|UFDC Home||myUFDC Home | Help|
This item has the following downloads:
THE POET FLANEUSE IN THE AMERICAN CITY:
GWENDOLYN BROOKS, ADRIENNE RICH, DIANE DI PRIMA,
AND AUDRE LORDE
KIRSTEN BARTHOLOMEW ORTEGA
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega
This work developed under the thoughtful guidance and encouragement of Dr.
Marsha Bryant, to whom I am profoundly grateful. She set an exceptional standard which
I will continue to strive to achieve. I also thank my dissertation committee-Dr. David
Leverenz, Dr. Amy Ongiri, and Dr. Brian Ward-for their insights and feedback
throughout the process. As a whole, this project reflects the enduring support which I
received throughout my time at the University of Florida. The generous Alumni
Fellowship funded the research and allowed me to to focus all of my energy on writing.
My parents, Karen and Bart Bartholomew, are responsible for preparing me for this
project with a lifetime of educational support. I thank them for the model they set for me
and the unconditional love and financial supplements which made completing the project
possible. Heartfelt gratitude to my sister, Lindsey Bartholomew, and to Amy Walsh who
listened to the years of anxiety and stress while I wrote and researched. Thanks as well to
my graduate student friends, Jill Pruett and Julie Sinn, for being readers/editors,
conference roommates, and beer buddies. Finally, this work would never have happened
without the faith and sacrifice of my husband, Manuel (Freddy) Ortega. I am in eternal
debt to him for making it possible for me to pursue my passion at the expense of some of
his own dreams.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ......... ...................................................................................... iii
ABSTRACT ............... ................... ......... .............. vi
1 IN TR OD U CTION ............................................... .. ......................... ..
F l nerie ............................................................... . 5
C ities in A m erican Poetry................................................. .............................. 20
The L abyrinthine C ity ......................... .................. ................... .. .....27
Brooks, R ich, di Prim a, and Lorde ........................................ ......... ............... 32
2 GWENDOLYN BROOKS: DETECTING FLANERIE........................ ..........38
Character Vignettes from an Unwilling Detective ............................................. 52
Poetic Reconstruction ............................................... ........ ................. 69
3 ADRIENNE RICH: RESISTING ARIADNE................................. ...... ...............77
Flineuse as W witness: "Frame"............................. ..........................................86
Visibility/Invisibility: Ghazal Poems ................................................. 92
Love in the Urban Labyrinth: Twenty-One Love Poems ..................................... 100
4 DIANE DI PRIMA: PIRATING FLANERIE........... ..... ................. 110
B eatniking Poetry Traditions .............................................................. ............... 115
19 50 s C u ltu ral C ontexts ............................................ ......................................... 12 0
L im stations of A appropriation ............... ........... .................................................... 13 1
5 AUDRE LORDE: ACTIVATING THE FLANEUSE................... ....... ...........149
R azing the City as R evolution ........... ..................... ................................ 151
Empowering the Invisible M argin................................................................ ...... 163
Protesting Economic Disenfranchisement..... ............. ................ .... ...........70
6 C O N C L U SIO N .......... .................................................................... ......... ... .... 183
W O R K S C IT E D ........................................ .......................... ............. .......... .... ... 18 8
BIO GRAPH ICAL SK ETCH ....................................................................196
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE POET FLANEUSE IN THE AMERICAN CITY:
GWENDOLYN BROOKS, ADRIENNE RICH, DIANE DI PRIMA,
AND AUDRE LORDE
Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega
Chair: Marsha Bryant
Major Department: English
At a time when the American ideal placed women in the domestic sphere of
suburban homes, Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde were all writing from and about such
urban centers as Chicago, Boston, and New York. Their poetry negotiates the overlap of
public and private space, resisting social expectations for post-WWII women in the city
streets and in the poetic tradition. These women poets inherit a patriarchal legacy of
urban poetry that responds to Charles Baudelaire's practice offldnerie as a method of
observing and poetically responding to the city. This work examines ways that women
undauntedly assert their private identities in public spaces, articulating poetic cities in
order to redefine the physical city.
The city is a vexed place for women, for their creative and cultural power is
contained by social expectations, consumer culture, and the architectural design of urban
spaces. Asfldtil/n,,, Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde are able to participate in the
otherwise male-exclusive process of producing city culture. Their voices press both
flanerie and urban poetry to incorporate perspectives that reflect different races, classes,
genders, and sexualities to create a feminist urban poetics. Building off of work that
gendersfldnerie by Anne Friedberg, Anke Gleber, and Deborah Parsons and off of urban
theory of the city as labyrinth by Hubert Damisch, this work questionsfldnerie's ability
to both empower and prohibit women's urban gaze. Each of the poets responds to,
rejects, or revisesfldnerie according to her understanding of its ability to empower her
Together, the city poems of Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde validate women's
gazes in the city: they are watching, recording, and contributing to the construction of
metaphoric cities. Although the power that flnerie provides women is tempered by its
limitations, the perspective of afldneuse provides a scaffold for establishing a poetic
image of the city that reflects the heterogeneous crowd.
In this work, I examine the work of four post-WWII women-Gwendolyn Brooks,
Adrienne Rich, Diane di Prima, and Audre Lorde-through the lens of flanerie to critique
their contributions to defining a feminist urban poetics. These women's poetry of and
thoughts about the city reflect their struggles to define their poetics and lives as separate
from what was expected of them as women by both the literary establishment and post-
war culture more generally. The city, always a site of paradoxes, provides them freedoms
which they are not allowed in suburbia; but the liberties they take by participating in
flinerie (whether consciously or not), writing poetry of the city, and living public, urban
lives, are contained and restricted by the city's labyrinthine architectural and social
structures as well as by the history and influence of modernist city poetry written by men.
Flinerie can provide a method to interrogate various aspects of the city including crowd
culture, crime, consumerism, neighborhood mapping, and the aesthetic construction of
the city as it will last in our collective, cultural memory.
At one level, urban poems by Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde suggest a
corrective to Walter Benjamin's limiting definition of thefldneur as necessarily white,
male, and upper-class, enhancing the quintessential urban observer's ability to interpret
the heterogeneous twentieth-century city. As the seminal theorist of fldnerie in the
twentieth century, Benjamin's definition of thefldneur-which he derives from Charles
Baudelaire-establishes the archetype from which most critics evaluatefldnerie. This
dissertation establishes evidence offldnerie in women's poetry in order to emphasize
valuable breaks that women poets make from Benjamin's notion offldnerie which can
make the practice relevant to current discussions of cities and poetry in American
literature. I contribute to current studies of representations of urban space, feminist
literary studies, and poetry studies by assessing both the limits and powers offldnerie,
particularly for women poets.
Although many respected critics (among the women: Susan Buck-Morss, Janet
Wolff, and Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson) argue that women's participation in flanerie is
impossible, many twentieth-century poets either respond directly to Baudelaire's model
of writing the city or incorporate forms, perspectives, or images that imply flanerie.
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde all employ speakers who watch urban events
anonymously, such as the unnamed narrator of Brooks's "In the Mecca," who moves
through the crowded hallways of the Mecca building. Rich and di Prima both directly
mention Baudelaire in urban poems, suggesting their familiarity with poetic flanerie.
Furthermore, the influence of flanerie on urban aesthetics suggests that it is a method not
only of responding to the city, but of constructing the city: the poems I examine in this
dissertation help define particular cities in particular time periods for our collective
cultural memory, so they are a part of the construction of an aesthetic and cultural history
of urban America. For example, consider the way that nineteenth-century Paris is forever
linked to Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal; nineteenth-century Manhattan to Walt
Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"; early twentieth-century, industrialized London
with T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland; Harlem with Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.
Conventional literary history has elided women's voices in such poetic constructions of
the city; but the urban poems of Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde offer both a living
meditation on how productive or problematic flanerie is for post-WWII women and a
poetic construction of city spaces that defies the suburban, domestic imperative to which
other post-WWII women poets succumbed (i.e., Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton).
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde follow in the footsteps of such iconic male poets
as Whitman, Eliot, and Hughes, writing the city from perspectives that acknowledge the
influence of gender, race, class, and sexuality on urban experience. Their city poems
prove that women do respond to city life in ways that reiterate Benjamin's fldnerie.1
More importantly, their participation infldnerie provokes questions about agency in the
city crowd, about the overlap of public and private space in the city, about women's
relationship with commodity culture, about urban poetics, and about the social function
that poetry can have when it becomes political.
Because so much attention is given to women's roles in domesticity and suburbia in
the decades after WWII (particularly in discussions about the 1950s), little attention is
turned to the ways city life affected the women who were living in, working in, or writing
about urban life-either as a rejection of suburban domesticity or celebration of urban
life. Susan Merrill Squier notes that the text which she edited in 1994, Women Writers
and the City, is the first "to explore women writers' literary treatment of the city" (6). In
Squier's extensive bibliography of sources about literature and the city, only one other
stands out as similar: a special issue of the journal Signs on "Women and the American
City" in 1980 (Squier 294). This dissertation contributes to the few recent works, such as
1 use the term "reiterate" as I understand Aldon Lynn Nielsen's use of it in Black Chant when he states
that, "To reiterate, first we must reread and rewrite" (37). In this sense, "reiteration" has transformative
powers that acknowledge and allude to inherited forms, but move beyond them.
Deborah Parsons's Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City, and Modernity, which
attempt to correct that lack.
The paucity of critical analysis of women's literary treatment of the city is further
compounded in poetry studies. Whereas critical exploration of novels such as Edith
Wharton's The House of Mirth or, in British literature, Virginia Woolf s Mrs. Dalloway
often note the prominence of the urban context, few critics of poetry note the impact of
urban scenarios on such well-known women poets as Amy Lowell, Denise Levertov,
June Jordan, or, with the exception of Gwendolyn Brooks, the poets I discuss in this
dissertation. By exploring the role offldnerie in women's poetry, I contribute to the kind
of remapping of women's poetry in literary history that has been exemplified by critics
such as Betsy Erkkila and Karen Ford.2
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde complicate bothfldnerie and urban poetry. Their
poetry fractures monolithic notions of women in the city by democratizing traditional
definitions of American poetry, the American city, andfldnerie. They are not in simple
opposition to modernist poetry, the city, orfldnerie, but they do not simply adopt the
masculine practices of thefldneur without critical evaluation either. They press gender,
racial, class, and sexual boundaries not only to challenge traditional aesthetic definitions
and imagery of cities, but also to offer new aesthetic poetics of the city. This dissertation
explores possible ways that poetic language can mimic city spaces, providing linguistic
maps of the city that are multi-vocal and multicultural. Turned on its side, the silhouettes
2 Erkkila and Ford endeavor to revise literary history's consideration of women poets. In The Wicked
Sisters (1992), Erkkila emphasizes communities of women poets who influenced each other, using the term
"wicked" to undermine traditional interpretations of 19th- and early 20th-century women poets and to
suggest how bonds of "sisterhood" enabled their work. In Gender and the Poetics of Excess (1997), Ford
similarly uses the issue of excess to explore ways that women poets resisted silencing from traditional
of free verse poems mimic the skyline of a city. Rhythmically, lines of poetry imitate the
sounds of the rise and fall of voices and traffic in the city. I ask questions about the poets'
diction, about the formal structure of the poems, and about the different urban rhythms
and syntax that reflect each poet's personal/political agendas so that the differences
between their poetics are as evident as the similarities indicated by urban focus and
evidence of fldnerie. Together, these poets revise the American literary history of urban
poetry, but without considering their common connections tofldnerie and city poetry,
their revisions and their contributions to poetry studies, urban studies, and feminist
studies remain underdeveloped.
Women's participation infldnerie enhances its value to urban poetry studies by
exposing problems with Benjamin's definition of thefldneur and expanding the form to
incorporate multiple perspectives. Despite the insights into urban life which fldnerie
provides artists, studies of it have remained egotistically and unrealistically limited to
white men until recently, when white women have been shown to have access. I press
past the important work that demonstrates evidence of continued fldnerie in the twentieth
century, of white women's participation, and explore ways that fldnerie changes when
perspectives of women with different racial and ethnic perspectives participate.
Certain basic elements of fldnerie in women's poetry remain the same as in men's.
Defining elements of fldnerie include: 1) inevitable, but unwilling, detection of crime in
the crowd (maintaining a separation between fdneur/fldneuse and detective); 2)
anonymous movement through the crowd (with at least the illusion of invisibility); 3) the
fidneur/fldneuse 's attention is directed by crowd activity; 4) exposure of the vexed
relationship between the crowd and the commodity item; 5) heightened awareness of the
effect of the urban setting on the observer; 6) the fldneur/fldneuse 's sense of being at
home in the crowd, feeling at least as comfortable in public spaces as in private spaces.3
As David Frisby explains, "Fldnerie can be associated with a form of looking,
observing (of people, social types, social contexts, and constellations), a form of reading
the city and its population (its spatial images, its architecture, its human configurations),
and a form of reading written texts (in Benjamin's case both of the city and the
nineteenth century-as texts and of texts on the city, even texts as urban labyrinths)"
(82-3, Frisby's italics). In this work, I focus onfldnerie as a method of poetic production
through which a poet attempts to capture fleeting moments in the crowd that are uniquely
and insistently urban.
My concept of a poetfldneuse builds on the work, primarily of white women in
cinema studies, of such critics as Anne Friedberg, Anke Gleber, and Deborah Parsons.
They challenge the exclusion of women from Benjamin's discussion offldnerie, and
demonstrate ways that white women successfully participate in forms offldnerie in the
twentieth century. Traditionally, women are portrayed as consumers of products in the
city rather than as producers of the city. They are prevented from exploring city streets
alone because of potential physical risks (assault) or social risks (being mistaken for
prostitutes). Women in novels such as Dreiser's Sister Carrie or Crane's Maggie: Girl of
the Streets pay terrible prices for entering public city life alone. Yet, potential danger has
not prevented women from entering and observing city streets. According to Anke
Gleber: "Despite the real material limitations of women's access to the street, their very
presence in public spaces indicates their desire and determination to experience the city
3 These are elements offldnerie that I have culled from Benjamin's description in C ,n, ,., Baudelaire: A
Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.
on their own" (176). City streets were particularly problematic for women in nineteenth-
century cities, but over the course of the twentieth century, women's presence-as
consumers but also as workers and observers-gradually increased. Friedberg bridges the
gap between the role of fldnerie in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in her seminal
analysis of women' sfldnerie, despite the fact that Benjamin claims that fldnerie
disappeared when the arcades lost popularity.4
This project explores the cultural transition evident in women's movement through
urban spaces which begins with Anne Friedberg's seminal work. Friedberg describes
how, first, department stores replaced the arcades in Paris at the end of the nineteenth
century and then shopping malls combine the concept of the arcades with the department
store in the mid-twentieth century, enabling continual fldnerie for women in enclosed,
safe spaces. She explains that, "the femalefldneur was not possible until a woman could
wander the city on her own, a freedom linked to the privilege of shopping alone"
(Friedberg "Les Flaneurs" 421). Friedberg's fldnerie maintains the pleasure principle of
consumerism involved in the upper-classfldneur 's watchful stroll through the arcades,
but in an explicitly gendered form. The shopping mall offers the ideal setting for
women' sfldnerie because, according to Friedberg, "it defers urban realities, blocks urban
blights-the homeless, beggars, crime, traffic, even weather .... The mall creates a
nostalgic image of clean, safe, legible town center" ("Les Flaneurs" 424). Although
Friedberg's analysis establishes the possibility of women' sfldnerie, shopping relegates
women to consumer address in a primarily suburban, artificial environment.
4 Friedberg's revision offldnerie was first published in PMLA as "Les Flaneurs du Mal(l)" (1991) and
extended in Window '1\. 7-i-, (1993).
Contemporary critiques offldnerie must move even further beyond gender studies
which focus on white women to include women of different racial, ethnic, class, and
sexual backgrounds. Thefldneuse must be able to exit artificial and suburban consumer
centers and emerge back onto the city streets in order to experience the city, her
perspective reflecting the heterogeneous crowd. Friedberg recognizes the limitations of
her consumerfldneuse, conceding that "thefldneuse may have found a space for an
empowered mobilized gaze [in the mall] ... yet analysis of the images she is encouraged
to consume reveals this empowerment may be questionable" ("Les Fldneurs" 424).
Therefore, although I employ the gendered model that Friedberg establishes, I look to
women who describe experiences in city streets, squares, and parks: the public spaces of
actual city life including all of the dangers rather than artificial versions. Each of the
poets I consider in this dissertation lived in cities at times when women of all racial,
ethnic, and class backgrounds were certainly members of the urban crowd, but when
choosing an urban life meant rejecting the consumer comforts and domestic
responsibilities of a suburban life.
The full impact offldnerie in the cultural construction of American cities cannot be
understood without considering the practice as not only gendered, but raced and classed
as well. The first women to move through the city streets without male chaperones were
working women-who were often black. The specific marks of class that affect these
women's movement through the streets, separating them from women who are shopping,
exemplify my use of the term "fldneuse" in this dissertation. As Gleber explains,
"fldneuse" has implications that some critics find unsettling: "In its German usage, the
term 'Flaneuse' suggests what is 'typically' female, is associated with 'necessarily'
menial occupations such as those of the Friseuse (female hairdresser) or Masseuse
(female massage worker), the latter two caring contingent suggestive and discriminatory
connotations" (172). Gleber notes that such "dubious baggage" which "invites unwanted,
unwarranted associations" makes the term "fldneuse" undesirable to her. It is for this very
reason that I argue the term adroitly captures the way thefldneuse of post-WWII poetry
has evolved from the nineteenth-century flneur. Because "fldneuse" indicates a
separation from economic or social privilege at the same time that it recalls the privileged
perspective of the flneur, it expands the position to include perspectives of working
class women in the city. I press the term even further throughout this project to
incorporate different racial, ethnic, class, and sexual perspectives as well.
For black women, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde, participating in a
poetic practice that has been defined by white men is particularly problematic, but it also
gives them a tool to use in confronting the kinds of limitations which poetic tradition and
urban spaces present. Just as bell hooks notes the chitlin circuit as a site of black
community and homeplaces as locations of resistance, Brooks and Lorde look to the
communities in black neighborhoods and the streets of inner-city areas as sites of
resistance. Brooks's poems record the culture in these black neighborhoods, reflecting the
particular rhythms, diction, and creative forms of urban African-American communities.
