She would not be the same without her voice.
Gwendolyn Brooks, renowned poet, consultant-in-poetry to the Library of Congress, the first--and only--black writer to receive a Pulitzer prize for poetry, visited Los Angeles Harbor College on Tuesday. She arrived near the tail end of a California swing that, later in the day, also took her to Loyola Marymount University and California State University at Dominguez Hills.
She read her poetry. She signed autographs--on everything from copies of her books to a map of Africa. She dispensed advice: "Don't try to write what you think the world wants to read because the world doesn't always know what it needs."
And she mesmerized students with her voice.
Soft and silky. Sandpaper rough. A roller coaster of quivering highs and rumbling lows. A gentle whisper. A throaty roar.
Gwendolyn Brooks doesn't recite poetry. She sings it--an a cappella song of "love and life and loss and liberty and lunacy and laceration."
She opened with love--"a testimonial to the adolescence of my marriage," she said--and moved through abortion, apartheid, teen-age suicide and "The Life of Lincoln West," the tale of a little boy who, after being pitied and/or teased, takes comfort when a stranger declares that he is "black, ugly and odd," yet nevertheless "the real thing."
She ended with a poem called "Infirm." The last line is: "You are beautiful too."
"These days," she told her audience, "I like this to be my last poem so that everybody can go out and say, 'Hey, I haven't thought about it in some time, but I do have my beauties in spite of my infirmities. I am valid. I can make contributions to society.' "
For their part, the students couldn't get enough of this 71-year-old who won her Pulitzer 39 years ago. They gave her flowers and a standing ovation. They lined up to talk to her, and though the dean of students tried desperately, Gwendolyn Brooks would not be dragged away until the last autograph was signed and the last hand was shaken.
They asked about her children, her husband, her parents. They asked when she writes, how she writes and why. They asked her philosophy of life, which she inscribed on the back cover of one of her books, purchased for the occasion by student Concepcion Tadeo of San Pedro.
"Conduct your blowing in the noise and whip of the whirlwind!" she wrote, to Tadeo's delight.
And then she added a postscript: "(Also: HOLD ON!)"