca.") He will pull "a pretty glory" (Old Glory) into a foxhole, remembering "dandelion days, unmocking sun" of his freedom and innocence, before the present "scattered pound of my cold passion." "Glory," especially in context of flower imagery here and throughout the sequence, also invokes morning glory, spring, youth. "Pound" reverberates with its various other meanings: domesticated animal confinement, weight, a monetary unit, to crush, to pulverize, and it echoes Shakespeare's "pound of flesh." "Cold" evokes "crystalline" of no.8 and hints of death. "The blowing of clear wind in your gay hair" conveys the beautiful image of a personified flag. The word "gay" summons both the "gay chaps" in their innocence and a woman with hair streaming in the wind—her fickle love, "Love changeful in you." (The related "coquettish death " image of "the sonnet-ballad" develops in "The Anniad" and its "Appendix.")
12. "the progress" (S/P). "And still we wear our uniforms, follow / The cracked cry of the bugles" (II. 1-2). Now speaking for all troops, the soldier returns to the collective "we" of the first poem. "Still" in the first line and beginning lines 5 and 6 emphasizes the "lnitial ardor" that has been lost, persisting as a "cracked cry" recalling the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the broken coffins of no.5. We shall salute the flag, applaud the President, and celebrate, "rejoice / For death of men who too saluted, sang. "The "soberness" and "awe" of the soldier turns to fear and "a deepening hollow through the cold." "Cold" here connotes death. Victory will be ephemeral.
The word "hollow" and the line beginning, "How shall we smile, congratulate" (I. 12) somewhat evoke, respectively, Eliot's The Hollow Men and Prufrock ("And how should I presume?"). Both works also address will and belief. But while apathy, timidity, and Angst flatten into social alienation or cosmological egoism in Eliot's works, Brooks's soldier faces concrete fears. These culminate in the poem's last, terrifying image, prescient in 1945 with the end of the war in sight:
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step Of iron feet again. And again wild.
Even so, this is a call to resistance. Brooks has projected strength, not elegy, throughout the sequence. The space between "again" and "wild"—missing in Selected Poems—suggests a leap across an abyss, a giant step conjuring for this reader a soldier's marching stride.
"Gay Chaps at the Bar" meditates on war, the Black American experience, and postwar expectations. The sonnet sequence casts a periplum (in Ezra Pound's sense) of discovery. Each review plumbs interpretation as we mine the semantic ore. Slant rhymes throughout (together with assonance and consonance) help convey instability and tension and further the intellectual content. Brooks's tone is usually conversational as well as contemplative. Her strengths lie in powerful images, often paradoxical, striking concepts, such as the God/country duality and the woman/flag personification, both pairs involving the presence of death. She employs allusion, metaphor, symbolism, but little simile. Homogeneity of language, text, and context afford greater modulation, subtlety, irony, and complexity of psychological and thematic detail than in the preceding sections. Like the other poems, however, the sonnets demonstrate Brooks's dramatic projection, while they philosophically augment the volume's central theme of entrapment.
From Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by D. H. Melhem.