Lorde's poems move through the city; they move between community neighborhoods,
critiquing the power of neighborhood affiliation, and calling to the heterogeneous crowd
to acknowledge its own diversity and multiplicity. AsJfjditt,e, the speaker's of
Brooks's and Lorde's urban poems challenge the conflicts between their poetic identities,
their community affiliations, their ability to navigate the urban spaces, and the distanced
observation of fldnerie.
Departing from traditional interpretations offldnerie potentially undermines its
value to twentieth-century literary studies and the risk does sometimes lead to dead-ends.
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde raise tensions about fldnerie 's viability by sometimes
exhibiting clear evidence of its influence, other times pressing the boundaries offldnerie
to make it work for them, and still other times buckling under the limitations and
expressing frustration at being prevented from achieving the kind of relationship with the
city that fldnerie implies. Ultimately, even the ineffective examples offldnerie in these
women's poetry still participate in a dialogic relationship to its poetic legacy. Although I
push thefldneur's capabilities to the limit, I still maintain Benjamin's analysis of
Baudelaire as the scaffold-like skeleton offldnerie, challenging the ambiguities to make
room for twentieth-century women.
In Benjamin's description, thefldneur is fascinated by the complexity of city life,
symbolized by the constantly moving and changing crowd or masses. Thefldneur
attempts to become the pulse of the city by allowing the crowd to direct his movement,
making his way randomly through the city landscape by following and observing
interesting people or events. According to Benjamin, "the street becomes a dwelling for
thefldneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four
walls. To him, the shiny enameled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall
ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his salon" (37). In thefldneur 's
estimation, the city has aesthetic value; it intoxicates him like a narcotic. He must keep
moving with the crowd in order to know the city, and he must know the city in order to
know himself. As Keith Tester explains, thefldneur 's constant movement was necessary
to his philosophy of being: "if it is hoped to discover the secret of the truth of being,
doing can never cease" (5). Thisfldneur becomes more than just a person "in" the crowd,
he becomes a person "of' the crowd (Tester 3). A quintessentially urban figure exploring
explicitly urban issues, thefldneur still resonates with city life today. People still sit at
outdoor cafes or in parks and "people watch." The constantly changing crowd is still a
source of artistic fascination.
In Benjamin's interpretation of thefldneur, the practice, perspective, and
expression offldnerie is severely limited by class, race, and gender. Despite the fact that
Baudelaire himself was often poor and running from debts when he entered the streets,
Benjamin makes fldnerie the exclusive domain of wealthy gentlemen in nineteenth
century Paris (read: white) who would have the time to stroll leisurely through the streets
or arcades. Freedom from obligations and time constraints was a necessary element of
fldnerie because it helped thefldneur create a space for himself in the crowd that was
separate from the other people. Furthermore, Benjamin felt that the modernized city
would precludefldnerie by ordering the city space and preventing thefldneur from being
able to slip unnoticed between private and public spaces. Despite the popularity of studies
about fldnerie and Benjamin, few critics have been willing to challenge many of these
limitations. The most successful transitions have been made by feminist scholars such
Friedberg, Gleber, and Parsons, as well as male scholars such as Tester and Sven Birkerts
to demonstrate the viability offldnerie in the twentieth century.
I have chosen to focus this dissertation on Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich,
Diane di Prima, and Audre Lorde because their poetry makes use of the city as an
essential element, what Kevin McNamara calls presenting the "city as a protagonist" in
literature (4). Their poems demonstrate a desire to participate in the production of urban
life and space. Each poet's perspective of urban space is affected by her affiliation with
particular neighborhoods and racial, ethnic, or cultural communities. Therefore, each
one's urban poetics reflects her understanding of what Henri Lefebvre calls "the language
of the city" and of "urban language" in order to reflect and contribute to the "writing" of
the city (115).5 Brooks's location is the South Side of Chicago; Rich's is Cambridge,
MA, and Manhattan; Di Prima's are in Brooklyn, the slums of Hell's Kitchen, and the
tenements of the Lower East Side; Lorde's are in Harlem, Washington Heights, Brighton
Beach, and what we now call the East Village. Not only do they represent the multiplicity
and heterogeneity of the crowd (Brooks as a black heterosexual woman, Rich as a white
lesbian woman discovering her Jewish roots, di Prima as an Italian-American woman,
and Lorde as a black lesbian woman), but their interpretations of the city are influenced
by the lenses of those subjectivities and identities.
The frequency with which Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde note specific street
locations in their poems emphasizes the importance of specific urban settings as defining
factors of their poems. They also develop a sense of "urban authenticity" (anticipating the
battles over "ghetto authenticity" which happened between rappers in the 1990s) which
each of the poets cultivates as a symbol of her right to speak for certain communities in
the city. Gwendolyn Brooks notes the address and cross streets of her various homes (and
5 Lefebvre explains that, "semiological analysis must distinguish between multiple levels and dimensions.
There is the utterance of the city: what happens and takes place in the street, in the squares, in the voids,
what is said there. There is the language of the city: particularities specific to each city which are expressed
in discourses, gestures, clothing, in the words and use of words by the inhabitants. There is urban
language, which one can consider as language of connotations, a secondary system and derived within the
denotative system.... Finally, there is the -, i f the city: what is inscribed and prescribed on its walls, in
the layout of places and their linkages, in brief, the use of time in the city by its inhabitants" (115).
locations of poetry functions) in Report from Part One. Most importantly for this study,
she writes "In the Mecca" almost like a history of the Mecca Building on Chicago's
South Side, quoting from John Bartlow Martin in the preface to note its exact location on
Thirty-fourth Street between State and Dearborn (ITM2). Adrienne Rich sets "Picnic"
specifically in "Inwood Park," mentions Central Park in "Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,"
and the Westside Highway at Riverside Drive in "Twenty-One Love Poems." Diane di
Prima opens Loba with specific mention of women on "Avenue A," "Bleecker Street,"
"Rampart Street," and "Fillmore Street" (streets in New York and San Francisco). In the
volume New York Head Shop and Museum, Lorde wrote "A Birthday Memorial to
Seventh Street" and mentions 125th Street in more than one poem. By marking the
location of poems' settings so specifically, Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde show their
alliances with particular neighborhoods and they validate their "authentic" knowledge of
city spaces. This knowledge affords them access, asfldneuses, to the city.
Although such specific locations validate women's interaction with city spaces, like
Baudelaire, these poets use those scenes to paint/explore/evaluate various social aspects
of the crowd. Unlike landscape paintings, few of the poems describe city images at
length. Instead they glean a sense of city life from people, events, and a connection to the
crowd that are indicative of urban life. Jonathan Culler explains that Baudelaire's poetry
"is not descriptive poetry of the city, glorying in sights and sounds.... City life in this
poetry is not modern inventions, commerce, and progress but dangerous passage through
a forest of anonymous figures imbued with mystery, who produce a vivid sense of a
world not masterable except by arbitrary and unstable acts of imagination" (xxvi, xxviii).
This grand sense of the city as mystery is evident in Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde,
as their poems often attempt to exert control over the spaces around them. Rich, in
particular, is frustrated by her inability to comprehend or "master" the urban space. These
women also recognize the very real boundaries that exist between city neighborhoods,
preventing the kind of free movement necessary to follow or understand the anonymous
figures in the crowd. Some of the mystery is maintained through social boundaries which
are designed for exclusion, surveillance, and maintenance of illusions of "urban
Each poet's identity affects her ability to participate infldnerie and comfortably
write the city. This relationship is also affected by the influence of the established forms
of city poetry from poets like Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, and Hughes. I have organized
the poets in order by how strongly they rebel against these inherited literary forms, often
in an effort to create an urban poetic space that has room for their identity development.
Some are more successful than others in embodying afldneuse and defining women's
fldnerie, but the challenges that each presents to traditional fldnerie expands our
understanding of women's urban poetics. In the simplest terms, Brooks mimicsfldnerie
in her poetry, Rich resistsfldnerie, di Prima appropriatesfldnerie, and Lorde redefines
Not all critics have agreed thatfldnerie is possible for women to practice, and even
those who support its possibility note its vexed nature. I have positioned my concept of
the poetfldneuse to challenge such claims that would prevent women's participation in
fldnerie. Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde address issues of invisibility, of emotional
involvement with the people and events which they observe, and of how having a
destination affects urban movement through and observation of the crowd. Since Laura
Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" appeared, scholars have
grappled with the issue of women's relationship to the gaze. Forfldnerie, the observer
must have the ability to watch anonymously. This anonymity is implied in a sort of
invisibility gained by going unnoticed within the crowd.
It is the particular hubris of Benjamin (and the critics who agree with him) to
assume that thefldneur was capable of achieving some kind of invisibility that would be
unattainable by anyone else. Thefldneur as Benjamin defines him would not be capable
of moving anonymously through all areas of the twentieth-century city: a wealthy, white
gentleman would not go unnoticed in the Bronx, in East Harlem, or in Bedford-
Stuyvesant. Yet Janet Wolff claims that, although men are capable offldnerie, women
"cannot go into unfamiliar spaces without drawing attention to themselves or without
mobilizing those apparently necessary strategies of categorization through which they can
be neutralized and rendered harmless" (8). Wolff makes assumptions about women's
appearances which the poets I discuss undermine. Lorde particularly notes the invisibility
that wearing thick glasses, being overweight, and being black creates. In Rich's poem,
"Frame," the speaker resists the invisibility of her presence, declaring that she will serve
as a witness against the authorities who abused a woman on the street. These poets
problematize assumptions about women's visibility and lack of agency in the crowd.
Women's presence as observers in the crowd complicates binary assumptions about
visibility or invisibility. Her visible physical features are as much a disguise as an
exposure since attire and posture can either mask or reveal sexual preferences. Baudelaire
makes assumptions about women's lives in the series of poems about prostitutes in The
Flowers ofEvil. In his "To a Woman Passing By," the speaker imagines loving a woman
who passes him in the crowd, based entirely on her physical appearance (Baudelaire
189). Whereas such a malefldneur assumes he is invisible, feeling free to voyeuristically
watch others, thefldneuse interrogates the contradictory invisibility/visibility she
experiences in the crowd as a factor of her urban experience. Thefldneuse negotiates the
gaze from a position affected by three things: 1) her ability to observe, to be the gazer; 2)
her role as the object of the male gaze within the crowd-a gaze which looks at her
without really "seeing" her; 3) her apparent invisibility much of the time. Although
supposedly the constant object of the male gaze, women are often depicted in poetry as
ignored, overlooked, or denied visibility. Thefldneuse has a heightened awareness of her
body's role within the crowd and as a factor in her urban experience.
Another argument against women' sfldnerie is based on the assumption that women
cannot adequately distance themselves from emotional involvement with the crowd to
record it accurately. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson contends that women cannot practice
fidnerie because they are incapable of removing themselves from the woes of the urban
scene sufficiently: "No woman, it would seem, can disconnect herself from the city and
its enchantments. No woman is able to attain the aesthetic distance so crucial to the
fldneur 's superiority. She is unfit forfldnerie because she desires the objects spread
before her and acts upon that desire. Thefldneur, on the other hand, desires the city as a
whole, not a particular part of it" (27). Ferguson assumes not only that shopping is the
strongest social marker of female activity in the city (as Friedberg does as well), but that
women are not capable of producing a sufficiently complex written account of what they
witness in the city. Poems such as Lorde's "New York City 1970" will certainly
demonstrate otherwise as the speaker attempts to reclaim the city for black women and
children by destroying it.
The speakers of the poems I will examine by Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde-
women who are looking for lost children, traveling to or from work, riding the subway, or
waiting for buses-are not restricted by shopping as a sole reason for flnerie and are
certainly speaking about the many ways women cope with the many obligations,
demands, and stimuli of living in the city. Ferguson's most outrageous claim is that
"Urban stories, it is clear, can be told only by those immune to the stress and seductions
of the city, who can turn those seductions to good account, that is, into a text that will
exercise its own seductions" (Ferguson 27-8). In fact, few men's poems give the kind of
mechanical response to the city that Ferguson's analysis suggests is necessary for
fldnerie. Such a response would have difficulty reaching an audience of twentieth-century
readers who have witnessed the Civil Rights Movement and its repercussions on the city
streets. Even Baudelaire has moments of sympathy in Les Fleurs du Mal. The seventh
line of "The Little Old Women" entreats the reader: "Though broken let us love them!
they are souls" (181). Rather than being limited by their emotional responses, women
poets are able to use emotionally-charged events in the city scene to record aspects of the
city which would otherwise be ignored, squelched, or hidden by urban consumer culture.
In fact, their emotional involvement with the events and people they watch often directs
their observation of the crowd.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle that post-WWII women poets face in
participating infldnerie is the issue of having a destination that directs movement through
the city. As twentieth-century, working women, Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde would
not have had the time to randomly stroll through the city at a turtle's pace,6 but their
poems' speakers rarely indicate awareness of a destination in their movement through the
city. Certainly destination provides a sense of purpose to most of the crowd that would
preclude flnerie by not allowing a sufficient level of distraction, or what Benjamin
would call "intoxication" in the crowd. Most members of the masses spend little or no
energy looking around to notice the rest of the crowd or the city. The kind of tunnel-
vision that New Yorkers are famous for-looking ahead toward their destination and
never noticing their surroundings or others in the crowd-prevents the kind of
observation upon which flnerie depends.
I make no claims that every member of the crowd in afldneuse orfldneur, but if a
poet is not interested in her/his destination, then she/he is free to mimic the kind of
aimless observation that Benjamin claims is necessary for flnerie. It may not matter that
thefldneuse has a destination if she still stumbles upon crime, feels a sense of
intoxication in the crowd, allows events and people in the crowd to direct her attention,
develops imaginary stories about or relationships with other members of the crowd, and
goes unnoticed in these observations. Di Prima and Lorde both make the crowd as much
a home as their actual places of living. Both fled repressive homes and lived communally
with other artists or in buildings that were barely livable. Di Prima describes actually
living on the streets-sleeping in the park with other homeless people-in Memoirs of a
I argue that rather than being excluded from flnerie, women poets are able to use
the positions that are traditionally cited as reasons for their exclusion in order to move
6 Benjamin comments on the brief popularity among fldneurs of allowing a turtle to set the pace (54).
through and observe aspects of city life. By refusing to dress or wear their hair in
traditionally feminine styles, by openly living lifestyles that reject what Rich calls
"compulsory heterosexuality," and by insisting on breaking down boundaries between
public and private life, these women poets insert their work into the style and tradition of
fldnerie. Gleber explains how women' sfldnerie can empower feminist studies:
Recognizing a female flaneur would enable women to trace an active gaze of their
own to a preexisting tradition of female spectatorship in the public sphere, to an
already actively looking female figure who can return the gaze directed to her....
The discovery of a female flaneur would help to inscribe a model of resistance for
women, one that would establish wide possibilities and open new spaces for their
own gaze. (188)
As poets who are allowed the space to be conscious of social issues and who can observe
and move through city spaces as members of the crowd without unwarranted stigma, the
post-WWIIfld/i \I, may finally "[grant] women authorship of their images" (Gleber
189). This is the call to action, to revise a tradition in order to empower women, which I
argue Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde have all heeded in attempting to become authors
of their own perception of the city.
I describe the shift from Benjamin's and Friedberg's enclosed buildings that create
artificial urban spaces to the public spaces on city streets, in subways or train stations,
and in parks. Returning the poetfldneuse from protected shopping areas to the city street
is an important revision that I make tofldnerie. As the most common location of the
crowd (although certainly the crowd moves through other areas such as subway stations
and parks as well), the streets are representative of city life. This kind of use of the term
"street" in literary studies of city poetry is exemplified by Marianne Thormahlen's
explanation of T.S. Eliot's city poetry: "At times in Eliot's early poetry the street is not
only a scene but an agent... Usually, however, it is a natural stage on which the dreary
drama of modem urban existence is enacted. The street is where people move, meet and
observe other people, vanish into buildings and emerge from them, all in accordance with
the traditional idea of streets as the veins of a city" (134). By moving through the streets,
fldai'eu \% of the crowd, women connect to the pulse of the city.
Cities in American Poetry
My decision to return fldnerie to poetry studies connects Brooks, Rich, di Prima,
and Lorde to a literary history of the city-both in poetry and America-which
consistently influences and imposes on their poetics. Benjamin locatesfldnerie in an
American literary foundation by identifying the origins of Baudelaire'sfldneur in the
detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly in "The Man of the Crowd." Therefore,
fldnerie begins as an American concept that is adopted and named by European writers
such as Baudelaire (Benjamin 48). Furthermore, although recent critical depictions of the
fldneur depart from poetic analyses, often focusing on cinema (Friedberg, Gleber),
Benjamin's analysis of Baudelaire establishes poetry's value tofldnerie.
Poetry's ability to articulate the compressed architecture of urban life (physical and
social) makes it an ideal form of urban expression. As Audre Lorde explains, poetry is
the most "economical" art form because it requires the least material or space and can be
written "in between shifts" or "on the subway," which makes it the most conducive form
to the writer involved in the constant motion offldnerie (Lorde Sister Outsider 116). The
ability to write poems on lunch breaks, on the subway, or wherever the writer
wants/needs to is necessary for the poetfldneuse, who is caught up in the manic activity
of urban life. City dwellers rush through and past things, so every encounter and
experience is crammed with meaning, the same way it is in poetry's lines and symbolism
because there is no time or space for length. City streets are densely packed with different
cultures, languages, and events, just like the denseness of a line of poetry. Howard Moss
explains that, "because [New York City] is perpetually changing, [it] eludes
crystallization. Its essential nature-made up of glimpses, contrasts, fleeting
encounters-is most tellingly realized in the short story and the poem, forms congenial to
their subject" (xxi). Therefore, although many critics are looking to film and music for
representations of urban life, I am returning to poetry.
Despite the fact that poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and LeRoi Jones
(Amiri Baraka) were contemporaries of Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde, the role of the
city in the male poets' work is often noted, but it is overlooked in the women's poetry.
