From the Poets in the Kitchen Author(s): Paule Marshall Source: Callaloo, No. 18 (Spring - Summer, 1983), pp.
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..rpt.. . and Praisesongfor the Widow (1983).1981). Marshallhas "Brooklyn..." at and Iowa. The TimelessPeople (1969)... PAULE MARSHALL is authorof fourbooks of fiction.Ms.. York City.." and from The Feminist is forthcoming Press.. The Chosen Place.
. Columbia.. She livesin New taught Yale." "To Da-Duh..which includes"The Valley Between...." "Barbados...Massachusetts.... Soul Hands and Brownstones (1959). Her Reena and Other Stories..
Photographby Rhonda Nathans BrownGirl..
. in Memoriam.. Clap Sing(1961)...
a well-known male novelistvisitedmy class to speak on his development as a writer. Even I bristled. meansby whichcharacters They are theprincipal in a novel or storyrevealthemselves and givevoice sometimes to profoundfeelings and complex ideas about themselves and the world. and theirdaughters But my guestwasn'treallybeingsexistor trying to be provocative or even spoilingfora fight. Reprinted (January will also serveas the prefaceto Paule Marshall'sforthcoming Reena and OtherStories. It was clearthatmyguestlecturer attachedgreatimportance to this. but he seriouslyendangeredhis life my thatwomenwriters thanthoseofhis sex because are luckier remarking aroundtheir mothers and theyusuallyspendso muchtimeas children theirmothers' in the kitchen. Common speech and the plain. moreoftenthannot in thekitchen. girlskeptcloserto homeand theirmothers. thisessay 9.
.1983. which is understandable. the woman writer standsa betterchance of being exposed. 1983). What he meantwhen he got around to himself more fully-was that. All rights reserved."a series published in the New York Times Book Review hereby permission ofthewriter. and thatthisexperience gives her an edge over hermale counterpart in heran appreciation by instilling forordinary speech. Copyright shall. when I was teaching a graduateseminarin fiction at Columbia University. after all. thestockin tradeof some of the bestfiction writers. to thekindoftalkthat goes on amongwomen. talentis skill in rendering Perhaps the propermeasureof a writer's to the story-as well as the everydayspeech-when it is appropriate *This autobiographical essay first appeared in "The Making of a Writer. In discussing his formative years.whilegrowing up. friends What did he say thatfor?The women students forgot immediately aboutbeingin awe ofhimand beganreadying their attackforthequestionand answerperiodlateron.a collectionof herearlyfiction to be publishedby ? 1983 by Paule MartheFeminist Pressin December. only each otherto talk to.given the way children are explaining withlittle (or were)raisedin our society. Thereagain was that theworldin thekitchen with awfulimageofwomenlockedaway from locked in withthem. workaday words thatmake it up are.23 FROM THE POETS IN THE KITCHEN* by Paule Marshall
Some yearsago. he didn't realize it.
