Lifesaving Lines: “Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity…”, by Gwendolyn Brooks

A child's line drawing of the slogan MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, set against the backdrop of gagged people in cages.

It was the dying of the light of my time on Twitter. Days when I miss it, I think of the image of this poem, posted by someone whom I had just started to follow in an effort to persuade myself that the tiny bits of light seeping through the cracks were worth staying for. I even went to the effort of printing it off, sadly now lost.

I remember reading it in a kind of churched hush, my breath held, not quite able to take in everything that the poem was saying (and it was saying a lot), propelled forward at the same time by the desire to know more of this way of saying (singing?) that was new to me.

It was a sonnet, I got that quickly. But I had to keep rereading to get the syntactical sense right in my head. Those amazing opening four lines. Then a bit of a rest, declarative and verbless sentences followed by the long outburst of lines 9-13, the chief word of which, as in the poem as a whole, is that tiny time-bomb, ‘or’. It is the motor of the poem, a kind of anti-and, piling on observed details of passion, grief and finally death that accumulate and take the breath away in the effort to keep up. Say them out loud. They were written to be said out loud.

It comes to rest, though restless is the tone and pacing, in images of recreation and childhood: ‘Shows what / It showed at baseball. What it showed at school.’ And it was these lines, the final sentence in particular, which walloped me round the head. The realisation that what was there aged ten, say, a way of running perhaps, or putting up a hand to answer a question, is what stays and does not diminish, the ‘pose’ we were given, or learned, or adapted, from very early on. I want to argue with it, but I also want to lie down and rest with it. I want to close my eyes. It no longer matters who is watching.


  1. I hadn’t come across this poem before. Thank you for bringing it out of the shadow. It is a powerful intervention in the ubiquitous and and sometimes tiresome discourse of ‘identity’. Extraordinary that it comes from someone who might be expected to give the term a political or racial slant. But this was written in 1944, a few years before I was born, which gives it a special significance to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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