Women have not merely been left out of literary discussions of the city, they have been
objectified in it. The poem "N.Y." by Ezra Pound represents the insidious assumption of
white male ownership of the city by conflating woman and city. The poem opens with an
apostrophe to the city, who the speakers calls "my beloved, my white" (Pound 58). Peter
Brooker identifies this poem as anticipating Pound's modernist writing, but it also
identifies the particular gender and racial inequality that women poets have to overcome
when writing the city (41). By turning New York, metaphorically, into a woman-one
who is owned by the male speaker of the poem ("my beloved"), and who is identified as
"white" and "slender"-Pound writes the city into a racialized, hetero-normative,
patriarchal space in poetry. Because of Pound's profound influence on American poetry,
women poets have to fight such a stereotype in order to write the city, and in order to be
able to enter the role of observer andfldneuse instead of allowing herself to be the object
of male poets' possessive gaze.
Whitman was quite possibly the first well-known American poetfldneur (since Poe
explored issues of the crowd primarily in short story form). Jill Wacker identifies
Whitman as a "jouinmlist-/fl7ille/i and notes that his insistence on strolling leisurely
through the city to sketch it often cost him his job as he was accused of being a "loafer"
(86). Whitman's poetry openly celebrates New York City and, as Alan Trachtenberg
explains, he successfully writes the city by standing "at once inside and outside himself,
within the crowd which comprises the city, part of it yet detached enough to hear his own
voice" (169). In this description, Whitman achieves almost the exact definition of a
fldneur. Whitman comfortably adopts Baudelaire's pleasure in walking the city as a
fldneur, but not all American poets of influence found the same source of inspiration in
The women poets I discuss in this dissertation complicate the image of the city they
inherit from Whitman, understanding it to be neither all good nor all bad. According to
Graham Clarke, the city as an enigma causes responses that are either of despair and
corruption or of vitality and possibility: "At its most baneful the response is intent on
forging an art, and a view of the city, appropriate to the environment from which it
comes" (9). As Clarke's comment shows, even the artist's response to the city is
paradoxical since it is "baneful" and yet it "forges" an artistic rendition of the city.
Whitman's celebration of the city is often noted as the foundation for poets such as
William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara, who similarly revel in urban life. On the
other end of the spectrum, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland is often noted as the foundation for
negative response to the city. In American poetry, both positions develop in response to
By referring to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal in the first part of The Wasteland,
Eliot highlights the modern city as a contradictory place of both dreams and destitution.
Eliot's first reference to Baudelaire appears in the simple, but famous, phrase "unreal
city," which he footnoted with lines from Les Fleurs du Mal himself (Norton 1272). The
lines that Eliot references conjure the image of a city that seduces with dreams and
destroys with what Benjamin calls the phantasmagoria of the crowd, which might
correspond for Eliot to the loss of individuality in the masses. The stanza ends with
another line from Baudelaire that implicates the reader in the speaker's disgust with the
city-with the resulting sin and stupidity of the masses in the city (Norton 1272). Eliot's
response to the city establishes an urban poetics in opposition to Whitman's which post-
WWII women poets must negotiate.
Although much of Eliot's later work is located in Europe, Marianne Thormahlen
points to the role and influence of American cities like St. Louis and Boston in his early
poetry. Thormahlen notes that, "the slightly sinister yellow fog which witnessed
Prufrock's vacillations is of American origin, unlike the 'brown fog of a winter dawn' in
the wasteland of post-war London" (127). Jay Martin builds on Thormahlen's close
reading, noting that, in general, "Eliot subsumed city life into poetry, as no American
since Whitman had done, by concentrating upon its nightmarish, but also its marvelous,
qualities; he saw it both as an illusion, deeply deceptive, and as a mirage, enticing and
appealing" (13). Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde struggle with similar contradictions
that plague the post-WWII American city as those raised by the industrialization and
modernization of cities to which Eliot responded. Whereas Poe, Baudelaire, Benjamin,
and Eliot all refer to a crowd that is homogenous except for the fldneur, Brooks, Rich, di
Prima, and Lorde indicate an important change that has occurred in our understanding of
the crowd in the post-WWII American city. They privilege the individual differences
between members of the crowd that make it heterogeneous, acknowledging the different
cultures and experiences that each person contributes to the city scene.
Like Eliot, Rich invokes the specter of Baudelaire to articulate disillusionment with
the city. In "End of an Era," Rich's speaker calls, through apostrophe, to a city that "once
had snap and glare," but which has become flattened by the weight of her sensitivity to it.
In the second stanza, the apostrophe is repeated, but this time to Baudelaire in an attempt
to recapture an earlier belief in the city. The speaker concludes that "nothing changes,"
her disappointment in the city is not alleviated (Rich Collected 174). Rich's appeal to
Baudelaire assumes his ability to redeem the city, but his inability to do so exposes the
limitations of hisfldneur for her. Instead of discovering the intoxication that can disorient
thefldneur's vision of the harmful aspects of urban life, Rich's vision remains focused on
social ills and inequality.
Diane di Prima invokes the image of Baudelaire to a different end than Eliot or
Rich. In the poem "Magick in Theory & Practice," the speaker addresses, through
apostrophe, young artists "under the shadow / of MOMA" in New York City, saying, "oh
how my love reaches for you." The speaker sympathizes with the painters who are
"flanked by skinny girls," but the image is a fleeting memory. The poem concludes:
... oh home
I may never see again oh glamour
like Baudelaire fading in a long hall of mirrors
called past as I move backwards over
its black velvet floor (Pieces 75)
The nostalgia of these lines conflates Baudelaire-whose image repeats in the mirrors-
with home. The lines combine memory and surrealism to allude to Baudelaire's influence
on the urban art scene, which calls to Baudelaire as he fades into the past, recalls the past,
and also calls into the past, moving backward. The hall of mirrors image of Baudelaire is
juxtaposed with the sentimental loss of "home" and "glamour" (the romantic "oh"
repeated as yet another way of recalling a past art) to achieve a simultaneously
frightening loss of time and space and a pleasant tribute to a poetic influence. Like the
looming shadow of MOMA on the young artists' canvases, Baudelaire's image looms
over her poetry. Di Prima's "Magick in Theory & Practice" lacks the edge of anger and
disillusionment that Rich's "End of an Era" exhibits. But the poem ends with di Prima
moving backwards, as if she is being lured down the hall of mirrors into the past, over the
superficial comfort of the velvet on the floor.
Many poets who looked to Baudelaire for guidance did so primarily as an aesthetic
move. After WWII, many poets began to consider political influences in the city as well
as aesthetic ones. In Chicago, Carl Sandburg's socialist free verse spoke for the masses as
the proletariat. The speaker of "I am the People, The Mob" declares, "I am the people-
the mob-the crowd-the mass / Do you know that all the great work of the world is
done through me?" (Sandburg). Sandburg's poetics captured life in Chicago and the
attention of the Chicago people it spoke to and about by using language that was familiar
and common. Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry similarly spoke to and about Chicago, but to a
different crowd within that urban space. The workers Sandburg addressed were primarily
white (even if immigrant). Brooks's 1950s Bronzeville is almost completely separate
from Sandburg's WWI-era Chicago, and her poetics better resemble those of Claude
McKay's political agenda was racial, but, unlike Sandburg, he esteemed traditional
poetic forms and endeavored to write poetry that reflected African-American urban life,
often in strict sonnet form. His political message is clear, though. "The White City"
opens with the line, "I will not toy with it nor bend an inch." Such forthright language is
undermined, however, by literary allusion. As Cary Nelson explains in the footnotes of
the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, the line refers to a line in
Shakespeare's The Taming of the .\s/n ei (317). From Sandburg and McKay, women poets
inherit the vexed relationship between the racially segregated neighborhoods of the city
and the similarly racially segregated history of American poetry. Having a political
agenda would seem to preclude fldnerie, but as working class poets begin to participate in
afldneur-influenced gaze, their political positions become infused with their poetic
response to the city.
Langston Hughes connects political poetry withfldnerie in the discussion of the
literary history of urban American poetry. As Arnold Rampersad notes, Hughes "learned
much from Carl Sandburg, himself one of Whitman's most fervent disciples, whose Jazz
Fantasies (1919) pointed Hughes in the direction of his own music-inflected verse" (4).
Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred was published in 1951, after Brooks's
A Street in Bronzeville. But the syntax, diction, and jazz-influenced rhythms which
Hughes employs challenge urban poetics to incorporate African American language,
culture, and experience. By showing Harlem as culturally rich, but economically
disenfranchised, Hughes further fractures notions offldnerie being able to capture a
unified urban image. Like all inner-cities that have properties of the larger city, but a
community and culture of their own as well, the Harlem of Hughes's poetry is distinct
from the rest of New York City. Hughes could be one of the first to employ fldnerie from
a race-conscious perspective, and he opens the door to considering the possibility of the
fldneur/fldneuse as a black poet.
In Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes depicts a variety of scenes in Harlem
that readers can experience as representations of fldnerie. The short poems that make up
Montage of a Dream Deferred move through different visual images of the city. From the
organized crowd movement in "Parade" or the series of store signs that create the effect
of walking down the street in "Neon Signs," to the political implications of "Corner
Meeting" and the reflection on deferred dreams in "Good Morning" and "Island ," the
poems of Montage of a Dream Deferred combine to create an image of Harlem in a form
that alludes to Baudelaire's Paris.
It would be unrealistic for Brooks, Rich, di Prima, or Lorde to completely eschew
the urban poetic tradition that precedes their work. Their conscious efforts to build from
the productive aspects of that work and their explicit divergences from the detrimental
aspects of the traditions create some of the most complex and fascinating conflicts in
their poetry. It is in the space created by this conflict that they can develop an urban
feminist poetics from afldneuse 's privileged perspective.
The Labyrinthine City
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde make the city legible by writing poetic maps:
alternate interpretations of the city space that may guide reader's understanding and
knowledge of the city. As Deborah Parsons explains: "The urban writer is not only a
figure within a city; he/she is also the producer of a city.... The writer adds other maps to
the city atlas; those of social interaction but also of myth, memory, fantasy, and desire"
(Parsons 1). Especially for women, these metaphorical maps are crucial to navigating city
spaces which have otherwise been defined by men. Cities are traditionally "produced" by
men: male architects, politicians, engineers, construction workers, and urban planners
design the spaces. By writing the city, poets such as Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde
begin to make the spaces more legible for women.
The city is illegible because of the labyrinthine nature of the streets, its sheer size,
the constant movement and change of the crowd, the raising and tearing down of
buildings, and the intersection of both horizontal and vertical movement. Making the city
legible requires navigating two maze-like spaces: the ordered, horizontal and vertical
mazes created by streets and buildings and the chaotic crowd. A member of the crowd is
presented with so many possible routes through streets, buildings, and within the
constantly changing crowd that she has an indefinite number of options, which could all
lead to different sights, experiences, and destinations. Women'sfldnerie depends on
being able to navigate these multiple labyrinths successfully.
Generally, labyrinths today are conceived as replicas of the Greek labyrinth, which
are small versions of Egyptian labyrinths. As Hubert Damisch explains, the streets of
older urban areas, such as the Wall Street district of Manhattan or parts of Boston,
resemble the familiar twists, turns, and dead-ends of the Greek labyrinth. But Egyptian
labyrinths were so tremendously enormous that travelers would be disoriented by sheer
magnitude of space and the repetition (both vertically and horizontally) of spaces. In this
sense, all of Manhattan-or Chicago, or Boston-resembles a labyrinth. In such spaces,
travelers must rely on local landmarks to navigate the space. Like thefldneur in Paris
before Haussman's nineteenth-century urban planning which modernized Paris, the
traveler had to know the spaces intimately in order to navigate them. Adding street signs,
building numbers, and boulevards wide enough to permit pedestrian passage inserts this
kind of order onto the space, making the labyrinth easier to navigate.
Thefldneur reveled in the kind of pre-Haussman spaces of the city that allowed his
knowledge of the city to ensure his safety in the urban labyrinth. According to Damisch,
"What Benjamin retained from Poe and Baudelaire is the notion that, beyond a certain
critical mass, the paths traced by the man of the city, by the man of the crowd, effectively
evoke the illegible, indecipherable figure of a labyrinth whose subterranean presence will
obliterate the image of the city all the more insofar as the latter is homogenous and
extended" (14). The speakers of urban poems by Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde
allude to a similar understanding of the city that is evident in their regard for the invisible
or silenced members of the crowd. For thefldneuse, the ability to write, navigate, and
redefine these urban labyrinths is the necessary power that she needs to contribute to the
city's social and political structures.
In Greek mythology, a woman plays an integral role in the navigation of
Daedalus's famous labyrinth. By providing the thread for Theseus to follow and find his
way out of the labyrinth, an idea that she borrowed from Daedalus, Ariadne is a precursor
to thefldneuse. Although Ariadne understood how to navigate the labyrinth, she never
navigated it herself. In fact, the labyrinth remains a symbol of her own entrapment in the
story since she was actually trapped within the invisible labyrinth of social expectations.
Ariadne not only never navigates the labyrinth herself, but she is unsuccessful at
extricating herself from the patriarchal labyrinth which controls her life as well. She
needs Theseus's help to leave Crete and her controlling father, but Theseus abandons her
along the journey from Crete and she is "rescued" by Dionysus. Women' sfldnerie is
similarly threatened by dependence on men's definitions and forms. From a
contemporary perspective, Ariadne demonstrates the danger that women face in
attempting to break out of a patriarchal tradition and control their own movement and
direction. The flneuse must break out of the confinement she inherits from Ariadne and
find a more successful tool than thread-which primarily provides an escape route-to
navigate the urban labyrinths.
The flneuse in the twentieth-century American city faces a different kind of
labyrinth than either Ariadne or Baudelaire' sfldneur. In order to consider the poet
fldneuse navigating the city, it is important to consider the historical context of the city
she is in. The post-WWII poet flneuse negotiates urban spaces which are shifting from
modern to post-modem. According to Sharpe and Wallock, urban areas like older
sections of Manhattan represent a stage of urban life which was marked by "concentrated
settlements," the urban planning of midtown Manhattan is an example of the modernist
stage of urban life that is marked by a clearly demarcated center with a developing
"suburban ring" surrounding it, and the post-modern city (beginning around the early
1970s), such as Los Angeles, is decentered (10). Benjamin appears to locate thefldneur
in pre-modern city spaces, but those spaces are on the cusp of becoming modernized.
Although the modernist city orders urban space, it still maintains the size and
repetition of spaces that makes the city labyrinthine. Celeste Olalquiaga explains how the
city dweller's sense of time and space becomes skewed by the sensory overload in the
city. She compares the skyscrapers to a hall of mirrors, like a labyrinth:
Contemporary architecture displays an urban continuum where buildings are seen
to disappear behind reflections of the sky or merge into one another, as in the
downtown areas of most cosmopolitan cities and in the trademark midtown
landscape of New York City. Any sense of freedom gained by the absence of
clearly marked boundaries, however, is soon lost to the reproduction ad infinitum
of space-a hall of mirrors in which passersby are dizzied into total oblivion.
Instead of establishing coordinates from a fixed reference point, contemporary
architecture fills the referential crash with repetition. (2)
Like the hall of mirrors in di Prima's poem, "Magick in Theory & Practice," Olalquiaga's
description of the city as an "urban continuum" disrupts the space with repetition,
confounding the city dweller. In James Baldwin's version of this disorientation, the
height of skyscrapers and inability to see the sky causes city dwellers to become divorced
from reality and other people (34).
Moreover, the sheer volume of people in the modernist city crowd allows the
fldneur or thefldneuse to move anonymously. Cities naturally continue to change, but the
necessary factor forfldnerie is the crowd. In cities like Chicago and New York,
quintessentially modern cities designed to have a single center, walking in the city is still
possible and crowds remain a central aspect of city life. According to Nan Ellin, the
modern city focuses on legibility through order and functionalism, but the post-modern
city focuses on legibility through humanizing (45). In post-modem cities, such as Los
Angeles, city dwellers rely on independent means of transportation, moving in and out of
gated, surveillance-controlled shopping malls or residential districts in their individual
cars. In such post-modem cities, the crowd does not flow through city spaces on foot. In
general, modern cities are more conducive to walking because of the creation of
sidewalks and pedestrian passageways. I have chosen poets who write primarily about
Chicago and New York for this reason.
Within the larger labyrinth of the modernist city as a whole exist invisible
boundaries and barriers that allow city dwellers to develop a sense of community and
ownership in the overwhelming urban space. Neighborhoods are enclosed spaces, but
enclosed by social boundaries rather than by physical walls the way the mall spaces are.
The neighborhoods contain elements of nostalgia the way mall spaces do: Friedberg
describes how malls recreate town squares which are small enough to create a community
but urban enough to provide space for a crowd. Similarly, neighborhoods allow for the
nostalgic creation of spaces that remind immigrant communities of their cultural roots.
Thefldneuse must have the ability to cross boundaries, moving between neighborhoods,
even though she may define herself based upon a particularly community. Brooks, Rich,
di Prima, and Lorde all recognized the ways that neighborhood affiliations could be both
empowering and limiting.
Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde
The profound effect that living in cities had on the lives and poetry of Brooks,
Rich, di Prima, and Lorde is evident from descriptions in their autobiographical writing,
which inform the appearance of specifically urban scenarios and settings in their poetry.
Each of the women wrote essays, memoirs, or autobiographical pieces that describe her
relationship with and opinions about city life. Brooks associates events, periods in her
life, and poetic development with particular locations in Chicago throughout Report from
Part One. Rich describes deciding to live and work in New York City in the essay
"Teaching in Open Admissions." Di Prima provides extensive stories of street life and the
impact of New York City on her work in both Memoirs of a Beatnik and My Life as a
Woman: The New York Years. Lorde's "biomythography," Zami, indicates the profound
effect of life growing up in New York on her identity and poetry. Their poetry
interrogates these spaces from the particular observer positions that incorporate (and may
be dependent upon)fldnerie. Correlations between the urban perspectives in these
women's poems andfldnerie are undeniable, but they require a revised understanding not
only offldnerie, but an expanded understanding of women's participation in urban life in
the decades after World War II (1950s-1970s), a time otherwise remembered for
booming suburbia and domesticity.
The dissertation begins, in the chapter "Gwendolyn Brooks: Detecting Fldnerie,"
by looking at Gwendolyn Brooks's Chicago, specifically the South Side-her
Bronzeville-where the poem "In the Mecca" takes place. "In the Mecca" transitions
between a poet fldneuse who, like Friedberg's figure, is confined architecturally to a poet
fldneuse who more readily enters the streets in the poetry of Rich, di Prima, and Lorde.
