by Gwendolyn Brooks
For Dudley Randall
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”?