"Ifyou say what's on yourmindin thelanguagethatcomes to you fromyour parentsand your streetand friends you'll probably say Grace Paley tellsthis. cocoa."as theydescribedthe work theydid.armedwiththe few dollars theyhad earned. in an unglamorousa setting as the kitchen. to exploit. The basement kitchen ofthebrownstone housewheremyfamily lived was theusual gathering Once the of inside warm its walls place. This was the ritualeven in the winter. Nothing about themsugwas their calling.who dressedin a way mymother hatsand long.There. thatmade it impossible forme to imaginetheyhad ever been young. included. to herstudents beautiful. but he was essentially describing my experience didn't look likepoetsas a little girl.she says. accorthistraining. poetry. "I take mypen in to writeoccasionallyto their relatives hand hopingthesefew lineswill findyou in healthas theyleave me fairforthe timebeing.solemncoats) dowdyfelt (shapelesshousedresses. wheretheywould sometimes stop offto have a cup of tea or cocoa together before goinghome to cook dinner fortheirhusbands and children.the beauty. large cups my sisterand I sat at a smallertable over in a cornerdoing our and with homework." something of everywriting at the beginning course.Now they whatever thatbreedis supposedto look like. No was them.and wisdom it often contains.I grewup amongpoets. Nor did theydo whatpoetsweresupposedto do-spend their days in an atticroom writing verses. range.24 abilityto tap. Later. tea table. impressive subject beyond they
. poetically.seatedthemselves at the While center drank their of or and talked.passionately. a week theseunknownbardswould put an apron Severalmornings and a pair of old house shoes in a shoppingbag and take thetrainor fromour sectionof Brooklynout to Flatbush."was the way theirletters invariablybegan. inwould True.dark. of exposureand a training of theear forthewouldIt's all a matter in thoseearlyyearsofhis or herapprenticeship.whichin their vocabularybecame "a fewraw-mouth pennies.often takesplace dingto myguestlecturer.those streetcar who didn'thave steadyjobs would wait on certain corners designated for the white housewives in the neighborhoodto come along and bargainwith themover pay fora day's work cleaningtheirhouses. be writer And.Theywerejusta groupofordinary gestedthatpoetry housewivesand mothers. safety thewomenthrew offthedrab coats and hats. thebestof it. Rather. He didn'tknow it. They neverput pen to paper except in Barbados."theymade their way back to our neighborhood.theirday was spent"scrubbing floor. theytalked-endlessly.
But what theycare? It's thepoor people got to suffer mothers withtheirsons. up all this They'retheones always starting and lot of war.They took pain. Some people.withits soup linesand suicides and theaftershock on Wall Street. theyswore theywould keep themout of the Armyby givingthemsoap to eat each day to Hitler?He was forthem"thedevil make their heartssound defective. home.Marcus Garveywas theirGod. The old country. The littleCaribbean island in thesun theyloved but had it. They ragedagainst And their talk was of war and rumors World War II when it broke out in Europe. incarnate. to leave. lived on the He through power their Day parades.But theyalso tackledthe greatissues of the time. blamingit on the politicians. theydeclared. black nationalist Jamaican-born leaderwhentheyfirst invokedaroundthetable.It was themid and late 30's then. Forhe had been their WorldWar theWestIndiesshortly after came to theUnitedStatesfrom theUnitedNegroImproveto hisorganization. dulge in the usual gossip: whose husband was running underherbridal "in theway" (pregnant) whosedaughter lookedslightly gown as she walked down theaisle.didn'tknow how to deal withadversity. I. The name of the20's was constantly ofthefiery.25 with whom. "Poor-poor but sweet"was the way theyremembered And naturally adoptedhome. They reminisced as theyaffectionateBarbados-or Bimshire.boughtshares of themovein his ill-fated Black Star Shipping Line.D. Americacame in theydiscussedtheir forbothgood and bad marks.out of theirmeagersalaries. They took to task some of thepeople theyworkedfor.Rooseveltwas their and rescuedthe countrywith reliefand jobs. hero.Garvey: of wars. He had come along They talkedpolitics." If it was theirsons. thestateof theeconomy. thatis) when things theirimage fromthe bellybandthatis tied around the stomachof a newbornbaby to keep the navel pressedin. discussing of theDepression. ly called it. That sortof thing. They didn'tknow thatyou had to "tieup yourbelly"(hold in the got roughand go on withlife. forexample.and at theheight of his "nurses'brigade"in their menttheyhad marchedas members thegreatGarvey Avenuein Harlemduring whiteuniforms up Seventh of memories.R.was stillbeing felt. thosewho gave them eggand a fewspoononlya hard-boiled especially
. If F.Theylashedout at itfortheracismthey encountered." oftenand at lengthabout Then therewas home. and in gratitude they theirsons Franklin and Delano and hoped theywould live christened up to the names. "It'sthesepoliticians. Theyhad contributed mentAssociation(UNIA).They were always. was their hero.