"In the Mecca" is framed by the physical structure of the Mecca, a building on the South
Side of Chicago. Like the arcades for Benjamin or the department stores for the early
fldneuses, the Mecca provides an enclosed labyrinth of hallways that mimic city streets.
The poem is driven by the story of Mrs. Sallie's search for her missing daughter, Pepita,
who is revealed under the bed of another Mecca resident, Jamaican Edward, at the end of
"In the Mecca" employs several narrative devices that imitate elements offldnerie,
including character vignettes which mimic nineteenth-century Parisian physiologies and
the unwilling detection of crime within the crowd. Connections betweenfldnerie 's
literary roots and "In the Mecca's" narrator suggest her role as afldneuse and are further
supported by the poem's narrative movement. The speaker is an "outsider within" the
Mecca, knowledgeable about the residents and the ways through the labyrinthine halls,
but unnoticed by the other people and capable of moving through spaces others are
prevented from entering. The speaker uses this position to follow events or characters of
interest. Through these explorations into the lives of the Mecca residents, "In the
Mecca's" speaker narrates an epic-like account of black urban culture. But this
speaker/fldneuse 's ability to navigate the urban labyrinth is limited to the Mecca building.
"In the Mecca' s"fldneuse imitates aspects offldnerie to reveal the kinds of insights and
events to which such anonymous observation has access, even pressingfldnerie to
incorporate socio-political commentary, but she fails to enter the actual city.
Whereas "In the Mecca" navigates an arcades-like building that makes a labyrinth,
Adrienne Rich explores the labyrinths created between people by gender and sexuality
differences. In the chapter "Adrienne Rich: Resisting Ariadne," I analyze the ways that
Rich recognized her potential to become an Ariadne-figure in city poetry, abandoned by
the patriarchal forms which she emulated and prevented from navigating the urban
labyrinth. Rich's city poems, like Baudelaire's, frequently explore urban themes without
assigning specific local landmarks. Some of the most prominent and concrete images of
the city appear in poems such as "Frame" and in some of the ghazal poems. Rich's
fldneuse moves through the city crowd, but cannot find a home there because she
continually sees the way her path is defined by patriarchal influences. In Twenty-One
Love Poems, the city landscape lingers in the background of the narrative of lesbian love,
intruding upon their relationship with reminders of public restriction and eventually
physically separating the two women from each other.
Rich is frustrated by modernist poetics in the modernist city, but incapable of
defining a form for urban expression outside offldnerie. Like Ariadne, she ends up
trapped in the labyrinth of social expectations and language structures, never fully
becoming afldneuse. The correction that Rich makes to the city's illegible labyrinth is to
provide a map, or atlas, of her own. The volume of poetry, An Atlas of a Difficult World,
published in 1991 is the culmination of this effort and only one poem, "VII (The Dream-
Site)" explicitly details city life.
For di Prima,fldnerie was more like an urban adventure, one of her many
experiments in poetics and life. In the chapter "Diane di Prima: Pirating Fldnerie," I take
as a starting point the description from Recollections of My Life as a Woman of di
Prima's game of dressing up as pirates with friends and exploring the city. The pirate
motif is particularly useful here because it not only connects di Prima to a poetic practice
reminiscent offldnerie, it also implies her rejection of dominant consumer culture. Like
Rich, di Prima was not interested in the traditional domestic options for women in the
1950s. She looked as far from suburban domesticity as she could-to urban street life-
to find a community with which she could identify.
Di Prima's urban writing appropriates and experiments with various personal and
poetic roles, includingfldnerie. Although di Prima's memoir and autobiographical
writing provides extensive evidence of fldnerie, her poetry exhibits little of this. Certainly
caught up in the phantasmagoria of the city, di Prima picks up for her poetry few of the
usual symbols, landmarks, or commodities which define the city for thefldneur. She
revels in her ability, while appropriatingfldnerie, to define an "authentic" city that is
beyond the reaches of consumer culture. She looks to mythology, to existentialist
searches for meaning in life, and to her own body as issues that the city makes relevant
and vital. The realist markers of urban life that Brooks, Rich, and Lorde use to define
their urban experiences do not ground di Prima's poetics, which float into the intoxication
of afldneuse in the city crowd. By ignoring the limitations offldnerie for women, di
Prima is both empowered and blinded. But her poetry indicates that it elevated her
poetics to something beyond the concrete city.
Audre Lorde made a concerted prioritization of the city in her poetry, even titling
her fourth book of poetry New York Head Shop and Museum in 1974. In the chapter
"Audre Lorde: Activating the Fldneuse" I show how Lorde's political activism against
racism and homophobia in the city defines herfldnerie. Lorde's use of the city in her
poetry, like di Prima's, is often in an attempt to destroy it. Many of Lorde's poems have
the tone of a call to action, an insistence on the city as a site of necessary revolution, that
suggest her writing is intended to promote a political activist approach to reform in the
city. In the poems of New York Head Shop and Museum, Lorde captures the movement of
the crowd through city spaces, chronicling the events and images that she observes as a
Lorde achieves the kind of invisibility and anonymity necessary forfldnerie, and
her poems move through city spaces fluidly, capturing city life. But her politically
activist agenda pushes fldnerie to do more than merely observe. She demands that poetry
contribute to social change in the city, but often despairs that it is possible. In
"Revolution is One Form of Social Change," she writes that when "the man" runs out of
race reasons to discriminate against others, he will simply switch to other differences,
ending up at sex "which is / after all / where it all began" (139). The displeasure that
Lorde expresses with city life in such poems eventually leads her to abandon living in
New York, spending the end of her life back in the Caribbean.
In each of the chapters I examine the ways that Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde
incorporate, resist, and change the poetic standards they inherit from high modernist and
Harlem Renaissance poets. By looking at syntax, diction, and formal structure, I show
how their attempts to extricate their poetics from patriarchal influence are defining
elements of their attempts to participate infldnerie. Rich's desire to inherit Baudelaire's
poetic vision and di Prima's attachment to Pound are two examples of the conflict
between guidance and limitations that these poets face when inheriting masculine-defined
poetic practices. Each of these poets breaks away from traditional poetic forms, delving
into black language, surrealist imagery, avant-garde or jazz-influenced language, and
feminist revaluations of poetic structures to write the city asfldwlein'e, Although each
achieves varying degrees of success in these attempts, much about her poetic process is
revealed by considering her work in these terms.
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: DETECTING FLANERIE
Gwendolyn Brooks's personal attachment to Chicago's South Side focused her
attention on the city crowd. Her work validates the language and community of the South
Side neighborhood to which she devoted her life. Brooks explained to Paul M. Angle
how the city shaped her concept of herself as a poet: "When I was a child I used to think
that I would write better if I lived in the country.... But I feel now that it was better for
me to have grown up in Chicago because in my writing I am proud to feature people and
their concerns-their troubles as well as their joys. The city is the place to observe man
en masse and in his infinite variety" (Report 135). For Brooks, the crowd-"man en
masse"-defined life in the city. She looked to Langston Hughes as a model of how to
write the city from within the crowd. "Mightily did he use the street. He found its
multiple heart, its tastes, smells, alarms, formulas, flowers, garbage and convulsions. He
brought them all to his table-top. He crushed them to a writing-paste. He himself became
the pen" (Report 71). Brooks saw that by bringing Harlem into his work, by making it the
very form and function of his writing, and then by becoming the pen himself, Hughes
became Harlem. His poetry is the city because he was able to become the city. By tapping
into the connection between poet and city thatfldnerie provides-utilizing the
perspective of a black flneuse in "In the Mecca"-Brooks can become Chicago's South
In the Mecca is a transitional text in Brooks's oeuvre, having been written and
published prior to her conscious decision to incorporate Black Arts Movement language
in her work, but breaking with some of the more traditional forms in her earlier work. 1
By telling the story of one black girl's disappearance in the Mecca building through the
perspective of a black flaneuse, the title poem of the volume, "In the Mecca,"
demonstrates the presence of black women in flanerie, how black women's flanerie can
expose social inequalities, and how a poem can construct poetic city spaces and lives that
challenge traditional forms, pressing against the boundaries of flanerie and the city.
Although many of Brooks's poems, especially those from A Street in Bronzeville, have
evidence of flanerie, I have chosen to focus on "In the Mecca" in this chapter because it
not only transitions Brooks's poetic style from traditional forms to forms that draw from
vernacular and political sources, it also shifts women's flanerie out of Friedberg's
shopping malls and back into the labyrinth of city buildings, broadening the arenas in
which women participate in flanerie. Therefore, "In the Mecca" inhabits a transitional
space between the mall/arcades and the street. Brooks's flaneuse, in being particular to
black women's urban experience, acts as a poetic signifier of the inner-city. "In the
Mecca" anticipates a style and perspective that is unique to black women's flanerie.
The title of the poem self-consciously positions the characters in relation to
particular historical developments in Chicago. The Mecca was an actual building on the
South Side of Chicago, but the name invokes the developing Nation of Islam as well,
which was centered in Chicago. The speaker of "In the Mecca," who narrates the poem as
a flneuse, moving through the building in anonymous observation, is never explicitly
identified as a black woman, but her attention to women and the correlation between her
knowledge and Brooks's own experiences in the building strongly suggest her identity as
1 In the Mecca is first copyrighted in 1964; Brooks attended the Fisk Writer's Conference in 1967.
a black woman. Her perspective reflects the ways that black women's roles in political,
economic, and social expectations were in transition in the decades after WWII. As bell
hooks explains in Ain 't I a Woman, black women have a long history of social and
political activism in America that became stymied by the overwhelming influence of
consumer culture and pressure for suburban domesticity that typified American society as
The tradition of black women speaking out for women's rights took a back seat to
Cold War fears and a rising call for support of black masculinity, exemplified by the
Nation of Islam's demand for black women's subordinate/supportive role of black men's
progress. According to hooks, "The 50s socialization of black women to assume a more
subordinate role in relation to black men occurred as part of an overall effort in the U.S.
to brainwash women so as to reverse the effects of World War II" (Ain 'tI 177). During
the war, women were had to become independent and hardworking, but they were
removed from their professional and occupational positions as soon as the men returned.
The speaker of "In the Mecca" reflects both the tradition inherited from black female
political activists such as Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett, and
Elise Johnson McDougald, but she does not yet quite anticipate the feminist rhetoric of
Frances Beale's "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female," which was not published
until 1970. Brooks further complicates the speaker's positioning by placing her within a
transitioning poetic context. Although the content of the poem embraces the political
agenda characterized by the burgeoning Black Arts Movement, even mentioning Don L.
Lee (now Haki Madhubuti), it struggles to develop a poetic style that adheres to a
particular tradition. Brooks's black flineuse in "In the Mecca" is forging new definitions
of "black woman poet in the city" by creating an urban epic from a woman's perspective.
The history of the Mecca building that Brooks encapsulates the larger African-
American urban history. By creating a narrative journey which pulls from both epic
(historical poetry) and detective mystery (American form), Brooks inserts the Mecca into
a historical form which could represent African-American urban culture. Brooks
manipulates epic andfldnerie to create the African-American urban epic. R. Baxter
Miller explains that Brooks spent 23 years trying to "fulfill her hidden purpose: To write
a Black Epic. Such a work would rank with the classics; it would portray a narrator's
journey, her obstacles encountered, and her final vision of victory" (19). Her mock epic
"The Anniad" and epic aspects of her novel, MaudMartha, then appear as experiments in
narrative style that culminate in "In the Mecca's" attempt to insert the Mecca building
into American legend as a symbol of black American urban life.
The poem is framed by the search for Mrs. Sallie's missing daughter, Pepita. At the
beginning, Mrs. Sallie arrives home to the Mecca and discovers that Pepita is missing.
Mrs. Sallie's other eight children help her search for their missing sibling, but eventually
call the police for help. When the police, called "The Law," arrive, the narrative adjusts
to focus on their search. In the end, Pepita's body is revealed under the bed of a resident
named Jamaican Edward. The speaker narrates this story as a piece of the larger purpose
of the poem, which, with more than 800 lines, is the culmination of Brooks's efforts to
write a black urban epic. As Brooks explains in her notes about writing the poem, "To
touch every note in the life of this block-long block-wide building would be to capsulize
the gist of black humanity in general" (Report 190). Although Brooks's The Anniad,
which won a Pulitzer prize, is more famous for epic form, its success is as a mock epic. It
is satire rather than history. "In the Mecca's" movement through the Mecca building-
movement through a symbolic city-is directed by the search, but this movement is
primarily a device that allows the speaker to observe and record the Mecca's community
of residents, who represent urban "black humanity" to Brooks. Therefore, individual
members of the crowd, particularly the teacher named Alfred, play an important role in
the poem, despite not being a part of the search.
In this chapter, I examine connections between "In the Mecca" and Benjamin's
location offldnerie in both Parisianphysiologies and Poe's detective stories. These
elements offldnerie frame the form and strategy of "In the Mecca." By examining the
long poem "In the Mecca" through the lens offldnerie, I raise questions about the nature
of such a limited cultural construction of urban life. How is our understanding of the role
of poetry in the cultural construction of the city changed by exploring the relationship
between "In the Mecca" andfldnerie? How doesfldnerie change our understanding of
"In the Mecca"? Finally, what is the effect of consideringfldnerie as not only gendered-
afldneuse-but also raced-a black flneuse? I examine ways that "In the Mecca"
develops a poetic speaker who participates in a gender- and race-consciousfldnerie that
offers a corrective to Benjamin' sflneur in order to answer these questions. If the
narrator/speaker of "In the Mecca" appears to mimic the pattern and perspective of
fidnerie, she does so with a heightened awareness of both the advantages and limitations
of such a position.
A "Mecca" of Inherited Cultural Forms
Much of the critical work on "In the Mecca" has focused on historicist
interpretations that look back to the actual building (Cheryl Clarke, John Lowney). This
chapter builds on that kind of work, pushing Brooks's use of the building to comment on
urban socio-political issues by complicating an urban poetic tradition. Sheila Hassell
Hughes points out that many male critics "heralded Brooks's political shift of the late
1960s as a necessary turn both inward, to her own community, and outward, beyond the
confines of the feminine psyche.... These critics valued the strong sense of place and
position in Brooks's work" (257). I would like to explore this issue of place and position,
its relationship to feminist issues, and demonstrate that Brooks never relinquished her
focus on the particular difficulties of black womanhood in the inner-city.
Brooks always gave particular attention to black womanhood in her poetry. Poems
such as "Kitchenette Building," "A Song in the Front Yard," and "The Ballad of
Chocolate Mabbie" from A Street in Bronzeville demonstrate her response to domesticity
and racism-more specifically, intra-racial "colorism"-in the inner city (Selected
Poems). Like the women of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Brooks's female
characters, exemplified by the main character of MaudMartha, struggle with their
allegiance to racial equality when it came into conflict with their allegiance to gender
Brooks inherited an urban poetics that was defined primarily by men, beginning
with her mother famously saying she would be a female Paul Laurence Dunbar. As well
as being influenced by Langston Hughes-with whom she identified as a fellow urban
black poet-she was also affected by Carl Sandburg, a fellow Chicago poet. Sandburg's
Chicago was, like Brooks's, working class Chicago, and his poetics reflect his desire to
write in common speech. Sandburg writes in long sentences (a goal Brooks similarly
identified for "In the Mecca" in her notes) that employ a kind of realism typical in
politically-motivated, socialist works in the early twentieth century.2 He comfortably
negotiates the paradox of his love of Chicago and his anguish at the pain, violence, and
exploitation in which workers suffer in order to live in Chicago. Lines such as "They tell
me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the
marks of wanton hunger," which acknowledge the problems of urban life in the poem
"Chicago," are countered with claims such as, "Come and show me another city with
lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning" (107).
Despite apparent similarities in motivation, Brooks's line structure, length of sentence,
and syntax bear little resemblance to Sandburg's.
Brooks does write in long sentences, but she maintains clearly poetic line endings
to emphasize words, sounds, rhythms, or images (Sandburg allows sentences to
determine line beginnings, rarely using enjambment.) The most explicit commentary
directly about the Mecca appears from Alfred's perspective. These lines exemplify the
way that Brooks's long lines are usually still suggest rhythmic unity and purposeful line
No, Alfred has not seen Pepita Smith.
But he (who might have been an architect)
can speak of Mecca: firm arms surround
disorders, bruising ruses and small hells,
small semiheavens: hug barbarous rhetoric
built of buzz, coma, and petite pell-mells. (ITM 19-20)
2 In prose fiction, a parallel example would be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
Although not exact, each of these lines have around 10 syllables (some have a few more).
The line endings emphasize multiple meanings: read out of context, the third line
suggests that the Mecca "surrounds" the residents in a way that might be positive. By
separating the word "disorders" from "firm arms surround," Brooks suggests the irony of
the residents' simultaneous sense of safety and entrapment in the Mecca. Throughout
much of the poem, the line structures are much more irregular, but they rarely are
determined by the rhythms of colloquial speech as Sandburg's are. Furthermore, her
syntax clings to traditional styles, using words like "hies," and lines like "A fragmentary
attar and armed coma. / A fugitive attar and a district hymn" in the second stanza of the
poem (ITM 5). Brooks's Chicago participates in a complex negotiation of poetic forms as
well as race and class injustices.
Both Brooks and Sandburg represented whole communities of people in their
poems, but their approaches were different. Sandburg intended to speakfor the crowd,
projecting his voice as the representative voice a homogeneous group with similar needs,
desires, and values. But Brooks was of the crowd without speakingfor the crowd. By
locating herself in the unique role of the outsider-u iihin,3 Brooks identified with the
crowd but spoke only for herself as outside observer. She recognized and valued the
heterogeneous nature of the crowd, making their differences the subject matter of her
poetic response. This subtle difference between "for" and "of' is the difference between
Sandburg's statement "I am the mob" and Brooks's perspective of the city as afldneuse.
Sandburg is interacting with the crowd; Brooks is watching it.
