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Masking the Past through Change

Updated on May 1, 2016

Gwendolyn Brooks

In 1950, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks would go down in history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer prize for Poetry in her second collection, Annie Allen.
In 1950, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks would go down in history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer prize for Poetry in her second collection, Annie Allen.

An individual’s preferences are formed by his or her past experiences. Past experiences determine one’s values, beliefs, and interests. In the poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” Gwendolyn Brooks uses the genre of lyric truth to express Satin Leg Smith's subjectivity. Smith is an egoistic character who enjoys being unique. Smith chooses to identify with an unusual sense of taste in scent, music, clothes, and art. He believes he is embracing the opening line of the poem, “Inamoratas, with an approbation (1),” which is a metaphor for being loved for who you are. However, when Smith is confronted with scenarios that remind him of his past he chooses not to acknowledge them, “Postponed resentments and the prim precautions (11).” The narrator describes Smith's ego as a clear delirium through a third-person perspective. The reference dictionary defines clear as easily understood and easily seen, while delirium is defined as a mental disturbance. This paradox is a metaphor for how Satin Leg Smith lives his life. Satin Leg Smith may believe he is being true to himself through his appearance and lifestyle, but he is actually avoiding the truth of his past. He is easily seen, but misunderstood.

Vintage Chanel Perfume Ad
Vintage Chanel Perfume Ad

Satin Leg's Smith's past has formed his opinions, and limited his preferences. In Stanza 5, Gwendolyn Brooks introduces the clear delirium between Satin Leg Smith's past and present sense of smell. Brooks uses “you” to refer to the norm of society. It is assumed that society prefers the scent of flowers compared with Smith who prefers Chanel perfume. “But you forget, or did you ever know, His heritage of cabbage and pigtails, old intimacy with alleys, and garbage pails (26-28).” The narrator uses a sarcastic tone in response to society's ignorant attitude “you forget, or did you ever know.” Then, Brooks uses internal rhyme “heritage, cabbage, garbage” and end rhyme “pigtails, garbage pails” to draw attention to Smith's rural past. The Reader may find flowers classy and “aromatic,” but Smith associates them with negative memories. Satin Leg Smith’s subjectivity is to put on perfume and to begin his day fresh; however, if it wasn't for his bad relationship with flowers in the past than perfume may not have been his preference. It is clear that Smith prefers Chanel perfume, but it is his delirium to mask his past that causes him to disengage with flowers. Brooks continues to emphasize the South by using consonance, “Down in the deep (but always beautiful) South (30).” The D-sound represents Smith's point of view and the B-sound in parenthesis is the reader's opinion. In Stanza 6, the D-sound represents Smith's individual perspective as he compares flowers to “Dandelions or Death (36).” The author uses alliteration with the word L to have the narrator inform the reader to lay off Satin Leg Smith's individualism, “Leave him his lotion, lavender, and oil (43).”

Satin Leg Smith expresses his present ego through his appearance. Clothes allow one to have the freedom of choice, and Smith certainly takes advantage of this by wearing a variety of bright colors, different shapes and materials, “With shoulder padding that is wide-And cocky and determined as his pride (52).” Brooks uses enjambment to separate the description of Smith's clothing “shoulder padding that is wide” from the description of his personality “cocky and determined as his pride.” She also uses end rhyme to represent Smith's big ego, “wide” and “pride.”

Satin Leg Smith fills his desires by introducing change through eccentric clothes. In Stanza 8, repetition expresses people's epic desires, “People are so in need, in need of help. People want so much that they do not know (59).” In Stanza 9, the formal element assonance of the O-sound highlights the idea that Smith is hiding his social class, “Below the tinkling trade of little coins-The gold impulse not possible to show-Or Spend (60-63).” Enjambment separates the prepositional phrase from the clear delirium; “Gold impulse” begins the line with a metaphor for strong will, while “not possible to show-Or spend” ends the line with a metaphor for hiding his will or not able to express it. The clear delirium continues when Brooks begins the following line with a positive word and ends the line with its paradox “promise piled over and betrayed (63).” A similar pattern continues in stanza 12, The D-sound symbolizes Smith's actions while enjambment separates prepositional location from clear delirium; “He dances down the hotel steps that keep remnants of last night's high life and distress (77).” In this stanza, the paradox is between “high life” and “distress.” Another contradiction in stanza 12 uses the S-sound through consonance “he swallows sunshine with a secret yelp (68).” The idea of sunshine being bright and magnificent is clearly a delirium when it is swallowed with a secret, another representation of the theme of hiding something significant (Smith hiding his past).

"Midsummer Night in Harlem" by Palmer Hayden 1938
"Midsummer Night in Harlem" by Palmer Hayden 1938

The author creates world making imagery through taste, sound, and vision. Stanza 12 describes Smith's taste using references to the mouth such as spat-out, spilled beer, swallows, coffee, and breakfasted. Gwendolyn Brooks uses line length iambic pentameter in the taste stanza, and ends using enjambment, “Breakfasted. Out (80).” The word “out” introduces us to the next stanza where the line “Sounds about him smear-Become a Unit” enforces the connection between Stanza’s 12 and 13. Perhaps, Smith's tastes are formed by what he has heard in the past, and it has caused him to have a narrow perspective on life.

Satin Leg Smith chooses what he wants to acknowledge. When Smith walks down the streets, he avoids the norms of attending Sunday Services, and acknowledging broken windows and seeing impoverished children, he even avoids people going hungry. By not fully seeing or hearing, one is in the state of a clear delirium, “he hears and does not hear (82)” and “he sees and does not see (92).” Smith is ignoring his past because it makes him feel limited. Enjambment separates the prepositional phrase showing time, “The pasts of his ancestors lean against Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity (118).” Alliteration of the H-sound and rhyme sound “is” emphasize Smith in the present moment, “He quite considers his reactions his, Judges he walks most powerfully alone, That everything is—what it is (121).” Smith walking most powerfully alone in the present moment means that he is aware that he does not follow cultural norms. Smith prefers to live in the moment and wear what he wants, smell how he likes, and do what he is most comfortable with.

Satin Leg Smith is truly in the present when he spends time with a woman. Stanza's 17-20 depict women, similarly to Smith, who appreciate material and appearance. The final lines of the poem are italicized in order to emphasize Smith's thoughts when he is having sex with a woman. Brooks uses the H-sound as alliteration. This line is full of positive, clear, emotions as Smith compares “her body” to taste, color, texture, and temperature.

By choosing to not follow the norm of the South or society, Smith expresses an eccentric identity that allows him to stand out in the city. It may seem like Smith prefers the opposite of cultural norms on purpose; However, Smith's eccentric identity is a result of distancing from his past. By eliminating triggers, Smith can mask his former life and move forward with change. Smith feels most at ease when he feels accepted for who he truly is. In the final stanza; scent, taste, color, and texture are all accepted by a woman.

Gwendolyn Brooks reads We Real Cool


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