Theyreferred Brooklyn-born and complainedthatthey (Barbadians). theseis New York children. Not only did ithelpthemrecover from thelongwait on thecorner thatmorning and the bargainingover theirlabor." Not onlywerewe different. in took is theonlyhomeland."Language they This the Polish writer and Nobel has said.and at the same time finding themselves permanently separatedfromthe world theyhad known. thatfilled was highly the cheapestkind available to my motherand her friends." Czeslaw refuge language."You can'tbeat discipline thesechildren as you would like. thoseafternoons functional.as "theseNew York children" couldn't us properly becauseof thelaws here.complexity customsand laws. able to overcomethe humiliations exuberant But morethantherapy. thatfreewheeling. it. because the authorities in thisplace will dash you in jail forthem. with both themand their husbandsworking.After all.Thiswas their amly. Through languagethey of the work-day. and overwhelmed by America-its vastness.itwas nonetheless way to make a dollar. you know. At a level beyondwords theyremained Its strange in fearful and in awe. and herfriends It servedanother purposealso.26 fulsof cottagecheeseforlunch. thelittle Bajans try.Theywerewomenin whomtheneedforself-expression strong. Therewas no way forme to understand it at the time.they consuming bition: to "buy house" and to see the childrenthrough. Their uneasinessand fearwere even reflected their towardthechildren to in thiscounattitude theyhad givenbirth to thoselikemyself. They neverreallyceased beingbaffled and power. Laureate. as theysaw American. wide-ranging." That much theyacknowledged." as theycalled a place where"you could at leastsee your America. I suspect.which even limitedtheirrightsas parents.likemyfamiwereonlyleasingat thatperiod. escaped theirultimate authority.but thetalk It servedas therapy. emigre is what it became for the women at the kitchentable. it restoredthemto a sense of were themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth. "As ifanybodycan scrubflooron an egg and some cheese thatdon't have no taste to it!" Yet althoughtheycaughtH in "thisman country. we had. Milosz. to buy thebrownstone houseswhich. therefore Confronted by a world theycould not encompass.and since languagewas the only vehicle readilyavailable to themtheymade of it an art formthat-in keepingwith the African in whichart and lifeare one-was an integral tradition part of their lives.
. And their talkwas a refuge.They might even one day accumulateenough dollars. talk functioned creativeenergythey as an outletforthe tremendous was possessed.My mother were after all thefemalecounterpart of Ralph Ellison'sinvisible man.
" "Guess who I buttup on in the marketthe otherday tumbling big again!" of being too freewithher sexual And a woman witha reputation favors book as a "thoroughfare"-the senseofmen was knownin their like a steadystreamof cars movingup and down theroad of herlife. "In thisman world you got theywere always exhorting to take yuh mouthand make a gun!" They were in control. they couldn't tolerate the fact of their invisibility. meaningthatit was a fire wasn'tlikea housewhereifthere you could runout theback. better used thatword. command: the spoken word. sitting over in thecorner.their And theyfought back. Biblical quotations. say theysuffered female."tumbling big. such as thederisivesuck-teeth sound and theword "yam. And meaningperhapsin Meaning a largersense that man should treatall of naturewith caution and respect. irony. itwasn'tonlywhatthewomen was theruleforchildren talkedabout-the content-but theway theyput things-their style.sayingsand the like: "The sea ain' got no back door. talkyuhtalk!" each other. withtheir expressive quality." meaningto eat. They had taken the standardEnglishtaughtthemin the primary it intoan idiom. Theynever she was "in theway" or. Or she mightbe dubbed "a free-bee.an instrument schools of Barbados and transformed aroundthesyntax and thatmoreadequatelydescribed them-changing their own rhythm and accentso thatthesentences weremore imposing ears. They added thefewAfricansounds and words pleasingto their thathad survived.27 a tripleinvisibility.which in thosedays."Soully-gal.wit and humortheybroughtto theirstoriesand and their and daringwithlanguagediscussions poet's inventiveness which of course I could only sense but not defineback then. And to make it morevivid. that it trifled was not to be with. blessed!"They "I has read hellby heartand called everygeneration went in forhyperbole. more in keeping to bear a raft of metaphors. usingtheonlyweapon at their powerlessness." theywould say. Those late afternoon conversations on a wide rangeof topicswere a way forthemto feel theyexercisedsome measureof controlover their livesand theeventsthatshapedthem. The insight.theybrought parables.and foreigners. They reallydidn'tcount in Americansociety exceptas a source of cheap labor.beingseen but not heard.you might beingblack. yet. Rather.if only and ifonlyforthetwo hoursor so thattheyremained in our verbally house. For me. But giventhe kindof women they were." whichwas my favorite of the
. sometimes a babywas never A womanexpecting said to be pregnant. Indeed.