3 I explain the concept of outsider within (from Patricia Hill Collins) in more depth later in the chapter.
The speaker of "In the Mecca" suggests the realism of Richard Wright's prose
rather than Sandburg's poetics. Aligned by common experience and understanding of the
racial conflict and segregation in Chicago, Brooks and Wright both look to the
contradictory social expectations which can warp relationships between black and white
people in the city. Ironically, one way that Brooks's optimism about the future cultural
potential of the South Side is evident in her formal poetic response. Although she is
clearly exploring possible ways of representing the "authentic" language and experience
poetically throughout "In the Mecca," adjusting between folk forms like the ballad, more
traditional forms like the sonnet, and exploring the benefits of free verse, the poem never
settles into the flow of one style. Instead, the form is fragmented; patterns are repeatedly
disrupted, so that the form of the poem itself symbolizes the fragmented cultural
development of the inner-city. One of the few consistent forms throughout the poem is
the speaker's perspective.
Considering the speaker of "In the Mecca" through the motif offldnerie endows
her with a privileged perspective of the city. Like the narrator of a mystery, the speaker's
identity is never revealed. Because the other residents of the Mecca never acknowledge
this watcher, she appears to be an outsider without being an intruder. She retains her
anonymity by going unnoticed. Because the speaker is directing the movement of the
reader's vision, she becomes a crucial participant in the cultural construction of the city
by recording the Mecca in the poem. The speaker navigates the halls of the Mecca
building as afldneuse would navigate the streets of the city. Despite obstacles of gender,
race, and class, this speaker adheres to the basic elements of fldnerie: she wanders
through urban spaces without a particular destination, following crowd activity,
spectacles, or criminal acts; she watches from an emotionally detached distance, retaining
her anonymity in the crowd despite her observation; she demystifies the crowd through
character vignettes that detail urban "types"; she insists on celebrating the city's
possibilities, even in the face of destruction and death; and finally, she makes the city
legible through poetic response.
Brooks' sfldneuse is a transitional figure: she moves women's urban strolling out of
artificial urban shopping spaces and back into the actual city spaces, but she also is
confined inside the Mecca's walls, her movement limited by gender, race, and class.
Anne Friedberg adroitly maneuvers the practice offldnerie out of Paris's nineteenth
century arcades, into the department stores of the early twentieth century, and, finally,
into the post-modern suburban malls of the late twentieth century to demonstrate how
women participate in a gendered gaze through consumer address (Les Flaneurs 420). In
Friedberg's analysis, the mall provides a sheltered urban area where women's consumer-
empowered gazes allow them to become fldjnice,,. The mall, however, is merely a
replica of urban space without the inconvenience of very real urban problems caused by
poverty, human congestion, or violence that affect the lives of women in places like the
Mecca. Because women's power of observation in the mall is limited to consumer choice,
they are not witnessing the actual city, where they might view crime as well as pleasure.
Therefore, although Friedberg makes a crucial connection between the arcades and
enclosed areas like department stores and malls, for thefldneuse to achieve the ability to
produce the city, she must be able to exit the protected mall and re-enter the actual city.
The Mecca building, as an enclosed structure that mimics the larger city in a contained
space, provides the perfect stepping stone for thefldneuse to move back into an urban
space that is not artificial, but which is not exposed to the entire city crowd.
"In the Mecca" suggests that race consciousness adds another dimension to
fldnerie. As domestic workers, black women like "In the Mecca's" Mrs. Sallie had
always moved through urban spaces between black and white neighborhoods on their
way to and from work. Their presence-either as a danger or as being in danger-is
rarely mentioned in discussions of women's exclusion from flnerie. Deborah Parsons
acknowledges the neglect of black women's particular critical positions asfldiwI 'elI'
when she notes that by generalizing the experiences of socially diverse women writers
into the character of "the woman of the crowd" in her analysis of women' sfldnerie in the
twentieth century, she has risked "overlooking the specific and particular influences of
race and class, as well as the period in which they live" (227). The setting of "In the
Mecca" locates it in a specifically poor, black, city community into which Benjamin's
fldneur could never obtain unnoticed access. The speaker's observation of the Mecca
residents, without disruption of their natural flow through the building's crowded
hallways, indicates her association with the community.
As representative of the larger inner-city, the Mecca may be a place where black
women could move through the crowd unnoticed. In the context of both the city and the
inner-city, black women have traditionally been silenced or ignored. Barbara Smith
remarks on an unusual instance of the mainstream media exposing the city's silencing of
black women (xi). Smith describes a scene in the film Kansas City when a black cleaning
woman is able to give information to a white fugitive woman. As Smith explains, the
black woman states that although people were asking for information about the white
woman, no one bothered to ask her because no one ever asks her anything. By ignoring
the black woman, the mainstream city can believe that she cannot witness or understand
the crowd (or, in this case, recognize crime). She moved through the crowd completely
unnoticed. On the other hand, Elise Johnson McDougald explains that, in the early
twentieth century, the inner-city-Harlem, in her example-is also a space in which
black women go unnoticed: "Here, more than anywhere else, the Negro woman is free
from the cruder handicaps of primitive household hardships and the grosser forms of sex
and race subjugation" (369). Brooks' sfldneuse employs these positions to go unnoticed
within the Mecca's crowded hallways and by the white police officers when they arrive.
As the writer, Gwendolyn Brooks is not necessarily synonymous with the speaker
of the poem, but her personal experience in the Mecca building suggests her own
assumption of the role offldneuse in observing the Mecca and its residents. Brooks
describes her actual experience in the Mecca building when she took a state job at
nineteen: "They sent me to the Mecca building to a spiritual adviser, and he had a
fantastic practice; lucrative. He had us bottling medicine as well as answering letters. Not
real medicine, but love charms and stuff like that he called it, and delivered it through the
building; that was my introduction to the Mecca building" (Report 162). Because Brooks
was occupied in the Mecca, possibly aiding in the delivery of items throughout the
building, she undoubtedly became familiar with the building and its inhabitants. Her
understanding of the social, political, and economic causes of the Mecca's poverty
affected her poetic response to it.
The Mecca building provides the ideal transition from the protected mall to the city
streets because its represents a microcosm of the inner-city. Until it was razed, the Mecca
building stood as an ironic reminder of both urban decadence and the devastation of
inner-city ghettos. The building was constructed in 1891 as luxury apartments and was a
tourist attraction because of its ostentatious grandeur. Yet, according to Cheryl Clarke,
the building retained fascination for wealthy residents only briefly:
By 1912, the Mecca housed the black elite of Chicago. After World War I, the
building began its decline. By the Great Depression the once elaborate showplace
and tourist attraction had become a crowded slum for poor black people and a
symbol of encroaching urban blight-a great hulk of modernity confining
thousands of expendable people to the bowels of the city. (136)
As the South Side of Chicago rapidly became a segregated home to the black community
in Chicago during the migration of southern black people to northern cities between the
World Wars, the Mecca became the equivalent of a tenement house. By the time
Gwendolyn Brooks was familiar with the building, as Kenny Williams explains, "the
Mecca's great hulk warned a city of its failure to come to terms with change and
reminded a group of urban isolates that they had been consigned to the bowels of the city.
Razed in 1952, the Mecca remains in memory as a symbol of absolute urban blight" (60).
As a member of the South Side's black community, but not a resident of the Mecca
building, Brooks had the ability to observe the Mecca's inhabitants and activities as an
outsider, effectively becoming a blackfldneuse.
By rescuing the Mecca from historical neglect, Brooks's blackfldneuse revises the
inner-city's aesthetic value in city poetry. In their influential study, Black Metropolis, St.
Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton recorded statistical, sociological, and historical
information about the South Side that demonstrates the disparity of wealth and racial
segregation between the it and the rest of Chicago by mid-century. Brooks's black
fldneuse corrects the idea that the Mecca housed only the dregs of the city. She explains
that her poem "will not be a statistical report. I'm interested in a certain detachment, but
only as a means of reaching substance with some incisiveness. I wish to present a large
variety of personalities against a mosaic of daily affairs, recognizing that even the
grimmest of these is likely to have a streak or two streaks of sun" (Report 189). "In the
Mecca," then is a kind of critique of sociological reports which claim to define city
communities. Just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous report on black families caused
outrage and debate, Drake and Cayton's sociological report provides only one perspective
of the inner-city. Such sociological research becomes a tool of urban surveillance,
imposing values and judgments from a perspective which demonstrates no real
understanding of the people. Brooks asserts the need forpoetic as well as social witness.
Such a perspective, as any epic does, allows for the duality of urban life for African
American people which Langston Hughes suggested: both the poverty and the cultural
richness, the violence and the celebration, the hope and the despair.
Brooks's desire to remain detached combined with her insistence on the possibility
of hope in the city attaches the speaker of "In the Mecca" tofldnerie. She recognizes a
similar need to be able to observe objectively as an outsider, but she closes the gap
between sociological observer and inner-city community by making the observer
someone who can relate to the community's circumstances. That way, the observer can
demonstrate the aesthetic possibilities created by acknowledging the distinct culture that
developed, despite or because of segregation and poverty, in the Mecca building. The
particular role of the speaker of "In the Mecca" as an outsider in the Mecca, but as a
possible insider, creates the unique perspective that defines the poem.
Inside the Mecca, Brooks was in the unique position of being what Patricia Hill
Collins calls an outsider-i ilihin Collins explains that she "chose the term outsider ii i/hi/u
to describe the location of people who no longer belong to any one group.... [it]
describes] social locations or border spaces occupied by groups of unequal power" (5).
Collins is not the first to identify such a position, but the term outsider i i/hill usefully
acknowledges the contradiction built into such a role. As an outsider i/ i/hi/, Brooks had a
better chance of becoming afldneuse in her poetry because thefldneuse is supposed to be
emotionally removed from the city scene to objectively observe it and record it. Because
Brooks felt that she was an "organic Chicagoan," she understood the motivations,
experiences, and angers of the people who she saw on the street in her community. This
very association and sympathy helps Brooks press the boundaries requiringfldnerie to be
emotionally detached. The poem exposes the ways that a race-conscious perspective-the
ability to empathize with the residents' struggles-is essential to capturing the events
inside the Mecca.
Character Vignettes from an Unwilling Detective
Because the poem's narrative focus is on a mother's search for her missing
daughter, Brooks pulls the reader into an emotional event, tapping into a common fear
and setting up a detective mystery. Although Benjamin' sflneur is considered specific to
Paris, he actually identifies its foundation in American detective fiction. Benjamin notes
that Baudelaire translated several of Poe's detective stories and that they influenced his
poetry (42). As the widely acknowledged creator of the detective story,4 Poe defined the
detective as someone trying to give order to the chaos that the city presents (Bennett
265). "The Man of the Crowd" exemplifies thefldneur in the criminal character of the
4 Benjamin notes that the detective story is "the most momentous among Poe's technical achievements"
(43). Other critics of Poe's detective stories, such as J. Gerald Kennedy, Maurice J. Bennett, and Shawn
Rosenheim make similar statements about Poe's stories establishing the form and formula for detective
unknown man who the narrator (like a detective) follows through the city streets
(Benjamin 48). Because Baudelaire was never able to become calculating enough to write
from the perspective of the detective, he gave a voice to thefldneur in his poetry instead.
According to Benjamin, "the original social content of the detective story was the
obliteration of the individual's traces in the big-city crowd" and is demonstrated by the
random movement of the unknown man in "The Man of the Crowd" (43). But
Baudelaire's resistance to the total denial of individual identity in the crowd is evident in
the poems of Les Flaneurs du Mal, which often notice and focus on one passing member
of the crowd, identifying with and creating a whole imaginary story for that person. Like
the detective, thefldneur makes assumptions about people based on "clues": style of
clothing, posture, facial expression. Poetry, on the other hand, gives thefldneur a point of
view that is unavailable to the detective; it allows the observer to construct a city space
that leaves questions unanswered. The detective is inherently a part of authority
surveillance, and s/he must determine "right" from "wrong," in order to locate the
criminal. Without locating the criminal, the detective has failed. The poet, on the other
hand, has the privilege of recognizing the complex web that connects the criminal, the
victim, and the crowd. The poet does not have to choose sides, does not impose
repercussions, and can maintain an anonymous role in the crowd which the detective
The mystery of Pepita's disappearance and the instant transformation of her
mother, Mrs. Sallie, into a detective of sorts, lay the foundation for the detective story
within "In the Mecca." Although the poem presents Mrs. Sallie as its primary character at
the beginning, the speaker's narration and observation of her movement is dictated by-
and often disrupted by-other events in the building. Mrs. Sallie enters the Mecca and
walks up the stairs to her apartment in the opening of the poem, but the speaker follows
her only as a device to introduce the residents of the building and the mystery of Pepita's
disappearance. Mrs. Sallie is not an active observer. Unlike a detective, she has no
resources to detect the crime against her daughter. The family's search is chaotic, with
none of the rational order necessary to the detective story paradigm. Benjamin identifies
the detective story as having four basic parts: the victim and the scene of the crime, the
murderer, the masses, and the detective who rationally calculates the cause of the crime.
"In the Mecca" establishes all of these elements, but challenges the traditional form of the
detective story by using its elements to expose the greater crime: the systemic racism and
economic disenfranchisement that endangers the lives of black people in the Mecca.
Pepita's death is symbolic-it is the one that might get the city's attention.
The women of the Mecca and of the poem are prevented from successfully
navigating the literal and figurative spaces of the city, a subtle political statement from
Brooks on the inequality between men and women that the larger city context lends to the
inner-city. When "the Law" arrives, it usurps Mrs. Sallie's movement through the
building and the poem's focus. The fate of Pepita is foreshadowed by this turn in the
movement of the poem. Women are replaced by an impersonal entity that is dehumanized
in the authoritative, and capitalized, label "The law." Instead of individual, caring police
officers-the kind children were taught to ask for help if they were lost or in danger-
The Law intrudes in the private spaces of the Mecca, an alien force without empathy. The
Law's role in the poem comments on the ways that the outside city imposes restriction
and surveillance on the inner-city black community to control its inhabitants. It is an
enforcer of inequality instead of a protector of peace. "South State Street is a
Postulate"-a grand idea, a hope, and a dream-until the Law comes and makes it clear
that the people are nothing but "paper dolls." The Law assumes the right to navigate any
space within the city labyrinth, even though they probably should not have access
through the Mecca's many apartments and certainly do not have insight into the lives of
Mrs. Sallie's failure as both detective and flneuse establishes the poem's speaker
as its navigator and flneuse. The speaker, as black fldneuse, identifies and records the
Law's relationship with the Mecca. The Law possesses the cold, calculating skills
necessary for detective work. Although The Law leads the black flneuse to Pepita's
location under Jamaican Edward's bed, because he "denies and thrice denies a dealing /
of any dimension with Mrs. Sallie's daughter," it is unclear whether they solve the
murder ("ITM" 31). The speaker confirms the death of Pepita, becoming the true
"unwilling detective" and reversing the role offldneur as criminal to black flneuse as
Removed from the responsibility of detecting crime, the speaker of the poem is free
to allow the various characters and spectacles in the Mecca's hallways to direct her
attention. The people on whom she chooses to focus are like commodity items on display.
As a concept that originates in consumer participation-Baudelaire's ideal site for
fidnerie was the arcades, a shopping area separated from the bustle of the street, and
Friedberg locates women' sfldnerie in shopping ma1lls--j7lijet ie is steeped in the
complex exchange of producer and product in the city. The problem of commodity
culture is compounded by race in black culture. In "I Shop Therefore I Am," Susan Willis
asks the question, "Is there a place for Afro-American culture in commodity culture?"
and concludes that there is no evidence from black literature or popular culture that it can.
In each example she gives, black people must either assimilate into white commodity
culture, be commodified by it, or perish outside of it because hegemonic consumer
culture prevents black people from creating alternative commodities to represent them or
their culture (or an alternate system of commodity valuation). Yet, contemporary urban
culture has been largely defined by black cultural production. Although it is largely
appropriated by white, suburban youth, the hip-hop movement-a culture steeped in
commodity identification-is a specifically urban culture based in black and Latino urban
styles, music, language, and art. In the 1950s and 1960s similar cultural movements
based around urban blues and jazz abounded. The Mecca's residents represent the
problems that black people face in America's hegemonic commodity culture.
Hyena bursts out of her apartment with hair dyed blonde "to the tune of hate,"
implying her hatred of her own identity as a black woman. Hyena's hair represents her
purchase of the mainstream culture's conflation of blonde hair with beauty. Hyena's
name symbolizes her position as an outsider (even in the realm of those excluded from
the mainstream city) and scavenger. In an attempt to assimilate the dominant culture's
notion of beauty, she destroys her identity as a black woman. She is dangerous, but also
comical; she is a "striking debutante." She strikes, yet she is performing a "debutante"
role that is out of time and place. Her "coming out" is to the hall of the Mecca building,
rather than to society as a whole. Furthermore, if Hyena is read as a prostitute,5 then she
5 Although I am not necessarily comfortable concluding that Hyena is a prostitute, there are implications of
this in her being the first in the building to dye her hair blonde, her use of oils and perfumes, and the
allusions to her relations with Alfred. Sheila Hassell Hughes calls her a "'striking debutante' or prostitute"
but references Philip A. Greasley for this comment.
turns her body into a literal commodity item which can be sold and "consumed"
Alfred's commodity "purchase" is intellectual knowledge, and because he is a
teacher, he also "sells" that commodity to his students. He struggles to reconcile his
living conditions with what he believes is intellectual ("Shakespeare, James or Horace,
Huxley, Hemingway") and how little that intellectualism incorporates or represents him.
Alfred fractures and disrupts the movement of the poem the same way his developing
ideas disrupt the hegemonic intellectualism that he is learning to question. His awareness
of his role as both consumer and producer in the commodity exchange resists the self-
hatred in which Hyena is trapped. Alfred's character suggests the inadequacy of
education for solving the socio-political problems that residents of the inner-city face, but
he also implies the imminence of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement
The poem's speaker, as black fldneuse, presents a variety of character vignettes
beyond those of Hyena and Alfred. These descriptions function like physiologies that
distill and demystify the Mecca and its inhabitants. As Robert Ray describes the
physiologies of nineteenth century Paris, they provided guides to the urban scene, making
the city accessible to outsiders and city dwellers alike: "The first mass-market,
paperback, pocket-sized books, the physiologies proved enormously appealing to readers
wanting an immediately legible account, however misleadingly simplified, of the
cosmopolitan crowd" (Ray 154). Although Benjamin identifies the practice of writing
physiologies as going out of style in 1841, the standard it set for observation of
individuals in the city through a portrait-like (or caricature-like) characterization
structures how thefldneur observed the city. Therefore, the appearance of a similar style
further connects "In the Mecca" to the practice offldnerie. Although each of the
characters of "In the Mecca" could be a particular person and not a stereotype, several of
the characters correspond to well-known types such as the ultra-religious woman (St.
