Gwendolyn Brooks is one of my favorite poets. Her work is trenchant, melding politics with poetics. Gwendolyn writes about race, racism, inequality, and cultural issues. Reading Gwendolyn’s lines, every time without fail, I get chills. She was a sage, a masterful poet, and a truly phenomenal woman. Her words shape my mind, my heart, and my political beliefs.
It matters what we pay attention to. Our attention is a precious resource. What we consume, what we read, shapes how we are able to engage with others, how we vote, how we love or fail to love others well. If we only read or watch the news, we’ll have one idea of what’s true about the world. More often than not, probably that it’s falling apart, or perhaps, that the apocalypse is coming. I mean maybe it is? I choose not to pay attention to those parts of the Bible and other sacred texts. As Geneen Roth said, “Well, it’s not here yet.”
What is truer about the world is that it is mysterious and paradoxical. It contains cruelty and compassion. It contains inequality and possibility. We make progress together in some ways and regress together in other ways, within one day. We carry within us the potential for immeasurable harm and immeasurable good.
To look upon the world’s paradoxes with clarity is wiser and more productive. Gwendolyn’s poetry is unflinching. Read her words for directives on how to see, how to breathe, how to be, how to act. Here is one of my favorites, about how dreams transcend bleak circumstances and how dreaming sustains the weary. And further, reminds us to see each other’s humanity.
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.