Sunday Rumpus Poetry: Four Poems Celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks’s Centennial




Gwendolyn Brooks stands in The Mecca

I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street.
There was my material.
— Gwendolyn Brooks

blocks of brick. floors
& floors of Black bodies.
everyday people here
fighting & fucking
& struggling to make it.
sometimes they didn’t.
she slang snake oils
at 19. her small hands
moving love potions
out bottles for some kind
of doctor. stalking halls
listening to the masses
speak, stuffed in kitchenettes.
nose ripe with onion fumes
rising like the peoples’
will in the warpland.
she took rich snapshots
of the poor. some rhythm
rattling around her head.
each sound an ornament:
a key turning the tumbler,
faucets praising the body
with lukewarm water,
the laughter of kids
& criminals. the ghost
echo of Pepita, the lost
girl. she kept count
of them, each syllable
stuck in a handbag
in her head, waiting
til she got home,
waiting to give birth
to everything.

– Kevin Coval


Lovely Love
after Gwendolyn Brooks

At the funeral, inside a chapel hall,
I first saw you. Your eyes were closed.  I thought
of her young death.  CF.  The organ sought
variations of Mozart’s rise and fall.

When she and I were six, we’d prop a box
to climb on horseback, clicked then kicked.  We’d kiss
parents goodbye.  Two years since she died.  This
afternoon we drift among the shocks

of bluebells.  You propose.  What do we know of love
or death?  Will there be a birth?  Maybe one,
if any? Goldfinches take wing above.
On the Fox River below:  walleye run.

She lived thirty-eight years.  We now stand here,
during ice-melt, this crackling atmosphere.

– Elise Paschen


Anacostia Suite
(13 Ways of Looking at a Black Boy)

Anacostia Angel

White berets like wings
Brown eyes of a brown angel
Kool-aid smile that sings
Mama’s little butterfly
Daddy’s dimple grin so wide


Images of Kin

South East Benin mask
Face like a road map of kin
Brought back from the past
Resurrected dignity
Flesh of onyx majesty


Little Mister May

My granny made me this suit
So I could look nice for God
She’s always at church
Her Bible’s older than me
It’s heavier than can be


Street Corner Prophet

Dreadlock halo crown
Jesus show up everywhere
In a black parka
Here in Anacostia
Winter corner crucifix


The Charmer

Between you and me
All of the girls like my smile
The boys be jealous
Call me bubblehead and laugh
The girls roll their eyes and sass


Givin Back to the Community

I went to this school
When I was a shawty rock
Breakin in the yard
Wanted to be a rap star—
But a teacher’s not too far!


Lazy Hazy Daze

Summertime on stoop
Forehead sweat like ice cream tears
Hiding from the sun
Wishing for the rain to come
Cool us like johnnie pump spray


My Soul to Keep

We preacher’s brothers
Grew up crawlin’ under pews
Splintered as Christ’s cross
While Daddy spit the Gospel
From sanctified porcine lips


Brothers Gonna Work It Out

We righteous Black men
Patrol the soul of this ’hood
Raise young bloods proper
To be the kings that they are
Crowned glory of our future


Do Not Enter

Ashes pepper sky
Over deserted landscape
Of broke down buildings
And cars that no longer move
Where hope was a place for love


One Way Street/Ticket

Payday don’t pay much
Every breath I take is taxed
What kind of life where
I have to take out a loan
To pay back them other loans


Broke Bus Blues

Know how many times
I done missed this broke down bus
Hardly catch my breath
Knees ain’t what they used to be
Broke like this bus leaving me


Cat at the Curb

Sandwiched between curb
And black radial tire
A cat with nine lives
Halfway spent contemplates life
Mundane days bunched up like grass

– Tony Medina


Many Sons, Many Mothers
after Gwendolyn Brooks’“The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till”

When a boy named Trayvon is shot, Emmett’s
history is not distant, removed story. A mother
fails to reverberate hollow in chests.  A woman is
stoic, vigilant, when she should be proud, doting—a
parent with lullabies for children to come, pretty-faced
affirming nods to the future, dollops of hope, not thing
nor animal unless in front of a gun that dims, dulls the
dusk across a boy’s cheeks, matching the tint
of his untainted eyes that whistle falsetto, the song of
bittersweet.  Loss has yet to be mined, but it is pulled
from his clockwork heart sped by fear, snatched like taffy
in shoplifter’s greedy pocket.  When the mother is left, she
becomes banshee in a soundproof bandshell. A wailing sits
at the top of a range of fury.  The sharp piercing within
sparks the dead boy’s face. There is nothing but a
sea of heads shrouded in hoodies. There should be red
still pulsing in him, as he chews candy, sips tea with room
left for dinner. Instead, there is a mother alone, drinking
water. She cannot eat. She replenishes conviction, a coffee
that keeps her purpose clear. She knows exactly what she
must do. If she cannot open the casket, she testifies, kisses
the memories of many sons gone, not just the flicker of her
days extinguished, found waterlogged or unidentified, killed
despite his screams that ignored a spark who was called son.

– Tara Betts


2017 marks the one-hundredth birthday of the late poet and cultural icon Gwendolyn Brooks. Revise the Psalm, edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku, celebrates her life, writing, and activism.


Quraysh Ali Lansana is author or editor of twenty books. He is a faculty member of the Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Lansana served as Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University from 2002 to 2011.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku has authored two novels. The River Where Blood is Born earned the American Library Association Black Caucus Award for Best Fiction; Hot Johnny (and the Women Whom Loved Him) was an Essence magazine bestseller. Her fiction, poetry, articles, essays, and scripts have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Ms. magazine, the Literary Traveler, Islands Magazine, and elsewhere.

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Review, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Her essay "The Displeasure of the Table" was nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches, writes in Chicago, where she is Literary Editor of Newcity. More from this author →