Thursday, November 1, 2012

Making the Connection with Gwendolyn Brooks: Maud Martha & “Kitchenette Building”

[By Simone Savannah]

Gwendolyn Brooks Maud Martha (1953) is said to be an example of the decline of the protest novel because it offers a shift to optimism. The novella is semi-autobiographical as it does not offer a straight memoir of Brook’s lived experiences. Additionally, Maud Martha  is structured in vignettes which adds to the very poetic personal story of the protagonist. Furthermore, the novella presents a theme of domesticity that is also present in Brook’s poem “Kitchenette Building” (1963).

One could argue that vignettes fifteen and twenty-three of Maud Martha establish the background for “Kitchenette Building” and help readers come to an understanding of a kitchenette. For instance, vignette fifteen, “the kitchenette,” describes the type of apartment building. Maud Martha imagines the furniture she would like to move into her apartment before she learns that she is not permitted to add, remove, or rearrange any furniture. The apartment and apartment building then become a “gray” space occupied by the odors and sounds of Maud Martha, her husband, and other tenants. Further, “kitchenette folks” describes the tenants and each of their habits.

Moreover, “Kitchenette Folks” alludes to many instances and themes in Maud Martha. In the novella, Maud Martha describes everything in the kitchenette as gray, including sobs from other tenants, bodily functions, bathing, and romance. Domesticity is also described as gray in the poem, and it grays in the “we” in the same way it grays in Maud Martha. Additionally, just as Maud Martha, “we” imagines living in a better place, but it also denied by the permanent atmosphere of the kitchenette building. They all must go on living and creating habits that coincide with the other kitchenette folks, such as waiting to use the bathroom.

Brook’s poem also works on its own. It successfully describes the kitchenette building as a domestic space in which the kitchenette folks live on each other’s impulses and actions. As the poem states, “[They] are things of the dry hour and involuntary plan”. Inasmuch, the kitchenette folks are not able to plan their lives or even live the lives that they have dreamt. Instead, they must focus on dull or gray moments, such as paying rent or tending to their significant others’ needs. They are not able to focus on their desires because of the grayness. Furthermore, even if the kitchenette building is in order—clean and warm—the tenants always bring their attention back to each other’s gray habits and needs.

Overall, “Kitchenette Building” offers a glimpse into private matters and their relationship to public dreams, or the American Dream. Arguably, these private matters and dreams belong to poor people. The poem focuses on their struggles as well as their optimism while denying them access to the American Dream. Specifically, the poem begins with needs and tasks that overpower their desires:

“Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong/Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”. 

The speaker then ask if the tenant’s (“we”) dream could defeat the grayness and give them access to their desires, but reality trumps their wonder at the end of the poem when their attention is brought back to the basic needs. Brook’s decision to begin with basic needs and end with basic needs sends the message that poor people or “we” will not be able to escape a less fortunate reality or navigate it according to our own plans and desires.

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

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