And nothing. they up His essential and He ain' stuck on pretty." Thiswas their guiding kitchen time I was or I from the corner of the the 8 9. simplecommonplace Usingeveryday ideas. Usuallystationed
.thevisibleself. deepento infuse Conrad theywerealways trying ingitsmeaning. flesh. carelessusage. Whytheantonym." I used to wonder.the ofmalebeauties. was word. ugly the words-but always speech."double-time. dualismin life:the idea thata thingis believedto be a fundamental at thesame timeitsopposite. ly beautiful.and thattheseopposites. by .as sheputit.sampling nectar. beautiful. . was everdescribed It thebeautiful-ugly dress. as inherently each other addressed as gal: "soully-gal"-soul: spirit. the and two tall metaltorchessymbolizing paneled doors at thefront of the wide outside. Why the word "ugthe beautiful-ugly house.thesecontradicwas not a Manichaean brand of tionsmake up the whole."God. to makeyou feel . their herpleasureat will. graduated By to theneighborhood and from the to the written thus spoken library. The Macon StreetBranchof the BrooklynPublic Library with edifice of an imposing glasshalf-block-long heavygraymasonry. because flesh. brass railings at thecenterand sides-led up to thecirculagleaming tiondesk. as simpno matter how beautiful. I likedtheimageit conjuredup of a woman scandalous perhaps who flitted fromone flowerto anotherin a garden but independent. in a phrase. . way they language. . the beautiful-ugly to was ly." shading. linking in linguistics whichstatesthattheidiomofa peoThereis thetheory notonlythemostfundamental the use reflects ple. and a greatpendulumclock gazed down fromthebalcony at thetop of thesteps stacksthatfacedtheentrance. withimagination and skill-theygave voice to themostcomplex how made O'Connor would have of ordinary Flannery approved they work. language stretching. the evil. Perhapsin usingtheterm "beautiful-ugly" her were what mother and friends my expressing they ly everything. and theyknewit. to makeyou see.LikeJoseph new lifein the"old old words worn thin. and theworldbut their viewstheyhold of themselves veryconception to describe nearof reality." summed attitude As forGod." "don' love would they say. when the thingthey were referring the thecontradiction. theyconstantly tone that thebody. comes that learningflanking steps light More steps-of pale marblewith The insidewas just as impressive. was always "beautiful-ugly": car.And it was clear fromtheir and importance as theother. .taking roles reversed. But theirs dualismthatsees matter. And thegoals of their esthetic. . .28 two." oral artwerethesame as his: "to makeyou hear. body. of opposites?It used to puzzle me greatlyas a child.They had theygave one as muchweight neverheard of the mind/body split.
would cease beingmyself and becomethem-I senseda lack after I couldn'tquite a time. I read another poem.Readingit helpedease somewhatthetight knot "kingdom" of sorrowand longingI carriedaround in my chest. / Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight.aboutmypeople.the at first AlthoughI had a little difficulty I had read beforeof the closeness. everything indiscriminately.the poem spoke to me as nothing I had had withmyfather. sad-eyedpoet who to openingit I foundthephotograph brownwas black. . would immediately shoo me with one hand into the Room and withtheotherthreaten Children's me into silence.a sternfacedWestIndiantypewho foryears. Zane Grey.GreatExpectations. librarian.untilI was old enoughto obtain an adult card. And I began to searchthenforbooks and storiesand poems about "The Race" (as itwas putback then). "Little my surprise / Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.
