Malcolm X

by Gwendolyn Brooks
For Dudley Randall

Original.
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us —
Who was a key.

Who was a man.

***

Greg Londe writes: I’ve been trying to think lately about elegies on public/political figures in the 20th century. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Malcolm X,” her slippery and conflicted elegy (or is it an elegy?) for Malcolm X is not perhaps one of her greatest poems, but it is one that registers her quicksilver ability to praise and lament simultaneously, in lines at once harrowing and delicate. The poem appeared (well after X’s assassination on 21 Feb 1965) in Brooks’s book In the Mecca (1968) and is given pride of place as the first poem in Broadside Press’s anthology For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1969, edited by Margaret Burroughs and the poem’s dedicatee/BP founder, Dudley Randall).

It is also a poem that seems to be reflecting on, and perhaps trying to find a voice both within and outside of, the formal and cultural transitions effected by X’s death, from which shocking moment followed Leroi Jones’s transformation into Amiri Baraka, the move uptown, and the establishment of the Black Arts Movement (for which Brooks would become an overdetermined mother figure and icon). The phrase “pushing us to walls” may recall Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People”, which includes the infamous section, eventually used as evidence against Baraka in court, “you can’t steal nothin from a/ white man, he’s already stole it he owes you anything you want,/ even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic/ words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker/ this is a stick up!” In her autobiography, Brooks recalls seeing Baraka perform the poem at the Fisk Writers Conference in 1967: “I was sitting beside a youngish white fellow. He had b
een very quiet. But when Baraka said at one point, ‘Up against the wall!’ this man jumped to his feet and said ‘Yeah, yeah, kill ’em!’ And here he was was, ordering his own execution.”

It may be harder in this forum to discuss such a markedly occasional work. So does this poem work? What work is it doing or attempting to do? Can we compare its politicized iconography to the operations of the Clifton poems which we were just reading? On a purely sonic level, how does it elaborate, or overcome, or supersede its “origins”?

4 Thoughts.

  1. Like Evan, I’m curious about the sense in which the poem is “for” Dudley Randall. It’s interesting to me that Randall is the author, most famously, of “Ballad of Birmingham,” which narrates the life and death of one the victims of the 1963 church bombing there. Is the “for” meant as a gesture of solidarity with Randall, a signal that the work of commemorating the casualties of the civil rights struggle is being shared? Is it meant to remind readers that five years after Birmingham, the struggle continues, that there will be more violence, more grim elegiac work to come?

    Or given the poem’s ambivalence about X’s legacy, could the dedication be meant as a lesson to Randall and other poets about the possible complicity of commemoration in creating heroes out of flawed and all-too-human figures whose power paralyzes as it beguiles? I’m thinking of the difference between the poem’s opening and closing lines. In the first line, X is “original,” but the last reads, “Who was a man”—a phrase that at once completes and undermines the poem’s depiction of X as charismatic hypermasculine hero. He was a man, sure; but in another sense, he was just a man—and hence not original. (How strange to end an elegy by declaring about your subject what is true of half the deceased.) And thus is activated a different sense of “original”—X is not new, not a gift delivered to his moment, but is in fact an kind of archetype, something history has seen many times before. (We should also not that another sense of “original” seems to be at play, one that has to do with X’s own effort to define his own origins by X-ing out “Malcolm Little.”)

  2. Evan and I joked the other day that this site is where we come to get our close-reading kicks.

    I wanted to ask about something that’s very much on my mind, though: the different sorts of pleasure of the verse.

    In the opening section–”Hence ragged-round/Hence rich-robust/He had the hawk-man’s eyes”–there’s something deeply pleasurable about the texture of the language. Alliteration, vowel patterning, rhythms, and other more subtle effects make the words interesting to contemplate as sounds and letter forms.

    In the second and fourth stanzas, the language becomes deeply kinesthetic–”gasped,” “raking out and making guttural,” “pushing,” “open”–in a way that I also respond to, but very differently. There my reading becomes a sort of sympathetic identification, as being both acted-upon and actor for each action flickers through my head.

    What’s neat about the penultimate stanza is that the key is both a physical key, thrust into the lock, and a key to a cipher, which breaks the code of language.

    Sorry, this was going to go further, but someone’s just shown up to get lunch.

  3. (Addendum to 2: Looking again, I guess the other lines aren’t free verse as much as variable-length iambic. But I think my point still, sort of, stands.)

  4. I have a few, quite random thoughts about this wonderful poem.

    1. I wonder if, in the second line, she’s alluding to the children’s tongue twister, also invoked by Auden and Ashbery, “Around the rough and rugged rocks the ragged rascal rudely ran”?

    2. It’s so exciting the way Brooks slips from free verse into totally regular iambic pentameter in the eighth and ninth lines — “And IN a SOFT and FUNdaMENtal HOUR / A SORceRY deVOUT and VERtiCAL” — but then gets out quick, before the magic wears off. It’s surprising how infrequently experimental poetry tries this kind of trick.

    3. Lastly, again we’ve got some play with dedications! The poem is “about,” “on,” and in some sense “to” Malcolm X, but it’s also “for” Dudley Randall. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the fact that a poem that insists so strongly on the collective audience’s feminine receptivity with regard to the subject’s penetrating masculinity (”We saw the maleness … It opened us”) is dedicated not to another woman, but to a man. My question, I guess: Is Randall part of the “us,” or the “him”?

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