Gwendolyn Brooks, “kitchenette building”

Hanna has put together a smart, thoughtful, down-to-earth blog entitled Book Geeks Anonymous. You are advised to read her post on Ms. Brooks’ “kitchenette building.” She makes a strong case that the poem weaves history, present injustice, and future communication seamlessly, and she engages its structure differently than I do.

For myself, “kitchenette building” hits hard right now, really hard:

kitchenette building
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.

Get up, push your body into the shower, get those clothes on. You’re tired — you’d rather take the day off — but during your commute you’re telling yourself how you can be positive, spread some cheer. You’re not doing it to feel better about yourself. You’re doing it because if people can be a bit more motivated, if they can see others invest in their success, they can take control of their lives. They might even make the world a bit better. Never mind your bosses, never mind your coworkers: focus on being your best so others take inspiration.

I can’t pretend to understand Philando Castile’s situation. I know the anger I’d feel if I were stopped forty-six times by the police for the most minor things. I don’t know that I’d worry such a situation could escalate into deadly violence, although that is most certainly the result of being profiled bullied by the state one’s whole life. It has to result, when you think about it. The mere displeasure of the state means our whole system — every convention, every idea, every bias — focuses directly and indirectly on keeping you down. Yet this man was a hero to hundreds, if not thousands. He took a humble job and made the most of it, making others feel valued every way he could.

I submit this is necessary for speaking about “kitchenette building.” It isn’t enough to read the speaker’s lament, We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, / Grayed in, and gray, and say that America gives millions of people second-class citizenship. That’s far too mild for what has truly been happening. There is grayness, a semblance of peace and security, but only a semblance. The violence that puts people down is everywhere: We are things… of the involuntary plan. Dehumanization nearly total, a people pushed to the margins.

In the face of this, how is it possible to dream? Is one allowed to do so? “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong / Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.” Rent needs to be paid, families need to be fed, urges and dignity require satisfaction. “Dream” itself is a dream.

You can’t be human and not dream, though. It must be there, even if wrapped in the strong stink of onions and rotting garbage:

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?

Can thoughts beyond the necessary — can hopes — transcend one’s circumstance? Could a dream send up through onion fumes its white and violet[?] Through the colors I wonder about the sacred, the birdlike — the use of incense during Lent and the eventual descent of the Holy Spirit. Fight with fried potatoes / And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall: what is sacred must move beyond nourishment and necessity. It must fluttersing an aria down these rooms. It’s there, in the garbage and the onions, weirdly enough. We believe enough to try.

Yet you cannot possibly say this gray, awful living is dream-matter. There is birdlike belief, but no actual bird. The kitchenette building snaps back, terrible circumstance snatches hope away from one’s eyes. You have to look out the window at the birds flying away with envy. You wonder if the dream would flutter or sing even if we were willing to let it in, / Had time to warm it, keep it very clean, / Anticipate a message, let it begin? You wonder if it would stay if given care. You wonder if you could care.

The challenge is to maintain hopes, to dare dreams, to not be broken by poverty and abuse. A faint recollection of baptism attends the end of the poem:

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.

The animating sentiment of Brooks’ poem is Biblical justice. The sheer rage, the fear and misery of the cornerstone rejected by the builders, is the prophecy. She does not allow her speaker to conclude as a prophet: We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it. No thought at the very end of the division of the kingdom, of the poor inheriting the earth. “Lukewarm water,” though, is a distraction. If one wonders well, for a minute, one knows the birds have it better. The birds that fed Elijah will be back, one day. Those who can persist in the most cruel of societies can dream, can hope, can wonder, despite seeming and fatal futility.

4 Comments

  1. And just like with the Williams poem, you’ve given me a way to think about this one that never occurred to me before. (Last stanza evoking baptism? Blows my mind.)

    1. Thanks so much! I make stuff up, but it does seem like the whole poem is overtly about dreams and not-so-covertly asking for justice and redemption. So I do feel there’s hints of religious imagery. Something like baptism — a link between water & hope — might be operative. The link between dreams and prophecy, of course, is much more direct even if unstated.

      Do let me know what other blog posts you might want me to look at, and if you have recommendations for other blogs I should check out, I’m all ears. I’ve got to get back to posting regularly.

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