I came across Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem The Boy Died in My Alley while attending college here in Baltimore. The recent events that have taken place in this city resonates within the words of this poem. Brooks uses amazing word choice to describe the setting of the Boy’s death and to put the narrator’s emotions into words. This poem will forever be one of my favorites from Gwendolyn Brooks, as I hope it will be for you.
This poem brings up these ideas and memories to me. The narrator not only speaks of the violence, but shows the side of one who could have stopped it but failed to do so. Brooks uses amazing language within the lines of this poem and speaks from many different views. She creates a message of equality among people, however, speaks on such a dark topic to get that idea across.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Boy Died in My Alley”
to Running Boy The Boy died in my alley without my Having Known. Policeman said, next morning, "Apparently died Alone." "You heard a shot?" Policeman said. Shots I hear and Shots I hear. I never see the Dead. The Shot that killed him yes I heard as I heard the Thousand shots before; careening tinnily down the nights across my years and arteries. Policeman pounded on my door. "Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled. "A Boy was dying in your alley. A Boy is dead, and in your alley. And have you known this Boy before?" I have known this Boy before. I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley. I never saw his face at all. I never saw his futurefall. But I have known this Boy. I have always heard him deal with death. I have always heard the shout, the volley. I have closed my heart-ears late and early. And I have killed him ever. I joined the Wild and killed him with knowledgeable unknowing. I saw where he was going. I saw him Crossed. And seeing, I did not take him down. He cried not only "Father!" but "Mother! Sister! Brother." The cry climbed up the alley. It went up to the wind. It hung upon the heaven for a long stretch-strain of Moment. The red floor of my alley is a special speech to me.
Brooks speaks about the kinds of evil in the world — the ones who commit the crime and the ones who don’t react. She capitalizes certain words that she wants to stand out. Boy is capitalized and she doesn’t give him a name. In the second stanza. Brooks capitalizes the word “Alone” which creates an ominous mood for this poem off the bat. The narrator answers the cops question “You heard a shot?” with the phrase “Shots I hear and shots I hear. / I never see the dead.” alluding to the fact that she did not react to the shots heard because she has heard so many in her life that she referred to in the second stanza.
I love the word choice that came with “Careening tinnily down the nights/ across my years and arteries.” The word arteries rattled within me because of its grotesquery, yet it is the perfect word to end this stanza. It shapes the severity of the violence and how it has shaped and altered the mind of the narrator.
The word choice in the fourth stanza leads the readers to believe that the narrator has been confronted about violence before in this kind of way. “Policeman pounded on my door. / ‘Who is it?’ ‘POLICE!’ Policeman yelled.” The word “pounded” along with the reply “Who is it?” seem to contradict each other in their urgency. The knock that can be referred to as “pounding” is something that would worry or instill fear in the resident, however, the narrator seems calm as if this is old hat.
The Fifth stanza beings forth the idea that the narrator has known “this Boy” before. She mentions “I never saw his face at all. / I never saw his futurefall. / But I have known this Boy.” I see the word “futurefall” as if Brooks is trying to say freefall to instil the idea that the Boy’s life was taken instantaneously and has pushed him back into a freefall where he fell to the ground.
The sixth is the stanza shows the remorse the narrator feels from not helping save the Boy’s life. She mentions that she has heard of his struggle and was able to close her “heart-ears” to continue on with her life. However, at the end for the stanza, she feels that she has killed him due to her lack motivation to help the situation.
The next section is powerful with a reference towards Jesus on the cross. Brooks writes “I saw him Crossed. And seeing, / I did not take him down.” The narrator’s alludes to the fact that she didn’t help the Boy when he was in need, and referred to him as being “Crossed.” This lead me to believe that she feels that she could have saved him but instead allowed him to suffer.
In the second to last stanza the Boy is crying out to his loved ones and “It hung upon the heaven / for a long / stretch-strain of Moment.” This signals the point when the Boy is no longer living. The last two lines of the poem simply read “The red floor of my alley/ is a special speech to me.” Brooks uses the word “floor of my alley” to describe to area of the Boy’s death. Many wouldn’t think of an alley as a place with a floor, or would rather refer to it as the ground–something with less of a home feeling. This may have been used to show this area, in the narrator’s eyes, as her home. The space around her, the streets, the buildings, the alleys, is her home that has now been stained red with blood.