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Gwendolyn Brooks' "the vacant lot"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Introduction and Text of "the vacant lot"

The speaker in Gwendolyn Brooks' twelve-line versanelle, "the vacant lot," reveals her powers of observation as she reports on the character and activity of her former neighbors.

the vacant lot

Mrs. Coley’s three-flat brick
Isn’t here any more.
All done with seeing her fat little form
Burst out of the basement door;
And with seeing her African son-in-law
(Rightful heir to the throne)
With his great white strong cold squares of teeth
And his little eyes of stone;
And with seeing the squat fat daughter
Letting in the men
When majesty has gone for the day—
And letting them out again.

Reading of Brooks' "the vacant lot"

Commentary

This versanelle offers a minimalist character sketch of three people whom the speaker disdains, and the vacant lot symbolizes her glee at being "all done" with them.

First Movement: Good Riddance

Mrs. Coley’s three-flat brick
Isn’t here any more.

The significance to the title of this versanelle, "the vacant lot," becomes apparent in the first two lines, as the speaker reveals that the apartment building with three apartments, which belonged to "Mrs. Coley" "Isn't here any more."

The speaker does not say how or why the building has vanished, because her intention is to dramatize her new-found comfort that she no longer has to witness the disgusting activities that had been carried on in that building.

Second Movement: Glad Not to Be Seeing

All done with seeing her fat little form
Burst out of the basement door;

The speaker then reports the first visual that now does not confront her eyes any longer as she looks out her window at the vacant lot. Her sight is no longer accosted by Mrs. Coley's "fat little form" as it "bursts out of the basement door." That occurrence is "all done."

And the speaker seems quite glad. She expresses the fact as if it was something unpleasant that had to be accomplished; she continued to do it until it was finally finished or "all done." She is "all done" with having to see that unpleasant little woman "burst out" from her "basement."

Third Movement: Especially Glad Not to Be Seeing

And with seeing her African son-in-law
(Rightful heir to the throne)
With his great white strong cold squares of teeth
And his little eyes of stone;

In addition to not having to view the obnoxious sight of Mrs. Coley herself, the neighbor/speaker also is "all done" with having to view her "African son-in-law." The speaker discloses that she has been treated to the fact that this son-in-law was African royalty; Mrs. Coley has undoubtedly bragged about her special son-in-law as being "rightful heir to the throne" in some little African village that was probably the victim of a coup, causing the rightful king and his heirs to flee.

The neighbor/speaker spends four lines describing the "African son-in-law"; he has "great white strong cold squares of teeth / And [ ] little eyes of stone." The speaker's description of this man divulges her pleasure at not having to see him again.

Fourth Movement: Also a Pleasure Not to Be Seeing

And with seeing the squat fat daughter
Letting in the men

A third pleasure for the neighbor is not having to see "the squat fat daughter," who would, of course, be queen to the rightful heir to that faraway African throne that no longer exists. But especially pleasant is not having to see the daughter's adultery, or even more likely prostitution. The speaker is "all done" with watching all those men arrive and the squat fat daughter "letting in the men."

Fifth Movement: The Comfort From the Vanished

When majesty has gone for the day—
And letting them out again.

After the rightful African queen's rightful king leaves for the day, the squat fat daughter can be seen "letting in the men" and then "letting them out again." The speaker has demonstrated her relief at not having to watch this clownish, self-deceiving trio as she goes about her day.

She finds herself completely comfortable and comforted with the visual of the vanished "three-flat brick." It is "all done"—gone from the neighborhood and at least one neighbor finds its empty replacement very satisfying.

Bronze Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after her birth. She attended three different high schools: Hyde Park, Wendell Phillips, and Englewood.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. In 1930, her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood Magazine, when she was only thirteen years old. She had the good fortune to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, both of whom encouraged her writing.

Brooks continued to study poetry and write. She married Henry Blakely in 1938 and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951. Living on the Southside of Chicago, she engaged with the group of writers associated with Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the most prestigious magazine in American poetry.

Brooks' first volume of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared in 1945, published by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen was awarded the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry. In addition to poetry, Brooks wrote a novel titled Maud Martha in the early '50s, as well as her autobiography Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1995).

Brooks has won numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim and the Academy of American Poets. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first African American woman to win that prize.

Brooks began a teaching career in 1963, conducting poetry workshops at Chicago's Columbia College. She has also taught poetry writing at Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin.

At the age of 83, Gwendolyn Brooks succumbed to cancer on December 3, 2000. She died quietly at her home in Chicago, where she had resided on the Southside for most of her life. She is interred in Blue Island, Illinois, at Lincoln Cemetery.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes