Thursday, January 1, 2015

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Maud Martha thought of her parents' back yard.  Fresh.  Clean.  Smokeless.  In her childhood, a snowball bus had shone there, big above the dandelions.  The snowballs had been big, healthy.  Once, she and her sister and brother had waited in the back yard for their parents to finish readying themselves for a trip to Milwaukee.  The snowballs had been so beautiful, so fat and startlingly white in the sunlight, that she had suddenly loved home a thousand times more than ever before, and had not wanted to go to Milwaukee.  But as the children grew, the bush sickened.  Each year the snowballs were smaller and more dispirited.  Finally a summer came when there were no blossoms at all.  Maud Martha wondered what had become of the bush.  For it was not there now.  Yet she, at least, had never seen it go.

This summer I asked for suggestions for a book to add to our ninth grade curriculum.  It's a great set of books, but lacking in women and persons of color, as both characters and authors.  The book which had been chosen to fill some of those gaps, Kindred, just isn't good enough as a book to really fit the criterion.  But finding a replacement turned out to be surprisingly hard, often because the best choices, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, were already taken by the other grades.  I got a lot of great suggestions, though, many of which I've never heard of, and which forced me to admit that I could do a better job of seeking these kind of books out.

Maud Martha was by far my favorite of those suggestions I read, and very nearly made my end-of-year list.  The only novel of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, it tells the story of the titular protagonist from childhood to marriage and motherhood.  The early chapters, when Maud Martha is young, have a kind of dreamy quality that captures being a child very well, and reveals the poetic quality of Brooks' prose:

To be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown, and sometimes when she was not looking at dandelions (for one would not be looking at them all the time, often there were chairs and tables to dust or tomatoes to slice or beds to make or grocery stores to be gone to, and in the colder months there were no dandelions at all), it was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements--if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary--was as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty.

What I like most about Maud Martha is that very little happens.  The most intense conflict comes from the petty drama of married life, like her husband Paul's desire to become a well-respected member of the Foxy Cats club in Harlem, or Maud Martha's dissatisfaction with the smallness and meanness of her apartment.  Mostly, Maud Martha is a celebration of domestic life, and Brooks' poetic eye dwells on the small and significant stuff of ordinary lives.  Other suggestions, like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Bluest Eye are far more interested in exposing the terrible consequences of black estrangement in America, and though they do that important task well, they would be bleak additions to an already admittedly bleak curriculum.  But Maud Martha's insistence that domestic life, and black domestic life at that, can be a source of poetic interest strikes me as being as important, and even more radical.  Racial conflict is persistent here, but muted, as in Paul and Maud Martha's realization that they are the only black people in a crowded theater and the vague shame it inspires.  Few books do such a good job of observing how issues of race affect the ordinary and the quotidian.

Anyway, we're not teaching it, not yet.  I would really like to, but it didn't help that I lost my copy and couldn't loan it anyone--that's why this review is so late (it seems amusingly appropriate that I only found it today, the first day of the new year).  I wonder how students would deal with what seems to me to be an aggressive plotlessness, and the unprosiness of its prose.  I found it very affecting, and I think they would, too.


Brittany said...

I had no idea Brooks had a novel - that is now very high on my list To Read. I love her poetry and am always happy when a student chooses her for an analysis because I never ever get bored of her (unlike Poe who is banned from all poetry analysis in my class).

If you're still looking for ideas for your freshmen, my students devoured and loved The Secret Life of Bees, and it is not so dreary as other novels. (The author is white and so is the protagonist, but every other character is black.)

Christopher said...

Poe is garbage.

Dani said...

This is definitely going on my "To Read" list. I was woefully unfamiliar with Brooks until I taught AP Lang., but as soon as I saw the title of this I had to wonder if there was any connection to this poem (the simplicity and contrast of which I love):

It may just be coincidence, but your mention of a celebration of the domestic life resonates some with the poem as well (more in contrast, but there's a mention). I'll have to look into it more.

Christopher said...

Maud doesn't go to college that I remember. Love the poem, though.

Brittany said...

My favorite Brooks' poems are "lovers of the poor" and "the mother" which are pretty serious in content, but I also have a deep unreasonable love for the ballad of chocolate Mabbie. The rhythm is so perfect:

It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates.
And Mabbie was all of seven.
And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar.
And Mabbie thought life was heaven.