Julia Jones) and the quack doctor (like the one Brooks herself worked for or Prophet
Williams in the poem.)
Often these character vignettes make the characters more empathetic by showing
their vulnerability. In the stanza that describes one of Mrs. Sallie's daughters, Yvonne,
the reader is shown a young woman who is in love (or at least in lust) trying to figure out
how to hold her lover's attention. She worries about his paying attention to or spending
time with other people, consoling herself with the idea that even when he is doing other
things, he will plan to touch her again (ITM 9). Yvonne's concerns are common to all
people in love, softening the tough exterior she has developed to survive in the Mecca
(she is introduced in the poem as "the Undaunted (she who once / pushed her thumbs in
the eyes of a Thief)") (8). Her sister, Melodie Mary takes an understandable interest in
protecting the lives of creatures whose treatment she recognizes as similar to the
treatment of Mecca residents by the outside city. She cares for the roaches and rats of the
building, recognizing the "privacy of pain" that these creature experience when they are
Each of the residents the speaker observes receives sufficient detail and attention to
have a poem of his/her own. Gayl Jones explains that, "Each character in 'In the Mecca'
could create an individual poem, but the integration of portraits and voices provides the
sense of the Mecca as a world. And the multivoiced poem has a long tradition in Afro-
American poetry" (193). Just asphysiologies were designed to give readers a sense of
understanding the overwhelming size and chaos of the city, the character vignettes of "In
the Mecca" are attempts to give the reader an understanding of the Mecca's microcosm of
Three sections of "In the Mecca" provide physiologie-reminiscent character
vignettes. The first appear when the speaker is watching Mrs. Sallie enter the Mecca and
walk up to her apartment. As Mrs. Sallie passes residents in the hall (some of whom are
seen through the open doors of their apartments), the speaker describes each one. This is
the first time that we see St. Julia Jones, Prophet Williams, Hyena, and Alfred, all of
whom are characters who will appear again later in the poem. The next set of character
vignettes are of Mrs. Sallie's children. Each child copes with life in the Mecca
differently, exhibiting the variety of responses to the poverty and violence of life in the
inner-city. Finally, as Mrs. Sallie's family searches for Pepita, the speaker continues the
original set of character vignettes, exploring the original characters further and
introducing new ones.
Through these character vignettes, Brooks builds a history of the black community
in the Mecca and also develops a socio-political critique. Mrs. Sallie's son, Briggs,
foreshadows several poems that appear in the "After Mecca" section that follows "In the
Mecca": the poems that make up "The Blackstone Rangers" and which portend her most
radical political poem, "Riot." The speaker is asked to "please pity Briggs" who is trying
to sort out the contradictions of gang life: "Gang / is health and mange. / Gang / is a
bunch of ones and a singlicity" (ITM 11). The speaker depicts Briggs's dilemma with
sympathy; of the children he has the least hope-for him, "hope is heresy"-and he is
described as a "little hurt dog" who "descends to mass" (ITM 11). Unlike his brother,
Tennessee, who fancies himself like a cat, keeping others at a safe distance for his own
protection, or like Emmett, Cap, and Casey, who are driven by constant hunger, Briggs
seeks the protection of the larger group even though he recognizes that the gang is "self-
employed" and "concerned with Other, / not with Us" (ITM 11). As a character vignette,
this portrayal of Briggs characterizes his plight with the most complexity. Briggs is not a
stereotype: he is not a brutal, violent, or consciousness gang member, but a young man
who has to cry alone and be "adult as stone" (ITM 10).
Other character vignettes serve to paint a historical context for the Mecca. As Mrs.
Sallie's family searches for Pepita, the other residents of the building interrupt with
stories of their own losses. Great-great Gram is reminded of her sister, and recalls the
destitute living quarters of her family's cabin under slavery. Loam Norton is reminded of
the horrors of the Holocaust, where so many lives were lost, despite their devout religious
faith. These figures balance out the more stereotyped images of the characters presented
earlier, but as the family's search continues, their neighbors begin to exhibit more of the
disfiguring effects of poverty in the Mecca. Some are insane (Insane Sophie screams) and
others have become so self-absorbed and lost in dreaming of a different life that they
cannot care for others (Darkara stares at Vogue, Way-out Morgan is preparing for
revolution by stock-piling guns).
As Gayl Jones notes, Brooks not only participates in connecting city poetry to its
literary roots in thefldneur in these character vignettes, but also to her own African-
American literary roots. Brooks complicates the inheritance of European and African
American literary forms in the ballad, a poetic form she returns to repeatedly. Maria K.
Mootry's understanding of Brooks's complex use of the ballad informs my understanding
of the appearance offldnerie in her poetry. Mootry argues that "Brooks turned to folk
forms-ballad, blues, and spirituals-not out of any sentimental attachment to a given
tradition but to deepen her poetic structure" (137). The search narrative for Pepita is
interrupted by "The ballad of Edie Barrow" at one point in "In the Mecca." This ballad
provides not only a character vignette, but also a representative revision of the usual
dichotomy between traditional and revisionist forms or between European and African
American forms that "In the Mecca," as epic and Black Arts poem, attempts as a whole.
As a form that originates in song, Brooks's ballads also participate in the kinds of
"calligraphy of black chant" that Aldon Nielsen explains are a central part of black
poetics. Brooks's ballad recovers and reiterates the traditional form from the Romantic
poets6 and adapts it to meet her needs. Brooks understood that just as many of the
residents of the Mecca negotiated labyrinthine figurative and physical spaces, so did her
The role of black writers in the city is vexed and precarious. Toni Morrison argues
that the city cannot belong to black writers because "Black people are generally viewed
as patients, victims, wards, and pathologies in urban settings, not as participants. And
they could not share what even the poorest white factor worker or white welfare recipient
could feel: that in some way the city belonged to him" (37). Supporting Morrison's
perception, Drake and Cayton make it clear that "[t]he persistence of a Black Belt, whose
inhabitants can neither scatter as individuals nor expand as a group, is no accident. It is
primarily the result of white people's attitudes toward having Negroes as neighbors"
6 Mootry details the legacy of ballad as a form that resists classical poetic structure in the word of Coleridge
and Wordsworth (127-8).
(174). The racial segregation of communities in Chicago resulted also in a class
separation of people. Richard Wright explains that both white and black people resist
looking at the problems of the black ghetto in Chicago because it is overwhelming to
imagine the change required to fix it. Wright compares the experience of living in the
poverty-stricken, racially oppressed South Side of Chicago to the conditions that fostered
Hitler's mania in Vienna's slums, warning the American public that the black ghettoes of
America could create an equally destructive movement if the problems are not addressed
(Drake & Cayton xx). Wright was not alone in voicing such a strong reaction to the effect
of the inner-city on the black community. According to James Baldwin, people are
"divorced" from reality and therefore "divorced" from each other in the city. For James
Baldwin, the city was a place of mystery and horror because the buildings defy gravity
and the congestion of human life creates chaos (Baldwin 134). While these writers
correctly note the social, economic, and geographic disenfranchisement of many black
city dwellers, they miss what "In the Mecca" attempts to acknowledge: that places like
the Mecca also house a unique, although struggling, culture.
By choosing to write about the South Side of Chicago, Brooks made a conscious
decision to construct a vision of the city from a position that is affected by race, class,
and gender discrimination, but by rejecting a thoroughly and exclusively negative
interpretation of the Mecca building, Brooks corrects the image of the inner-city as void
of hope and value. Drake and Cayton explain that the "Black Belt" area that makes up
"Black Metropolis" is a city with its own culture and way of life within the Chicago
context. "Beneath the surface are patterns of life and thought, attitudes and customs,
which make Black Metropolis a unique and distinctive city within a city" (Drake &
Cayton 12). As a black flneuse, Brooks identified those patterns, and "In the Mecca's"
form demonstrates her aesthetic resistance to destroying inner-city culture along with the
physical architecture. Because her perspective and poetic voice are defined by her
identity as a black woman, "In the Mecca's" black flneuse offers a corrective to the
hegemonic view of the American city as presented by white, male poets.
Although the foundations of the poem are in traditional city poetry, invoking
Eliot's despondency in the modern city and occasionally employing inflated, "poetic"
(read: Romantic) language such as the "thrice" in Jamaican Edward's denial, the poem as
a whole resists traditional forms. All burgeoning rhyme schemes are restrained or cut off,
as the opening couplet's "face"-"grace" rhyme in "Sit where the light corrupts your face.
/ Mies Van der Rohe retires from grace" is undermined by the third unrhymed line: "And
the fair fables fall" (ITM 5). This line implies the razing of the Mecca building, but it also
foregrounds the poem's pulling down of the traditional poetic forms suggested by the
first two lines which not only rhyme, but which both have eight syllables, beginning a
rhythm that is disrupted by the third line's six syllables. Brooks repeats this pattern
throughout the poem, for instance, the rhyme and rhythm of "Hush. / An agitation in the
bush" are disrupted by the line that follows: "Occluded trees" (ITM 26). Even the use of
the ballad is cut short, seems incomplete, and because it disrupts the flow of the poem, it
ultimately gives way to the larger mission of the poem to create a new form of city poem
that reflects the culture of the black inner-city.
In the sections about Alfred, the speaker identifies a person capable of constructing
a race-conscious city poetry. When The Law meets Alfred in the second half of the poem,
he is described as one "who might have been an architect." Instead of literally
constructing the city, he instructs the minds of students as a teacher, another kind of
"building." As the poem indicates, he is a lackluster teacher when required to instruct the
students in traditional literature: he "'fails' no one," removing the grade-earning power
from the students. Returning to a passage previously discussed in terms of form to look at
the content and diction, we can see how Alfred's interpretation of the Mecca
demonstrates the conflict between the limitations presented by the outside city and the
Mecca. As I showed earlier, they show the conflict between traditional poetic forms and
burgeoning political poetics as well:
can speak of Mecca: firm arms surround
disorders, bruising ruses and small hells,
small semiheavens: hug barbarous rhetoric
built of buzz, coma and petite pell-mells. (ITM20)
In Alfred's perception, the building embraces "disorders" and "bruises," "small hells"
and "small semiheavens," the diminutive adjectives identifying containment and lack of
value. The hug from the "firm arms" is what "constrained" the Smith family when they
realized Pepita was missing, although it should have been the act of welcoming Mrs.
Sallie home. The hug is contaminated, it bruises and it does not actually offer renewal.
Instead, it is made of "buzz"-which can be gossip or a lingering insect, "coma"-an
unthinking and unresponsive state, and "petite pell-mells"-reminiscent of the cigarette
brand, "Pall Malls," which suggest burning and poisoning, and of course suggesting the
literal meaning of minor chaos. Instead of constructing the city according to hegemonic
educational standards, Alfred is destroying the system by learning to move through the
city's figurative labyrinths and out of the Mecca's literal labyrinth.
Alfred's intellectual crisis mimics the black fldneuse 's narration of the poem.
Alfred does more than simply tear down hegemonic intellectual standards or search for
Don Lee figures to replace "Joyce / or James or Horace, Huxley, Hemingway" (ITM 7).
He specifically targets the inability of the white writers who have set the standards of city
poetry (Baudelaire), the long poem (Browning), and love poetry (Neruda) to speak for the
Mecca's black community. Alfred works himself up to a revision of these poetic forms:
Alfred's Impression-his Apologie-
his Invocation-and his Ecstasie:
"Not Baudelaire, Bob Browning, not Neruda.
Giants over Steeples
are wanted in this Crazy-eyes, this Scar.
A violent reverse.
We part from all we thought we knew of love
and of dismay-with-flags-on. What we know
is that there are confusion and conclusion
Even the hardest parting is a contribution. ...
What shall we say?
Farewell. AndHail! Until Farewell again." (ITM27-28)
Alfred specifically calls out Baudelaire in this sequence as one of the "Giants over
Steeples"-the literary figures who are held in such esteem by intellectuals that they rise
above the churches, creating a kind of religious following. Just as the works of art in
MOMA cast a shadow over the artists in di Prima's "Magick in Theory and Practice," the
canonized poets hover over Alfred-and the poem itself-superseding their aesthetic
voices. As R. Baxter Miller reads the ending of this stanza, Alfred begins the "violent
reversal" of such faithful following by revising Whitman's "Goodbye and hail! my
fancy" to "Farewell. AndHail! Until Farewell again" (24). The italics of the first two
statements nod to Whitman, but Alfred's voice closes the concept by saying "farewell" to
it at the end of the line. The lines demonstrate Brooks's simultaneous respect for such
poetic forefathers and desire to move beyond their abilities. She recognizes their
influence and then turns away to navigate the poetic, social, and urban labyrinths which
define these standardized structures on her own.
The labyrinthine nature of the halls of the Mecca building and the social politics
which the residents maintain between each other are central images to the poem. Harry
Shaw explains that the "most central theme" to "In the Mecca" "is the labyrinth" (125).
Shaw defines the labyrinth multiply: it is the American "system" which controls the black
community, it is evoked by Brooks's technique (bringing together "unrelated or
incongruous vignettes in collage"), and it is an effect of the imagery of the physical
building (125-6). To Shaw's evaluation of labyrinths in "In the Mecca," I add the social
expectations of the larger city community. Although critics such as Sheila Hughes argue
that "In the Mecca" identifies the urban labyrinth in order to provide a way out,7 the
narrative of the poem remains contained within the walls of the Mecca. Brooks' sfldneuse
achieves anonymous navigation of the labyrinth, but she does not successfully exit the
Mecca's labyrinthine halls or navigate the streets of the city. Yet, considering the
speaker's navigation of the labyrinthine spaces of the Mecca is crucial to understanding
the poem's potential impact, especially considering how many critics, Harry Shaw as a
prominent example, attribute the privilege of navigation to Alfred only, going so far as to
consider him the main character of the poem. I hope that by demonstrating the speaker's
understanding of the labyrinthine complexity of poetic tradition, social expectations,
institutionalized systems of disenfranchisement, and physical spaces, it will be clear that
Brooks privileges women's perspectives-as fldiw, 'et -in the city.
Designed to provide privacy, luxury, and exceptional space in the urban setting, the
Mecca building corresponds to Hubert Damisch's description of the Egyptian labyrinth: a
maze created by sheer immensity of size and repetition of space (28). As Damisch notes,
See Hughes (258, 261).
Theseus's primary adversary in Daedalus's Greek labyrinth was not the Minotaur, but the
labyrinth itself (26). The Mecca's labyrinth is constructed of hallways, staircases,
enclosed apartments, and a vast population of inhabitants. Cheryl Clarke identified the
Mecca as containing 176 units, some of which had as many as seven rooms (136). She
states that, "After the Depression, no one ever knew how many people lived there at any
one time. Estimates of three thousand to nine thousand people have been given" (137).
Furthermore, the immense network of living quarters and hallways through the Mecca is
identified repeatedly by critics as maze-like or labyrinthine.8 The Mecca building
provides the perfect transition fromfldnerie in the suburban mall back into the actual city
streets because it is an enclosed area that alludes to the labyrinths that Damisch identifies
as the ancestors of city spaces.
"In the Mecca's" labyrinth is populated by human extensions of the walls, stairs,
and doors so that the living becomes blurred with the inanimate. The doors speak and
sometimes the people represent opaque barriers, creating a figurative social labyrinth.
Mrs. Sallie's first movement through the building is as she "ascends the sick and
influential stair" ("ITM" 5). This personification of the stair begins a motif throughout
the poem of identifying the building as a living organism. The stair's "sickness" alludes
to its dilapidated, worn state, but it also indicates that it is a carrier of disease that
influences the residents, possibly by infection. The stair influences the residents' lives the
way the building as a whole does: it imposes on them and restrains them because they
have become an extension of the deteriorating architecture. As animate extensions of the
8 Joanne V. Gabbin explains that "In the Mecca" is about a "desperate search...through the chaotic maze of
halls" of the Mecca ("Blooming" 264). William Hansell describes the building as a "labyrinthine structure"
(200). Harry Shaw's chapter on "In the Mecca" is called The Labyrinth."
building, the residents make the building a "pulsing urban organism" (Gabbin
"Blooming" 265). The Mecca's walls contain a living maze of space and people that is
navigated in the poem's narrative.
Together, the human residents of the Mecca and the actual physical structure are
conflated to become one organism, just as the crowd is often conflated with the
architecture of the city to represent an organism. Organic imagery-particularly the
equation of women with nature-is a motif which Brooks, Rich, di Prima, and Lorde
each develop in their urban poetry. The imagery is most powerful in Rich's poetry, but
for Brooks, personification of the building and imagery of the building as a living
organism evoke a different kind of "natural setting" than one of foliage and open spaces.
She anticipates the ecology of urban spaces by incorporating the interdependence of
people and places in "In the Mecca." The densely packed building develops a life of its
own, characterized by the multiplicity of its human residents.
During the Smith family's search for Pepita, the building plays an active role in
their emotional response to Pepita's absence. When they return home, the door accuses
them of having lost Pepita, reminding them that they should not be returning without her:
"S. and eight of her children reach their door. The / door says, "What are you doing here?
and where / is Pepita the puny-the halted, glad-sad child?" ("ITM" 17-18). The family
imagines that Pepita has wandered through the building, an activity that should be
innocent (and which evokes fldnerie), but in the Mecca is dangerous, a "blunder" rather
than a "wander." Moreover, the children are "knocking down the halls," a phrase which
invokes the idea of the children literally knocking the walls of the building down as well
as of them knocking on their neighbor's doors as they walk down the hallway. The
imminence of the children's ability and/or desire to knock the building down
demonstrates their frustration with their confinement within the Mecca's labyrinth. They
are aware of their inability to navigate a route that leads to Pepita, whose death
symbolizes the only way to escape the building's figurative and literal mazes. The
destruction of the literal walls also foreshadows the actual razing of the building that will
occur. The doors, like the people, are "yelling" for release, and they will be "martyred" in
1952 when the building is torn down.
