Book Review: Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks

Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks

Edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku

Contemporary writers meditate upon Gwendolyn Brooks’ enduring legacy. Exquisite essays, stories and poems continue the ellipses left behind in her life and work.

Curbside Splendor Publishing

Curbside Splendor Publishing

“I knew that Gwendolyn Brooks was among the few who gave me the courage to insist on my own story” - Rita Dove, Former U.S. Poet Laureate.

    How could a little black girl born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and become the veritable voice of Chicago? How could her prize-winning writings–including Annie AllenThe Bean Eaters and Maud Martha–go on to shift the American literary landscape? In Revise the Psalm, editors Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku gather contemporary writers to grapple with these questions. What results is a wondrous assembly of elegies, essays, poems, artworks and stories that commemorate what would have been Gwendolyn Brooks’ 100th year on earth. With a sense of awe and a near-holy respect, we gain a greater appreciation for Gwendolyn Brooks: a woman who graciously illuminated her own world for the whole world to see.

    Revise the Psalm features well-known poets like Rita Dove, Jericho Brown and Sandra Cisneros. The collection also features newer and lesser-known voices—heightening the scope of Brooks’ legacy. Divided into eight sections–each a derivative of Brooks’ life or art–contemporary writers offer candid reflections. Think of this book as a spin-off; a selection of Brooks’ best literary and cultural contributions then magnified and made somehow even more profound.

   This collection conjures and inhabits the urban landscape erected by Brooks’ poetry. Highlights include the section in which women writers respond to Brooks’ “The Mother,” a contemplative poem about abortion. Several poets provide incredibly beautiful renditions of Brooks’ masterwork, “We Real Cool” (1959). These versions are stunningly poignant; somehow rivaling the haunting quality of the original. Kevin Coval’s “we real” stands out. His tongue firmly planted in cheek, he asserts: “we/ broke bitch.” John C. Mannone’s “Skin” is powerful, sardonic. Tina Jenkins Bell’s short story, “The Last Supper,” is stunning. Regina Taylor’s “Quatrain for Emmett Till/ Trayvon Martin/ Michael Brown/ Laquan Mcdonald” and Tara Betts’ “Many Sons, Many Mothers” build an eery bridge between the state-sanctioned violence of Gwendolyn’s era and our own. Betts reminds us: “When a boy named Trayvon is shot, Emmett’s history is not a distant, removed story.”

    Despite its dizzying variety and overwhelming length, this collection's greatest strength is its demonstration of poetry’s wide-reaching impact. Furthermore, it reveals how the supposed chasm between Brooks’ era and our own is not so wide. As a poet concerned with social justice, the issues of Brooks’ time–black death and despair–are still reverberating today, guiding contemporary pens toward contemporary papers. Revise the Psalm reminds us that Brooks’ meditations and elegies are still potent, still heart-wrenchingly necessary.

    Revise the Psalm adds a unique perspective to Brooks’ poetry and legacy. It forges a particular vantage point that allows us to clearly see Brooks’ wide-reaching impact within the American literary landscape. It builds exquisite parallels between Brooks’ era and our own and reminds us that, despite progress, there is still work to be done. In Revise the Psalm, Gwendolyn Brooks is at the eye of a beautiful storm. As Opal Palmer Adisa writes: “i found you/ and in finding you/ i found my tongue.”