On Remembering: Theorizing the Black Mother as Sylph
“When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust;
This lock the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And ‘midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name!”
(Pope; C5, 147–150)
Dedicating their public careers to private matters, Alexander Pope and Gwendolyn Brooks are political poets that turn gossip or none-of-your-business into insightful verse. In particular, Pope and Brooks afford careful consideration to women who, both in the 1700s and 1900s, were an inferior class with nontraditional political concerns. In Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the protagonist Belinda goes to metaphorical war over her chopped ringlets. In Brooks’ the mother, the protagonist makes a plea of forgiveness to her aborted children. Both poems depict women, who are not afforded much by society, on account of their being women, navigate difficult situations. While the actual content of the poems varies widely — going to Hampton Court for a flirty game of ombre is very different from reckoning with the abortions of your children — transferring the lessons learned from The Rape of the Lock onto the mother elucidate not only the mother’s personal anxieties but also more generally the plight of the Black woman in America.
The Political Woman
Before diving into a deeper analysis, it is important to outline the ways in which Pope’s The Rape of the Lockand Brooks’ the mother offer political commentaries. In the case of both, the interiority of the protagonist is directly linked to the socio-cultural background of the time period. For example, in the initial dressing scene, Belinda’s “awful beauty puts on all of its arms” (Pope; C1, 139). On one hand, this violent imagery (e.g. “From each she nicely culls with curious toil, / And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil” (Pope; C1, 131–2)) not-so-subtly points to the violence of Empire — Belinda is literally wearing spoils of conquest. On the other hand, Belinda herself is a conquest; her toilet is comprised of decorations such as makeup or jewelry that will help secure her future with the most eligible bachelor aka the most high-status conqueror. Of course, The Rape of the Lock is a mock-epic that in many ways serves to poke fun of the aristocratic class; however, the seriousness of the beauty ritual for women, who had their livelihoods at stake, can be seen as nothing less than political.
Brooks’ protagonist similarly faces high stakes when deciding to go through with an abortion. Due to the more reduced scope of the poem, the reader can only infer the mothers’ interpersonal relationships (the reader is left with questions like, Why does the mother abort her children? Who are these babies’ father(s)?). Nevertheless, it is clear that the choice to have an abortion — which at the time of the poem’s publication in 1945 were illegal in the United States — has serious ramifications for the mother. In the same way that Belinda’s courtship can impact her fellow socialites, the mother’s repeated decision to claim ownership of her body does not remain a private decision between mother and body/baby — which we will later see reflected in the layered structure of the poem.
Of course, Belinda and the mother are not equals just because they both happen to be women; in fact, Belinda’s life exists in a plane of luxury far above that of the Bronzeville mother. From the very beginning of The Rape of the Lock, it is clear that Belinda does not worry herself with or is even aware of mundane concerns — she sleeps past noon and owns a lap dog (Pope; C1, 13–6). Moreover, the entirety of her socio-political sphere is facilitated by maids who are themselves orchestrated by supernatural guides, Sylphs (Pope; C1, 145–8). The dominance of the Sylphs in Belinda’s narrative are useful to Pope as a device in that they elevate his (mock-)epic above natural conventions — that is, the Sylphs allow Pope to mock the aristocrats without outright critiquing them. Pope does this by playing with proportions — the Sylphs take their jobs as guardians extremely seriously so as to be ridiculous — for example, Ariel, the head Sylph, self-assigns himself to guard Shock, Belinda’s lapdog, which is a task more important than making sure Belinda’s whale-ribbed petticoat does not spontaneously fall to pieces (Pope; C2, 116–122). There is also the fact that Ariel amasses hundreds of Sylphs to guard Belinda while she plays ombre because of a negative omen he received earlier in the day. On one hand, the grandiose vanguard is another example of Pope making fun of a silly socialite. On the other hand, Belinda’s privilege prompts serious questions: what does it mean that one socialite receives hundreds of supernatural guards to play a game of cards? What does it mean that Brooks’ mother does not? What would happen if Brooks’ mother did?
The Black Mother’s Burden
Conceptualizing the mother against the triangulation of fate, the Sylphs, and Belinda herself as found in The Rape of the Lock offers many different readings of the text. Here, I focus on two theories: (a) What would happen if the Black mother was guided by Sylphs? (b) What would happen if the Black mother acted as a Sylph? The first theory implies that, like Belinda’s elaborate toilet, all aspects of the Black mother’s life are non-trivial. In the same way that Belinda’s every coil is perfected by Crispissa (Pope; C2, 115), the Black mother’s hair ought to be protected by rain. In the same way that “black omens threat the brightest fair / That e’er deserved a watchful spirit’s care” (Pope; C2, 101–2), the mother should receive portends of approaching doom. This reading legitimizes the Black mother’s political power; that her power is worth the care of hundreds of guardians. Within this model, it logically follows that the mother’s abortions must be inevitable or even celestially sanctioned by her Sylphian guardians. However, instead of either viewing her abortions as political necessities or taking them for granted, the mother bears full personal responsibility for the deaths of her children. This conceptualization, as I will proceed to lay out, follows the model of the second theory, wherein the mother sees herself as a faulty Sylph who has committed repeated sins.
The mother’s awareness of her transgression is sustained throughout the poem by a metaphor wherein the aborted are rendered as innocent and childlike candy. The first use of “sweet” (Brooks; 6) refers to a mundane interaction between mother and child: a mother uses sweets to calm down an upset baby; in return, the mother has the pleasure of viewing “the snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye” (Brooks; 10). Moreover, the speaker shows an interest in the baby-like action of sucking — whether it be a baby’s “sucking-thumb” (Brooks; 7) or the “breasts [the children] could never suck” (Brooks; 14). The repeated word choice of ‘sweet’ and ‘suck’ is interesting because it recalls themes of consumption. The mother should like to greedily take in the sight of her baby, but instead the baby has been devoured. Vice versa, the baby can no longer devour the mother’s breast, as it ought to do. Intimate moments of mother doting on or providing for child are lost once an abortion is complete. Instead, referring to her children with the vocative “Sweets” (Brooks; 15), the mother is left recalling the children’s metaphorical sweetness.
