Rachel Cohen

Gwendolyn Brooks in Our Neighborhood

Brooks McMahon

Gwendolyn Brooks, statue by Margot McMahon, 2018. Photos Rachel Cohen.

I originally wrote this entry on May 6, 2020, and have reposted it in conjunction with a new piece up at Literary Hub that continues the walking around this sculpture that goes on being so important to me. That piece is at:

Jane Austen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Walking on the South Side

May 6, 2020

In our neighborhood, at 46th and Greenwood, is Gwendolyn Brooks Park. And in Gwendolyn Brooks Park there is a statue of the poet, which is believed to be only the second statue of an African-American woman in Chicago.

The sculptor is Margot McMahon, an artist who specializes in public projects and in sculptures of people who play what get called ordinary roles in the making of city life. The sculpture was McMahon’s idea, as part of the centennial celebration for Gwendolyn Brooks, and she approached Nora Brooks Blakely, daughter of the poet, who suggested that the park named for Brooks would be the right place, and then the two worked together to develop the sculpture and its installation. It was unveiled on June 6, 2018, the poet's birthday.

The statue of Gwendolyn Brooks shows the poet’s head, face, and glasses, and the upper part of her torso, arms and hands.

Installation photo from Margot McMahon's website, photographer uncredited.

Behind is a wooden structure that is like the poet’s porch. Porch and figure are joined by a winding set of stepping stones that have inscribed on them quotations from Annie Allen, Brooks’s book of 1949 about the coming of age of Annie Allen, a book which won the Pulitzer Prize. Annie Allen is a very difficult modernist text that I have been learning to read for a few years now, and do not feel confident that I am yet really reading.

I am learning about this sculpture, as I am learning about the poetry, by visiting it many days in these months. It is of great value to me to have a thoughtful sculpture growing from a writer’s life that I can go and look at, and be in the space of.


Yesterday I wrote about Brook’s book of poems for and about children Bronzeville Boys and Girls with art by Faith Ringgold. It is interesting that in all Brooks’s work, as in Faith Ringgold’s, there is the sense of the presence and importance of children. Yesterday, I listened to some of a wonderful reading that Brooks gave when she became poet laureate at the Library of Congress. She began by reading three poems by girls from Chicago that had been submitted as part of the programs she ran as poet laureate of Illinois.

Annie Allen is difficult, and, at the same time, many of the lines make complete sense to children. When we take our children to Gwendolyn Brooks park, we sometimes read out the quotations that are on the stones. They both like the first one:

How pinchy is my room! they say, with a lot of relish. The rooms of our house are not that narrow, and we are grateful for that. At the same time, it is a phrase that makes a new stronger sense at the moment.

Annie Allen begins with a memorial poem for Ed Bland who was killed in Germany on March 20, 1945 – seventy-five years ago this spring. Then begins the first real section which is called Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood. The line appears in the first poem, in which Annie Allen is born, the poem is called “the birth in a narrow room.” I am going to type out the poem at the end of this entry.

On Monday, I walked up to Gwendolyn Brooks Park on my own – it was very cold. I wanted to take a few more pictures of the sculpture, but a mother was standing near it with her child. The child was wearing a brown jacket with the hood up, and running up and down on the stones, and putting out her or his arms like an airplane. The installation also originally had some wooden hassocks arranged in a circle around the poet, to invite sitting to listen to her think, maybe read. These hassocks have mostly come apart, there is one and part of another still there. The child in the brown jacket sat on the remaining one and looked up at Gwendolyn Brooks and for a while I stood in the corner of the park and watched them in their private colloquy and then I turned and walked home.


Weeps out of western country something new.

Blurred and stupendous. Wanted and unplanned.

Winks. Twines, and weakly winks.

Upon the milk-glass fruit bowl, iron pot,

The bashful china child tipping forever

Yellow apron and spilling pretty cherries.

Now, weeks and years will go before she thinks

“How pinchy is my room! how can I breathe!

I am not anything and I have got

Not anything, or anything to do!”—

But prances nevertheless with gods and fairies

Blithely about the pump and then beneath

The elms and grapevines, then in darling endeavor

By privy foyer, where the screenings stand

And where the bugs buzz by in private cars

Across old peach cans and old jelly jars.

Ruth Asawa Sculpture in Air

Ruth Asawa Sculpture in Air

Untitled (S.535, Hanging Five-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form with Two Interior Spheres and One Teardrop Form), 1951 Ruth Asawa. Courtesy of Charles and Kathy Harper Collection. © Estate of Ruth Asawa, Courtesy David Zwirner. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Today I was drawn to Ruth Asawa's wire sculptures, which I learned about (long after many else had) from the show at the Art Institute of Chicago, In a Cloud, In a Wall, In a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Mid-Century. I went to the show several times, but only took a few photographs, and do not have the proper credit line for the group of sculptures, but the central form in the top picture is the one described in the credit line above, made in 1951.

On the last visit, our daughter liked this drawing that Asawa made in relationship to the sculptures, and I liked it, too.

Perhaps it follows in certain ways from the Beckmann drawing I wrote about late on Monday night. I seem to be thinking about survival of different kinds, about lines, and the color black. The Beckmann drawing was in made in 1949, when Ruth Asawa was about twenty-three, and had gone to Black Mountain college to study. In 1942 and 1943, she and her family had been in the internment camps that the US government set up for people of Japanese descent. This had been a very difficult experience, and she had drawn a lot while in the camps. She made more than one trip to Mexico, and the exhibition described how, in 1947, studying the traditional way wire egg baskets were made had an important effect and helped her find her way with the wire sculptures.

I went to visit the website for her work and legacy, and was pleased to find that there will be a Ruth Asawa postage stamp in August.

Centrale Montemartini, Bodies in Structured Space

Centrale Montemartini Bodies in Structured Space

Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday, I thought about Michelangelo's designs for the Laurentian Library in Florence. I was interested that I came upon a thought of the strain that an idea of architectural space may put on a body. I hadn't quite thought to myself before that part of what interests me in certain Florentine ideas of space and design is that they demand something of my body as I move through them.

When I let my mind rove about for what to look at next, I came to the Centrale Montemartini in Rome, a museum that is like a huge installation. We went there last summer. The building was the first electrical power plant in Rome, and it is on the Via Ostiense in a neighborhood that is still industrial. And some of the classical statues from the Capitoline Collection have been installed there.

I would like to think about the interaction between the machines, the industrial space, and the sculptures with a little more attention, but for today I will just put up some pictures.

When I went to visit the website for the Centrale Montemartini, it announced that they will be reopening on June 2nd. This is the first museum reopening that I have come upon as I have been doing this project, and it is interesting to think that these halls will soon have appropriately masked and spaced visitors.