. WhilenotabanDickens and the others.but witha special passion forthelong.I started doningThackeray. " About love betweena black man and a black woman. You would have thought he was thechief and not librarian justsomeonewhose job itwas to keep thebrasspolishedand theclock wound. And another: "Seenmyladyhomelas' night/Jump back. I sheltered from ofadolescence in theMacon Street thestorm library. I had neverseen thatwritten about beforeand it roused in me all kinds of deliciousfeelings and hopes. And thenone day. jump back. . "Lias! "Lias! Blessde Lawd! / Don' you know de day's / erbroad? / Ef you don' get up.thatrefused to go away. and of a wistful.Fielding. you scamp / Dey'll be troublein dis camp." baby wif spa'klin'/eyes withthewords in dialect. It remindedme of the way my mother sometimes yelledat my sisterand me to get out of bed in the mornings.Something define in thepoetry was missing. richly detailed18thand 19th-century picaresquetales: Tom Jones.29 liketheguardsoutsideBuckingham Palace was thecustodian. I came across a book by someone called Paul LaurenceDunbar. full-blown.honey. browsing section. I puthimin a story called "Barbados"yearslaterand had terrible thingshappen to him at the end.forbooks by Negro writers. I turned to a poem at random." I laughed. from Austento Jane reading voraciously. who by thenhad become specialrelationship an ardent believer in Father Divine and gone to live in Father's in Harlem. But althoughI loved nearlyeverything I read and would enter fully intothelivesof thecharacters-indeed. with a feeling of shame-the althoughI mustadmit I did so at first in those days whenever shame I and many othersused to experience the word "Negro" or "colored" came up.VanityFair.a finger to his lips. asking the reference who was white.
people like Frederick and Harriet Tubman-their and example-or thegreat Douglass spirit abolitionist feminist and SojournerTruth. the dangerousthought It was around that timeI began harboring ofsomedaytrying to write a myself. When people at readingsand writers' conferences ask me who my when a littledisappointed were. theyare sometimes major influences I don'timmediately nametheusual literary giants.was an equivalentof theJewish school-the schools shul.itstandsas testimony to therichlegacyoflanguage attributed and culturetheyso freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen. whiteand black.30
ofminehad evermentioned DunNo gradeschoolliterature teacher WeldonJohnson or LangstonHughes.This is whythebest of myworkmustbe to them.eloquent Divine'skingdom as Father face. Perhaps poem about an apple tree. 35 on Decatur Street! even NegroHistory What I needed. They trainedmy ear. never one. I didn'tknow that bar or James and was busywriting Zora Neale Hurstonexisted and beingpublished those Nor was I of made aware during years. I am indebted to thosewriters. me to dreamthatI might somehislargevolumeofpoems-permitted of the power withwords my mother day write. whom I read duringmy formative still forinstruction and read and pleasure.
. Theytaught me my first lessons in the narrative art.someplacewherewe could go after us-and read worksby those like ourselves thatwere shortchanging and learn about our history.Dunbar-his dark.Therewasn't 19th-century Week whenI attended P.Buttheywereprecedyears setofgiants whomI alwaysacknowledge before ed inmylife by another all others:thegroupofwomenaroundthetablelongago.S. They set a standardof excellence. Or the ofa girlwho couldmagicalI had seen although story she to be in theworld-such herself to wherever wanted ly transplant inHarlem. what all the kids-West Indian and native black Americanalike-with whom I grewup needed.True.and with something and her friends possessed.