The mother’s tendency to shoulder responsibility like a Sylph is also reflected in the overall structure of the poem, which moves from a broad consideration of abortions to an individualized promise between mother and children. The poem begins with a statement, “Abortions will not let you forget” (Brooks; 1). From the fore, the speaker establishes a power dynamic where abortions, the subject, have imposed a languished mental state upon a mother, the object. As a result, a mother spends her time reminiscing — as is shown in the remainder of the first stanza. Equalizing both bad moments such as “neglect or beat[ing] them” (Brooks; 5, 6) with more humorous scenes like “scuttl[ing] off ghosts that come” (Brooks; 8), the stanza is nothing short of sentimental — and even luxuriously or greedily so! This mood is cemented by the speaker’s use of pairs of end-rhymes, like a lullaby. Notably, in this first stanza, the speaker refers outward to the audience, presumably a mother, with the second person, “you.” As a result, the account of the aftermath of an abortion, just as the examples of moments shared between mother and baby, feels non-specific; the abortion itself remains relatively uninterrogated.
As the poem develops, the speaker turns inward and assumes a more Sylphian mindset. The second stanza begins with “I,” and introduces a first person perspective that will remain throughout the conclusion of the poem. Curiously, though, in lines 11–23, while “you,” when used, refers to the aborted child, “you” is not used as a direct address. Instead, there is a distancing effect where the speaker is recalling to the audience what she “ha[s] said” (Brooks; 15) to her children: a series of conditional statements. The speaker says, “If I have sinned, if I have seized…If I stole…If I poisoned…Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate” (Brooks; 15–23). With the repeated “if,” it is as if the mother is trying to cover all of her bases — all of the ways in which she may have hurt her children. The impossibility of this task, or the increasing burden as the mother assumes more responsibility for the abortion, is shown through how the perfect rhyme scheme found in the first stanza breaks down over the second and third stanzas.
There are some inconsistencies with the reading that the mother increasingly suffers under the guilt of her failed Sylphian duties. For example, the mother speaks of the children she “did not get” (Brooks; 2) or the children that were not “made” (Brooks; 28). The distance in these descriptions may imply that the mother has absolved herself from the blame — that the abortions were inevitable in a Sylphian, pre-destined way. In addition, there are two significant breaks in the poem’s otherwise somber yet resolved tone where the mother seems to objectively philosophize the meaning or significance of abortions as they relate to the deceased. She asks “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” (Brooks; 25–6) and “Oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” (Brooks; 30). However, these questions — like the conditional sentences — are another failed attempt at finding meaning, and the prose repeatedly resolves back to winding, polysyndeton-filled sentences. For example, the mother easily dismisses the idea that she is not at fault because of the proof that the children “never giggled or planned or cried” (Brooks; 32). Of course, these basic human actions/expressions are not necessarily guaranteed in the larger Bronzeville backdrop (and one might conjecture that if these things were cheaper commodities in Bronzeville, the mother may not have felt going through with an illegal abortion was necessary in the first place). Nevertheless, these are things the mother feels she should have afforded her children the opportunity to experience.
Perhaps the best evidence of this phenomenon is the upending of the initially established power dynamic between abortions and mothers. Rather than insist that the mother is the object of some imposition, after line 24, the speaker hones in on the power dynamic between the mother, who questions why she would “whine that the crime was other than mine” (Brooks; 25), and “you” (Brooks; 26), the now directly addressed baby. For the mother, “the truth” (Brooks; 30) is that her children “were born…had body…died” (Brooks; 31). This resolution validates the children’s personhood while undermining the speaker’s earlier tendency to generalize, distance herself from, or hypothesize the consequences of her actions. Thus, the poem’s structure of gradually stripping layers of intimacy — from abortions having agency, to the mother having agency — has two impacts. Firstly, we see that the Black mother sees herself as an Ariel figure, who holds personal responsibility to her children at the end of the day — even if this includes resignation to the inevitability of the abortion itself. Moreover, the fact that the poem envelopes mundane moments between mothers and their children (lines 1–10), or directly engages the audience as a sort of quasi-mother (lines 11–23), rather than just explore one mother’s struggle with her abortions (lines 24–35), reflects the political, multifaceted nature of abortions themselves.
Brooks as Sylph
At the close of the poem, the mother gives her most direct exhortation yet: “Believe me, I loved you all” (Brooks; 24). This ending is tragic for many reasons. For starters, the poem itself — from the overwrought sentences to the rhetorical questions — is evidence of the mother’s continual anxiety about her children’s welfare. More importantly, the final two lines are directed only and wholly to the children. There are no “ifs” to deflect the truth: though she loves them all, the mother aborted her children. Here an extended reading can be gleaned from The Rape of the Lock. Just like the seizing of Belinda’s hair is trivial if you only consider the literal rape of the lock, the fame of that infamous day will live on in the Courts of England — and Pope’s poem — forever. Likewise, the mother’s abortions themselves are also trivial, in that she will never be able to make perfect sense of them, but the memory of her children will always live on in her. This isn’t to say that the Black mother does not assume the role of a Sylph; it is to offer a new reading — one where the poem itself is a way of memorializing the children, or in other words, not letting you forget. the mother is political in how it makes the children famous for not just the mother, but for all of us readers. Brooks validates the mother’s experience, and in doing so, offers the mother a Sylph guardian of her own.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Selected Poems. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010. Print.