"In the Mecca" reconstructs the building-and therefore the city it represents-
after the Mecca's literal razing. According to John Lowney, the Illinois Institute of
Technology purchased and used the space to expand their new campus and create a
modernist city symbol on the site of the former symbol of urban blight. The campus was
designed by "the renowned Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe" (Lowney 3-
4). It is remarkable that an institute of technology-a representative of the "ivory tower"
of academia and source of technological "progress"-violently replaced the Mecca's
poverty-stricken black community's home that was once a symbol of excess with the
stripped-down, functional design of Mies van der Rohe. The Mecca and, more
importantly, its inhabitants, have no place in the Modernist city. "In the Mecca" takes
place at the threshold of "post-modernism" in the American city, the movement of urban
design that returned to separated, segregated, areas that are monitored by surveillance
(represented most commonly by Los Angeles). In the post-modern city, the black
inhabitants of the South Side of Chicago are treated as a potential danger and barriers are
created to remove them from the rest of the city. Neither the modern nor the post-modern
city addresses the needs of black communities like the one in the Mecca.
Brooks opens "In the Mecca" with a specific reference to Mies van der Rohe,
placing her poetic reconstruction of the Mecca in opposition to the modernist
reconstruction for Illinois Institute of Technology. "Mies Van der Rohe retires from
grace. / And the fair fables fall" (ITM 5). In addition to my previous comments on these
lines, the alliteration of "fair fables fall" suggests that the destruction is a kind of fable of
its own. The contrast between the destruction and the musical syntax and diction of these
lines emphasize the contradiction between the notion of modernist construction and the
destruction of the black community.
The poem's black fldneuse allows Alfred to define the paradoxical conflict between
construction and destruction that the residents of the Mecca felt. Alfred's thoughts on the
Mecca just before the discovery of Pepita carry the significance of a demand for
rebuilding the city, although his architectural vision probably conflicts with Mies van der
Rohe's. Alfred identifies the building as not completely devoid of hope and his comments
suggest that the death of Pepita can have positive political repercussions:
I hate it.
Yet, murmurs Alfred-
who is lean at the balcony, leaning-
something, something in Mecca
continues to call! Substanceless; yet like mountains,
like rivers and oceans too; and like trees
with wind whistling through them. And steadily
an essential sanity, black and electric,
builds to a reportage and redemption.
A hot estrangement.
A material collapse
that is Construction. (ITM30-1)
The Mecca houses hope; it houses something poetic. And although the building
"material" itself will collapse, there is something left that "continues to call! "-the
exclamation point demanding action. The building houses the spirit of black culture that
is natural to the urban setting, but which in poetry is usually associated with nature:
rivers, oceans, and trees. Brooks inserts those very images into the urban context. The
"Construction" that comes out of the "material collapse" could be facetious for Alfred: it
is capitalized like "the Law" and it is the institute's "Construction," not the community's.
But it is also a new beginning, suggesting that tearing down the old way of life in the
Mecca could motivate the construction of a new city, one where the people of the Mecca
have equal footing. Finally, the name "Mecca" alludes to the developing movement of
Black Islam at the time that offered a new way of life for black Americans, a new cultural
Through such historical context and revision of traditional poetic standards, Brooks
uses the perspective provided byfldnerie to suggest the necessity of a black urban
poetics. But does "In the Mecca" present examples of such poetics, like the "languages of
post-modem poetics" that Aldon Nielsen describes? Much of the more formal diction of
the lines may be satirical, but they also never develop into patterns or diction that indicate
a distinctly new form. Their strength is in resistance and revision. The remarkably packed
syntax of each line, the multivalent symbolism of the diction, the teasing out and then
disruption of rhyme schemes and rhythms, and the social commentary implied in the
imagery and character descriptions all anticipate a more dramatic poetic shift that never
comes to fruition in "In the Mecca." Instead, it calls the reader to action: "To create! To
create!" as Alfred wishes to (ITM 6).
The poem opens by directing the reader to "sit where the light corrupts your face,"
acknowledging that the "light" of knowledge about the Mecca will cause the reader to
feel a "corruption" (ITM 5). Throughout the poem, the speaker returns to this kind of
invocation, drawing the reader in to experience the injustices that the residents face. After
describing Prophet Williams's wife's death, the speaker calls to the reader through
parenthetical aside: "(Kinswomen! / Kinswomen!) / Ida died alone" (ITM 6). The speaker
expects a kind of call-and-response effect to begin, movingfldnerie beyond simple
observation and into action, a move that Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde make as well in
Brooks's choice of the Mecca building as the site of this reconstruction highlights a
variety of intersecting political events after WWII. The building was razed in 1952, at a
time when the Civil Rights Movement was nascent, but not yet what it would be by
1955's bus boycott. Although Brooks mentions Don Lee in the poem, anticipating the
Black Arts Movement that was burgeoning in the early 1960s when she was writing the
poem and which was exploding by the late 1960s when "In the Mecca" was published,
the African American literary figures to whom Alfred could have looked for inspiration
were still Harlem Renaissance figures who had not yet embraced the kind of rage or
political focus to which the Black Arts poets turned. "In the Mecca" negotiates these in-
between spaces and establishes the Mecca as a symbolic historical site. Like Homer's
Troy, Brooks's Bronzeville helps define a culture. Because Mecca was already gone by
the time the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement were underway, it
represented a time past.
Despite evidence of hope in reconstructing the Mecca including the poem's refusal
to paint the residents as victims, showing both predatory characters and characters that
are preyed upon, the poem still ends with the image of the murdered Pepita. The search
culminates at Jamaican Edward's apartment where Pepita lies "beneath his cot" in the
dust with the roaches (31). The speaker reminds us of Pepita's innocence: "She never
learned that black is not beloved" and was not yet old enough to attend kindergarten (31).
Remarkably little is revealed about Jamaican Edward, the Mecca's Minotaur figure.
Instead of receiving a character sketch like the other individuals in the Mecca's crowd, he
is a symbol. Like the Minotaur in Greek mythology, Jamaican Edward is the product of
the controlling system's indiscretions and perversions. Trapped within the Mecca,
without resources for productive creation, he chooses the opposite path of Alfred; he
turns on his own community. By making Pepita the victim, Brooks emphasizes the
necessity of having the proper tools to navigate the urban labyrinth. Pepita was not only a
"little woman," she was one who did not understand racism and who did not recognize
the poverty of her neighborhood.
Pepita's inability to navigate the urban labyrinths is balanced by the speaker's
successful navigation of the halls of the building. Her observations combine to create a
map of the Mecca that will last beyond the physical structure's existence. B.J. Bolden
credits Brooks with "paint[ing] poetic portraits of her community-blueprints of urban
Black life in America" in the Bronzeville poems (11). The term "blueprints" places
Brooks's poetry in relation to architecture. Her poems outline physical spaces, defining
the South Side of Chicago in a representational, poetic construction. "In the Mecca's"
building is a metonym for the entire neighborhood, its characters for the black inner-city
community. Through this representation, Brooks can make the observerfldneuse into a
Although connecting the narrator/speaker of "In the Mecca" tofldnerie opens
critical pathways and historical contexts, it also presents some problems. The
simplification of individual people that occurs through the character vignettes replicates a
pattern of stereotyping that may elide a variety of complications involved in inner-city
life. Although Brooks may have known people who corresponded to some of the fictional
characters in the poem, they may appear to fit too neatly into "types." Furthermore, I
have identified the speaker of the poem as specifically, and necessarily, female
throughout my analysis as well, when there are no direct statements in the poem to
corroborate this interpretation. My interpretation relies heavily on connecting Brooks to
the speaker of the poem. Finally, I claim that the narrator successfully becomes a black
fldneuse, but there are still significant limitations to her flnerie. She appears to be
trapped within the labyrinth of the Mecca, incapable of exiting the building. The poem
begins from inside the building as Mrs. Sallie returns home and ends in Jamaican
Edward's apartment with Pepita. Like the suburban shopper who can only participate in
fldnerie within the confines of the mall, Brooks's black flneuse is limited to witnessing
the events that occur within the walls of the Mecca building.
Brooks's black flneuse is a product of the particular time period just after WWII
which was affected both by burgeoning Civil Rights Movement activity and by the
hegemonic American commodity culture push for suburban domesticity. The two cultural
movements come into conflict in the inner-city setting of Chicago's Mecca building.
Brooks's sophisticated poetic style-even when inconsistent-incorporates political
positions that are hallmarks of Black Arts Movement poetics. Certainly the racing of
fldnerie changes the content of what the flneuse is watching, but it also suggests the
responsibility of the observer to use her emotional response to create something
constructive. "In the Mecca" reconstructs a historical monument for cultural memory,
one that embracing contradiction and paradox created by urban location, and more
specifically, by black womanhood in the urban setting.
Overall, I am suggesting that the speaker as blackfldneuse in "In the Mecca"
demonstrates the possibility of such a figure in the rest of the city rather than implies that
this black flneuse embodies a direct and exact replication of Baudelaire' sfldnerie. By
demonstrating how the motif offldnerie appears in Brooks's work, I show how it can be
not only gendered but also raced to establish a more encompassing vision of the city in
poetry. The foundation of literary respect that Gwendolyn Brooks established paved the
way for other women poets to write about the city. According to Joanne Gabbin,
"...Brooks anticipates black writers like Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde
who have also successfully explored the triple consciousness of women confronting race,
gender, and caste" ("Blooming" 252). A black flneuse figure empowers city poetry to
reflect the inner-city and black cultural aesthetics. A black fldneuse can be an activist-a
revolutionary, even-by demanding change, forcing readers to acknowledge injustice,
and reconstructing a city from a perspective that is otherwise considered entirely separate
from mainstream literary practices.
Just as Brooks engages forms and figures from the urban poetry canon, Adrienne
Rich refers to poems which have shaped urban poetic forms. Rich does not as
comfortably adopt those forms as Brooks. "In the Mecca" positions African American
urban poetry as an outsider-i ithiin poetic tradition: it is epic which employsfldnerie, but
it is also outside those forms, resisting their limitations. Brooks employs forms and styles
as a poetic nod to tradition, but then attempts to move beyond them (even if
unsuccessfully). The pre-second wave feminist optimism that Brooks's style appears to
have is unavailable to Rich, who associates the traditional forms so strongly with
patriarchy. Rich's urban poetry takes fldnerie to task, challenging its ability to represent
women's urban voices.
ADRIENNE RICH: RESISTING ARIADNE
Adrienne Rich is not commonly considered a "city poet"-or even her poetry in
terms of an urban context-the way Gwendolyn Brooks, Diane di Prima or Audre Lorde
are. Rich positions her integration of traditional urban poetry forms or styles-such as
flinerie-as an outsider. She does not identify with the crowd or become comfortable in
the city. Her poems' speakers are cognizant of the city's dangers, and they demand
recognition from the crowd. Whereas Brooks's flaneuse inserts "In the Mecca" into the
tradition of flinerie, replicating some of the same problems which the flaneur faces,
Rich's flineuse recognizes the restrictions which the city presents to women's flinerie
and resists them. She particularly resists the tendency for women in city labyrinths to
become like Ariadne, trapped by their dependence upon men (or their poetic forms).The
prevalence of city spaces in Rich's poetry indicates the impact of the city on her work.
Rich's poetry focuses directly on the city as early as 1961 in the poem "End of an
Era" when the speaker addresses the city through apostrophe and invokes Charles
Baudelaire. "End of an Era" suggests the presence of a flaneuse in Rich's poetry, a
gendered form of Baudelaire's flaneur, who attempts to redefine traditionally male-
centered spaces, specifically, the city and city poetry. In poems such as "End of an Era,"
"Shooting Script," "Frame," "The Blue Ghazals," and "Twenty-One Love Poems," Rich
engages the city's limitations, demonstrating her double entrapment in and between the
architecture of urban spaces and patriarchal literary tradition. Rich's desire to understand
and capture the "real" city in poetry allows her to address issues of gender, race, and class
through flanerie, but also traps her in the conflicted identity of a flaneuse who is caught
between public and private space, between male- and female-defined space, and between
a poetic style that adheres to tradition and one that rejects it. By attempting to revise
flanerie for women, Rich's city poems articulate her struggle to transition from what
Paula Bennett calls a "dutiful daughter" poet to a specifically "woman poet" (9).
The city is a vexed place for a feminist poet trying to construct an identity outside
the confines of patriarchal expectations. Rich confronts city spaces that have traditionally
been designed, constructed, and controlled by men to implicitly exclude women, or at
least to control their movement with surveillance. Lucy Collins explains that in Twenty-
One Love Poems, "the city exemplifies civilization-growing from man's achievements
in industry and commerce, it is a dynamic space within which relations of power and
identity are contested. Urban space is marked, even defined, by the masculine" (146).1
Furthermore, by virtually eliminating private space, the city imposes on the lives of its
inhabitants, who engage in all the activities of relationships, careers, and families while
rarely being out of sight or ear-shot of other people. Therefore, while city spaces offer the
possibility of public recognition that the private spaces of suburbia are designed to deny,
women's ability to access that recognition is still defined by men.
At a time when Rich was rejecting the American ideal that placed women in the
private, suburban, domestic sphere, the city offered an enticingly public alternative. She
lived primarily in three major east-coast cities until the mid-1970s: Baltimore, where she
was born and raised; Boston-specifically, Cambridge-where she attended Radcliffe
College and later lived with her husband and children; and New York City, to which she
1 Adrian Oktenberg supports Collins's interpretation by referring to the city as the apex of the "civilization"
because it is the center of industry, commerce, law, and culture that men have created.
and her family moved in 1966. In New York, Rich explored the liberating possibilities of
stepping into the human and cultural congestion of the city crowd. She describes her
motivation for taking a job in City College's SEEK program as coming partly from "a
need to involve myself with the real life of the city, which had arrested me from the first
weeks I began living here" (On Lies 53). She identifies this "real" city in the City College
students, whose comfort in the public spaces of the city must have seemed foreign to
Rich. The students provide a connection to city life that enables Rich to move her poetic
and personal voice out of the private, suburban sphere of marriage and motherhood and
into the public sphere of the city streets as afldneuse.
Rich's notion of the "real life of the city" has problematic implications for her
work. First, it implies a version of urban authenticity that her black and Puerto Rican
students2 embody and to which she is an outsider. Such a position allows her to observe
asfldneuse, but it implies assumptions about the racial and cultural markers of urban life
and, moreover, elides the multivalent versions of city life from the perspectives of the
heterogeneous crowd members. Similar notions of the "real city" persist today in claims
of "ghetto authenticity" in rap and hip-hop. Such a "real city" implies, for Rich, not only
a connection to the poetic urban tradition, but to cultural experiences outside the
boundaries defined by her gender, race, and ethnicity. Although Rich describes coming to
terms with her own ethnic roots in the essay "Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish
Identity" (1982), her explicit identification of the "real" city in black and Puerto Rican
students rather than Jewish students-of whom there were many at City College in the
1960s, if not in the SEEK program-maintains her status as outsider (Blood, Bread 100).
2 Rich identifies the students as black and Puerto Rican in her description (On Lies 53).
All of the hope and possibility that Rich sees in the city gets filtered through her outsider
identity, and especially through a poetic lens and form that is defined by male poets. She
describes her relationship with the city as a sort of love/hate relationship:
The city as object of love, a love not unmixed with horror and anger, the city as
Baudelaire and Rilke had provisioned it, or William Blake for that matter, death in
life, but a death emblematic of the death that is epidemic in modem society, and a
life more edged, more costly, more charged with knowledge, than life elsewhere....
Here was this damaged, self-destructive organism, preying and preyed upon. The
streets were rich with human possibility and vicious with human denial .... (On
Aligning her interpretation of the city with Baudelaire, Rilke, and Blake, Rich defines the
"real" city in opposition to Eliot's "unreal city." For Rich, the gritty chaos, congestion,
and confrontation of different cultures in the crowd exemplify what is "real." The city
paradoxically nurtures creativity and production and destroys it at the same time.
Grappling with the contradictions of a city whose streets teem with "possibility" but also
with "denial," Rich looks to her poetic forefathers to provide methods for translating the
complexities of city life into poetry. Echoes of their urban poetry reverberate through her
city poetry, enabling herfldnerie, but also undermining her attempts to create a
specifically woman fldneuse.
In order for Rich to insert women's perspectives and contributions into the city
space, its map must be rewritten to include their lives. In "The Blue Ghazal" dated
"5/4/69," Rich writes: "City of accidents, your true map / is the tangling of all our
lifelines" (Fact 123). Rich's "true map" of the city incorporates the "lifelines" of all its
inhabitants, including women. The assonance of the short "a" vowel sound in these lines,
all of which fall on stressed syllables, indicates the beginning of a new map of the city.
The short "a" sound-as opposed to the strong, long "a" vowel sound as it is pronounced
in the naming of the letter-is secondary, as women's contributions to the city space have
been secondary. By naming the map of the city with an emphasis on the short "a" sounds,
these lines recognize the omission or neglect of women's perspectives in the city. But the
assonance of the lines builds to suggest change. The long vowel sounds in the last word,
"lifelines," acknowledge the emergence of a new voice. These lines suggest Rich's desire
to revise the city's cultural construction by writing a new map of the city in her poetry.
Mapping is a prominent motif in Rich's poetry that develops over the course of her
oeuvre, building to a climax in her volume An Atlas of the Difficult World (published in
1991). For Rich, the cartography of women's lives symbolizes their connection to written
geographies of lives: women's ability to embody spaces, to identify with spaces, to define
and be defined by places and environments. She routinely uses natural images as
metonyms for women, especially in the later poems, but in her early poems, such
symbolic language creates conflict between women and urban settings that raises
important questions about how women's identities are shaped by the discourse and
geography of the spaces in which they live. Rich's poetic lines create an alternative
cartography of women in the city, adding another dimension to the already existing urban
Like Ariadne helping Theseus navigate Daedalus's labyrinth, Rich seeks to provide
a thread for women to follow through the urban labyrinth as it is literally constructed by
architects and figuratively constructed by poets. In .\hy/l.n The Narcissistic City, Hubert
Damisch connects cities to the ancient labyrinths of Greece and Egypt: city streets create
maze-like spaces. By considering the city a labyrinth, Ariadne-as the provider of the
"map" in the thread-becomes a precursor to thefldneuse. Because she fails to navigate
the labyrinth herself, Ariadne represents women's inability to move through literal and
figurative labyrinths: the literal city (public space) and the figurative maze of social
standards and expectations (private space). Ariadne's legacy clouds Rich's ability to
articulate afldneuse in her poetry. Like Ariadne, left stranded on an island by Theseus,
Rich finds that depending on men to rescue her from patriarchal control backfires. Rich is
abandoned by her poetic forefathers, whose tools she thinks she needs to escape the
labyrinths. Rich's poetry suggests, hints at, and almost articulates women' sfldnerie,
always on the brink of realizing a twentieth-century flneuse, and yet it is repeatedly
obstructed by poetic history.
