At first reading, the poems We Be Cool by Gwendolyn Books and Undertaker by Patricia Smith appear to be very different. Upon examination, however, it becomes clear that both works share a common theme, based on urban gang issues that transcend the decades and generations that separate the writing of the two poems.
The imagery in Undertaker is very graphic and explicit, evoking a clear mental picture of the violence of the boy’s death and the depth of the mother’s grief. The first line of the poem sets the tone powerfully, when Patricia Smith writes, “When a bullet enters the brain, the head explodes”. This description of the boy’s death in plain but disturbing language fixes the image of his death in the reader’s mind, to be expanded upon as the undertaker reflects on the mechanics of reassembling the boy’s face. Throughout the poem, small details fill in the image piece by piece, leaving the reader with a solid impression of all three characters, their personalities, and the part they play in the tableau. This is in sharp contrast to the minimal descriptions of We Be Cool. Other than the two lines that preface the body of the poem, nothing specific is said about the characters beyond their actions. Instead the imagery relies on the words chosen to describe those actions to create a vivid impression of young people drinking, fighting and dying in their gang lifestyle.
The rhythm of We Be Cool is as crucial to the poem’s meaning and message as the words of the poem. The repetitive structures of simple three word sentences in the body of the poem establish the narrator as one of the gang members that are introduced in the preface. The offbeat rhythm created by ending each line with “We” reinforces the gang mentality throughout the poem, emphasizing the importance of the group in every act, from quitting school to doing drugs. The lack of this device in the final line stands out, underscoring the solitary nature of death. Undertaker, on the other hand, does not adhere to a clear rhythm pattern. Repetitive rhythm patterns in lines describing the condition of the body and the grief of the mother highlight the undertaker’s experience and frustration with encountering this situation over and over again, but the poem as a whole does not follow a unified rhythm structure.
While Undertaker and We Real Cool employ imagery and rhythm structure in very different ways, both poems speak to the same basic theme of gangs and violence. We Real Cool addresses this theme from an insider’s point of view, summarizing the experience of many gang members in few words. The repetition of “we” calls attention to the desire for belonging and friendship that is so often the motivation for young people to form or join gangs, and the action of each line strips the reality of gang involvement down to a progression of characteristic activities to the inevitable end result. Throughout We Real Cool, Gwendolyn Brooks focuses on the individual gang member and the poem ends with his death, but the problems caused by gang culture don’t end there. Undertaker picks up where We Real Cool left off, and expands the point of view to take in the effect of gang violence on those outside of the gang. Patricia Smith uses the point of view of the undertaker to look at the boy’s death through a perspective of experience, using the consequences of one young gang member’s death to illustrate a pervasive problem and to consider some of its causes. The mother’s grief and the financial burden she and the rest of the family is willing to take up to preserve her son’s memory show a side of gang violence not commonly considered, and through the undertaker’s eyes, the reader is able to see how this practice of elevating the boy to an ideal he never attained in life contributes to the cycle of gang violence. Mention of the mother’s youth and the conspicuous absence of a father from the scene hint at a few of the other problems that go hand in hand with gang activity in many urban areas, where death or incarceration keep young men from fulfilling their obligations to their families. Finally, the frustration of the undertaker reflects the frustration of the community as a whole with this tragic cycle that claims so many young men.
Writing decades apart, Gwendolyn Brooks and Patricia Smith employ different poetic structures and devices in addressing a theme of gang violence that was as relevant in the 60s as it is today. Through these diverse methods, We Real Cool and Undertaker both call attention to a common and ongoing societal concern.