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Blurring the Line Between Dreams and Reality: A Take on Gwendolyn Brooks' 'kitchenette building'

By Edited Dec 29, 2015 0 0

Gwendolyn Brooks lived in Chicago, Illinois for most of her life, writing poetry on the South Side of the booming industrialized city beginning in the 1930s (Williams). In her poetry collection entitled "A Street in Bronzeville," Brooks portrays an image of daily life as if she were walking the reader down a road through town. From "the old-marrieds" to "the vacant lot" and everything about life, death, love, and morality in between, these poems bring the reader to criticize the societal beliefs that are embedded in her poetic world of reality (Brooks 1-23). One poem in this collection, titled "kitchenette building," questions the ability of individual dreams to permeate into the monotony of daily life in a Bronzeville apartment (2). Brooks lived in a kitchenette apartment with her husband, Henry Blakely, after they married in 1938, which probably influenced her composition of this poem (Williams). Though the presence of reality keeps the narrator of "kitchenette building" from chasing her dreams and following her own ambitions for happiness, she is also living a hazy, dream-like existence in her current apartment. The reality of life holding her back from her dreams, as well as the sense of surreal floating in mundane routine, causes the line between dreams and reality to blur.

At the beginning of "kitchenette building," the narrator establishes a claim of group identity within the apartment complex, as she states "We are the things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, /Grayed in, and gray" (Brooks 2). Using the term "things" to apply to human beings dehumanizes the individuals into objects or machines (2). These people are further mechanized in being a part of "the involuntary plan," following the mundane routine of daily life through no conscious choice of their own (2). The time is dull and monotonous, since the continual cycle of "dry hours" have baked all the life out of existence (2). Identifying with the color "gray," the narrator not only emphasizes the dullness of living as if one was set on automatic, but also conveys a fusion of two extremes (2). Neither black nor white, "gray" places the narrator and her inclusive "we" in a dreary state of life in the middle of existence without any clear distinction between time's passing hours (2). Even living in this haze, however, dreams of what could be penetrate into the narrator's mind. She explains that the word "'Dream' makes a giddy sound, not strong/ Like 'rent,' 'feeding a wife,' 'satisfying a man'" (2). Conjuring up a binary between the playful excitement of the lighthearted, yet weak and therefore insubstantial, "dream" and the bothersome, but solidly real duties of everyday life, such as paying "rent" and putting food on the table, the narrator accentuates the idea that a dream is not something a person can stably live on, but that the fantasy can act as a temporary escape from the monotony of daily routine (2).

The second and third stanzas of Brooks' "kitchenette building" present a question of whether it is possible for dreams to pervade through the stark reality of quotidian life. The narrator wonders if "a dream" could permeate "through onion fumes" or "fight with fried potatoes/And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall" by filling the "rooms" with an "aria" of song (Brooks 2). The old "garbage" and "onion fumes" signify the stench of reality that cannot simply be ignored (2). Daily life's mundane unpleasantness consistently overpowers the sweetness of fantasy, making it difficult for the lively songs of dreams to fill the empty rooms of the apartment complex, which represent the void left by living a dreamless life. The narrator emphasizes that people would actually have to pay attention to their dreams in order to make it possible for them to come true, however. She questions whether a dream could actually come to life in the present conditions of reality. Even if the individuals "were willing to let it in" to the mind for thought, "had time to warm it" like an incubator until it gave birth to miraculous possibility, could "keep it very clean" by not letting anyone spoil the fantasy, would "anticipate a message" in full preparation for when the dream awakens and embracing it when it arrives, and would "let it begin" by actually taking a step to follow where it leads, the dreams would still be overpowered by the real world's mundane existence (2).

With the final stanza, Brooks suggests to the reader how easy it is for an individual to get sidetracked from a dream. Though these dreams do succeed at entering people's minds, they get lost in the moment without being fully grasped, which is seen as the narrator explains that the apartment's residents "wonder. But not well! not for a minute!" about their dreams' possibilities (Brooks 2). Reality acts as a blatant distraction from dreaming because the here and now always shines through the thoughts of future prospects. The narrator expresses how dreams are derailed "Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now," and the individuals leave their dreams to "think of lukewarm water, [hoping] to get in it" (2). Referring to a person as "Number Five" is just as dehumanizing as the use of the term "things" at the beginning of the poem, which removes individual identity (2). The simple want to bathe in "lukewarm water" implies the comfort found in the "gray" monotonous consistency of living a life that is stuck between two extremes, neither black or white nor hot or cold (2). Living in a dream-like trance brought about by the mundane routine of reality, the distinction between fantasy and real life blurs into an inseparable mix of a hazy, yet unquestionable existence.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. A Street in Bronzeville. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1945.

Williams, Kenny. "Brooks' Life and Career." Modern American Poetry. 4 May 2010. The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature: Oxford University Press, 1997. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks/life.htm

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