Fldnerie is a problematic motif for Rich to adopt because it often contributes to the
exclusion of women from the cultural construction of the city. According to Walter
Benjamin's analysis of Baudelaire's urban poetry,fldnerie was the exclusive domain of
men in the nineteenth century. In Benjamin's description, flnerie is defined by a variety
of factors including thefldneur's alienation in the crowd, his emotionally distanced gaze,
his ability to be directed by the movement of the crowd, his role as an "unwilling
detective" who stumbles upon crime in the crowd, and his intoxication in the city and
crowd. Thefldneur is a distinctly private person who observes and records public spaces
precisely because he is able to retain anonymity and invisibility in public spaces. For
women to participate infldnerie, they have to be able to blend into the crowd and go
unnoticed as well. Rich's desire for recognition in the crowd distorts Benjamin's
understanding of alienation, distance, and anonymity, exposing the aspects of authorial
identity construction that these elements elide.
Although speaking in broader metaphorical terms than just about city life, the
eighth poem of Rich's series called "North American Time" (1983) summarizes her
concern about allowing herself to use a position of invisibility for speech. Worse than
invisibility, for Rich, is the danger of silence, which invisibility may cause:
Sometimes, gliding at night
in a plane over New York City
I have felt like some messenger
called to enter, called to engage
this field of light and darkness.
A grandiose idea, born of flying.
But underneath the grandiose idea
is the thought that what I must engage
after the plane has raged onto the tarmac
after climbing my old stairs, sitting down
at my old window
is meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence. (Fact 327)
White, male poets such as Baudelaire may assume the right to speak from positions of
invisibility (assuming they can choose when to be invisible and when not to), but Rich,
possibly a product of the recent legacy of Ralph Ellison's observations about invisibility,
recognizes the dangerous silence that invisibility imposes. In the poem, rather than
feeling desire to observe, Rich feels compelled to be heard by the city, which at night
appears to be a field of lights and darknesses from her plane window. She feels called to
"enter" the public spaces of the city and "engage" the metaphorical "light and darkness"
of knowledge there. But she sees herself, like Ariadne, alone with a broken heart in the
end. This may be why Rich's more recent poetic maps-such as her 1991 volume An
Atlas of the Difficult World-turn to rural areas or why so many of her poems conflate
images of women with images of nature.
Rich builds off of the traditional mode offldnerie for writing city poetry, making it
the scaffolding of her urban (poetic) construction; but, like the use of her roots in formal
poetic style in order to resist its very limitations, she resists thefldneur 's exclusive rights
over howfldnerie functions. Rich insists that the actual city recognize women's
perspectives, setting her city poetry in spaces such as the public street rather than
consumer-driven malls. By writing the city, Rich is producing a version of it that
provides a map to make the city space familiar for readers. Repetition of the words "map"
and "atlas" throughout Rich's oeuvre3 indicates her desire to make the material spaces
around her more legible. This kind of remapping intends to change the urban spaces,
negotiating the overlap of public and private space by "engaging" the urban scene. As
fldnerie is primarily a passive activity in Benjamin's descriptions, Rich's refusal to
accept invisibility, her demand for recognition, possibly pushes flnerie beyond its
functional abilities. Every time Rich employs thefldneuse 's perspective in her poetry, she
undermines it by demonstrating the ways that the urban labyrinth prohibits women's
The poem "End of an Era" (1961) implies that Rich struggled early in her career to
connect with city life and develop her own urban poetic voice.4 Rich inadvertently creates
an unsustainable position for herfldneuse by attempting to appropriate the poetic power
of Baudelaire' sfldneur despite her latent awareness of the politics of the position that
prohibit her gendered voice. The speaker of "End of an Era" first addresses the city
directly, alluding to Eliot's "Unreal City" of The Wasteland in the capitalization of the
word "city," itself a nod to Baudelaire:
dumb as a pack of thumbed cards, you
once had snap and glare
and secret life; now, trembling
3 These terms are most prominent in the title and poems of Atlas of a Dittic tlt World, where Rich attempts
to create a map of her identity and of America.
4 This poem is probably set in the Boston area as it was written in 1961, when Rich was living in
under my five grey senses' weight,
onto the table. (Collected Early 174)
The city once had "snap and glare" for the speaker, but now it is "dumb" to her:
incapable of speech. Despite her persistence (the metaphoric cards are "thumbed"), the
city turns out to be "flat," nothing more than an illusion. Alternately, the lines could
comment on the fact that the city had snap and glare for earlier male poetfldneurs that is
inaccessible to the female speaker of the poem.
The lines are rhythmically choppy, disrupting the flow both of her understanding of
the city and of her communication with the reader. The emphasis on the word "you" at
the end of the second quoted line, separated out between a comma and the end of the line,
leaves it hanging and accusatory. Similarly, the line "you flatten" suggests a double
meaning: the city is flattened, but it also flattens. Like Eliot's "etherised" "patient" in the
opening of The Love Song ofJ. AlfredPrufrock, the speaker cannot feel. The speaker
realizes that she cannot see herself in the city map, nor can she contribute to that map
because it is not capable of sustaining life. Rich refers, self-consciously, another time to
The Wasteland in the metaphoric cards, which allude to the Tarot cards that Eliot uses to
demonstrate his foreboding response to the modern city, then disable her physical and
Yet, the paradoxical city causes the speaker of "End of an Era" to achieve her goal
of connecting to Baudelaire's city for the very reasons that she feels excluded from it.
When her apostrophe to the city, and possibly to Eliot, fails, the speaker of "End of an
Era" then calls, through apostrophe, directly to Baudelaire, trying to renew what made the
city seem special before: "Baudelaire, I think of you ... Nothing changes" (Collected
Early 174). Baudelaire has no impact on the city that she is in: "rude and self-absorbed
the current / dashes past, reflecting nothing" (Collected Early 174). The double meaning
of "current" as the flow of the crowd on the city streets and as the marker of present time
demonstrates the dual aspects of the speaker's alienation in the city space. This alienation
provides her, like Baudelaire' sfldneur, with the tools to observe the city as afldneuse,
but the speaker finds this position to be disillusioning rather than empowering.
The city is in a constant state of movement (buildings are raised and torn down, the
crowd, trains, and cars move through spaces), keeping up an illusion of progress that only
further distances the speaker of "End of an Era" from identifying with the space in which
she lives. "The neighborhood is changing / even the neighbors are grown, methinks,
peculiar" (Collected Early 174). The speaker is an outsider because of her knowledge of
the city's patriarchal construction. Even the people she knows, her neighbors, are
changed by this knowledge and appear "peculiar." This sense of alienation is essential to
fldnerie, according to Benjamin, making the speaker of "End of an Era" closer to the
forefathers of city poetry than she thinks. Despite this connection, she does not move out
in to the city spaces. She allows the alienation to prohibit her movement rather than using
it as a moment of intoxication, preventing "End of an Era" from pursuing an example of
women' sfldnerie. The poem indicates that Rich feels that turning off one's senses (they
are grey) in order to observe prohibits women's ability to respond to the city. The title
suggests that this realization is the "end" of an "era" of trusting poetic forefathers to help
her find her urban voice.
Flhneuse as Witness: "Frame"
The poem "Frame" (1980) exemplifies Rich's struggle to connect her emotional
response to the urban setting tofldnerie. Like Brooks's "In the Mecca," "Frame"
connects to the literary roots of fldnerie in Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories by
employing the perspective of aflaneuse who has stumbled upon crime in the city space
(Benjamin 42). Like the narrator of Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," who watches the
fldneur pass his window in the crowd, the speaker of "Frame" watches a crime occur
from a protected distance. She observes an incident between a woman and the police that
exemplifies, for her, the nature of the city's effect on women. The poem is located in a
specific time and place-"This is Boston 1979"-providing a clue to the historical
context of the poem (and the city).
In the narrative of the poem, the speaker watches a woman emerge from a
university building and wait for a bus in the shelter of a doorway. The woman is
apparently a student who is waiting for a bus, but she is forcibly arrested while waiting,
for reasons which the poem' sflneuse can only presume to know. The speaker of
"Frame" writes from a specifically gendered perspective, challenging the assumption that
women are in danger primarily from random criminal attacks on the city streets since the
abuse she witnesses is committed by the academic elite and the police.
The woman whom the speaker of "Frame" watches is trapped between the spaces
on the city streets that present dangers from weather and the academic space of the
science laboratory that presents dangers from intellectual rejection, mimicking the
ongoing struggle in Rich's city poems between her identity in the city and poetic spaces.
The speaker notices the woman coming "out of the lab- / oratory" at the beginning of the
poem. The word "laboratory" is broken by enjambment so that it makes the two words
"lab" and "oratory," an overt comment on the implied connotation of the word in contrast
with the denotation of its parts. "Lab" is probably how the students refer to the space
casually, an identification of comfort with the space, but also the common term that most
people know for a space of scientific research. By separating "lab" from "oratory," Rich
gives the space a more complex definition since "oratory" might refer to this poem's
speaking out about the following events, but more importantly, it suggests the word's
meaning as a place of prayer. The contradiction between scientific reason and faith is
highlighted by the elevation of a "lab" to a site of implied holiness in an "oratory." As a
public facility, the "lab" is also made private in this connection. By entering this male-
defined space and exposing its contradictions, the female student disrupts the male power
structure of the laboratory.
As afldneuse watching from a distance, the speaker takes the liberty of projecting
an identity onto the woman in "Frame" that may or may not be based in fact. The speaker
is far enough away to be out of auditory range, so she narrates based on assumptions
about the woman, the academic, the officer, and the verbal exchanges between them.
Therefore, the speaker tells us that the woman is thinking about organic chemistry, how
to pay her rent, and how she can convince professors to write recommendations for her.
Being a woman in the sciences makes her invisible to professors who assume that
scientists are, and should be, men. The implication that the woman may be black further
isolates her in the academic setting. The speaker of the poem identifies all of the other
characters in the poem specifically as "white," reversing the usual expectation of
whiteness as invisible (part of the majority) and blackness as hyper-visible. The speaker's
emphasis on whiteness draws the reader's attention to the privilege provided by
whiteness in Boston: the authority figure (police), academic, and invisible observer are all
white. Finally, the violence that occurs to her in this poem is caused by the assumption
that she has no right to be in this place of science and knowledge. Her success would
undermine the professors' faith in man's superiority in the academy.
The speaker of "Frame" disrupts her observation to insert herself into the events,
speaking as an aside in italics: "I don't know her. I am /standing though somewhere just
outside the frame /of all this, trying to see." As afldneuse, she stands outside the frame
of events, safe from the danger that will occur, observing the action between the woman,
an academic, and the police. In the narrative of the poem, a white man (presumably a
university employee) approaches the woman, accosts her, and then brings a police officer
to aid in the removal of the woman from the doorway of the building. The policeman
arrests the woman (presumably for trespassing) and violently shoves her into the police
car (her head "bangs" on the car, "he twists the flesh of her thigh / with his nails"). The
speaker identifies her role in witnessing the events several times: she is standing at the
edge of the frame; she cannot hear what is said but sees it all. The city space between the
two women silences the victim's protests. Recognizing the woman's innocence, the
speaker resists the silent, observer role that she has assumed as thefldneuse by saying:
"What I am telling you / is told by a white woman who they will say /was never there. I
say Iam there" (305). The declaration of her presence resists the limitations of the role of
fldnerie as pure observation without emotional implication. She bridges class, race, and
spatial divisions to demand recognition of women's voices. Such recognition breaks the
boundary of invisibility: Rich's fldneuse demands visibility. Although afldneuse should
be silent in her observations, and therefore invisible, the speaker of this poem resolves
that she must become a recognized witness to crime against women in the city.
The events of "Frame" force the speaker, asfldneuse, to recognize the emotional
implications of witnessing violence and the bonds between women in the crowd, but also
to recognize that she has been forced to become aflaneuse in this situation-removed,
detached, recording rather than interacting, remaining an observer rather than trying to
help the woman-because no one will believe her anyway. The flneuse witnesses the
violence as through a "frame," around which she cannot see or move. Unlike the window
frame through which the narrator of Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" watches the crowd,
Rich's flneuse is incapable of moving closer without endangering herself (or breaking
the invisible boundaries between members of the crowd). Thefldnerie is limited by this
frame which may be literal, but certainly has more than one figurative level: the doorway
that frames the woman as she waits for the bus, the frame that captures this moment, like
a picture, or even the boundaries that define how far the speaker is willing to interact with
the events she witnesses.
Most importantly, the speaker of "Frame" recognizes that the woman she watched
was framed in the criminal sense as well. She was set up by academia, the police, and
society in general. In fact, the speaker implies that the city has framed all women this
way. The poem does not achievefldnerie because the speaker gets stuck between the role
of detective and aflaneuse who can remain emotionally detached. Unlike "In the
Mecca' s"flaneuse, "Frame's"flaneuse feels trapped by her invisibility because it
prevents her from rescuing the woman. She is trapped by an invisible racial boundary that
separates her from the woman, by the power of whiteness and gender to render her
invisible, and by her role as a city poet flneuse that requires invisibility. Although the
poem suggests elements offldnerie, its socio-political conscience resists allowing the
speaker to remain anfldneuse, pushing her to become a witness instead.
Rich's fdneuse cannot help but recognize the effect that race, gender, and class had
on the woman in "Frame." As a (possibly) black woman who had to take the bus to
school, she did not fit the model of "scientist" for similar reasons that Rich's speaker
does not neatly fit into the definition of"fldneuse." Both women are appropriating roles
that have been defined to exclude them in spaces that are designed to limit their access.
Rich's fdneuse has returned to the city streets only to discover that her privilege of sight
empowers her to witness the "urban reality" but that it does not provide her with a means
of changing that reality. All she can do is state her presence, even if it is denied. Rich
wants more from the city. She wants not only the ability to walk and witness the city
streets as the speaker of "Frame" does (she is entirely unnoticed, to the point that any
knowledge of her presence will be denied by men), but the ability to actively change that
scene as well.
In "Frame," the flneuse rages against the immovable structures of urban and
poetic tradition, but especially against the ways women's lives can be changed by the
urban scene. The victim in "Frame" is violently affected by the urban scene. In "The Blue
Ghazals," Rich works through this impotent position, but too often concludes that women
are simply victims of patriarchy in the urban context. If women are not restricted literally
by the city, then they are restricted by poetic forms or by symbolic male figures within
her poems or poetic history. Such afldneuse, then, is not empowered by vision, but
silenced by the very forms that earned Rich's poetry critical acclaim.
Visibility/Invisibility: Ghazal Poems
Although both "End of an Era" and "Frame" are written in free verse, they do not
challenge traditional poetic forms as much as Rich's ghazal poems do. By far her most
experimental form, Rich's ghazals are series of couplets, held loosely together by
association. Although the associations within the two-line couplets are usually clear, the
associations between the couplets can sometimes be elusive.5 The ghazal form is actually
quite traditional and Rich's are influenced by the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib,6 a classical
Urdu poet, indebting her yet again to a patriarchal poetic order. Certainly it is an
alternative one from the European male traditions, and it pulls from non-metropolitan
subject matter which develops Rich's movement away from urban poetic forms.
Traditionally, ghazals are love songs, but Rich follows Ghalib's break from restricting the
theme of ghazals to love. In fact, love develops as a motif in Rich's ghazals that
symbolizes the city's disruption of relations between people.
Rich's broadest interpretation of the ghazal form appears in the long poem
"Shooting Script" (1969-1970), which includes a poem that is "adapted from Mirza
Ghalib," and which comes together like the fragmented images of a film, cut up on the
editing room floor. The poems of "Shooting Script" create a surreal labyrinth through
which Rich's fldneuse moves, searching for connections to her personal and cultural
history. By the end of the poem, the speaker is seeing her life as a series of movie images
projected up on a wall, which she breaks out of to see the reality, which is similarly
5 Paula Bennett accuses "Shooting Script" of being "arbitrary" and "random," with no available meaning
for readers (206).
6 Rich's first series of ghazal poems are titled, "Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib" (Fact 104).
fragmented. Although "Shooting Script" suggests fldnerie sporadically, the poem as a
whole does not necessarily observe or move solely through city spaces.
The twelfth poem of part two7 of "Shooting Script" depicts the speaker's
movement through Manhattan. The speaker is walking through the "wholesale district"
with a friend (possibly a lover, the other person is identified only as "you," and no
particulars are provided to further define the relationship), observing the sunset over the
buildings and the fabrics in the windows of the stores. The movement past the store
windows suggests a kind of resistantfldnerie. Unlike the commodity items at which the
fldneur would be looking, the speaker of this poem looks at fabrics which have "lain in
the window a long time," and which were, in fact, "not intended to be sold" (Fact 144).
The cloths are so old that the speaker calls them "mummies' cloths" and says "they have
lain in graves" (Fact 144). These commodity items take on a different kind of value than
consumer culture items in a mall: they help excavate a history of commodity culture in
The buildings themselves obscure the speaker's personal history, her natural
setting, and her ability to articulate her identity. She needs to "give up being paraphrased"
(Fact 144). The setting sun is blocked by the buildings, disorienting the speaker's sense
of location: "When the skeletons of the projects shut off the sunset, when the sense of the
Hudson leaves us, when only by loss of light in the east do I know that I am living in the
west" (Fact 144). The buildings are described both as "projects" and "skeletons," which
alerts the reader to the poverty of the city that the speaker is observing. These buildings
represent urban decay, denial, and neglect, so that the people they house are like the
7 "Shooting Script" is comprised of two parts, both labeled with dates. Altogether there are fourteen
numbered poems, excluding seven and eight, which have been omitted.