What was common could also be a flower

Dear Gwendolyn,

Maud Martha (1953) centres on a working-class black girl coming of age in pre-WWII Chicago. When the story opens, the eponymous protagonist is about seven yeas old, and we follow her as she falls in love, gets married, moves to a tiny apartment, daydreams about escaped gorillas, cuts out a chicken, muses about the secret life of a mouse, longs to live in New York City, gives birth to a child, feels sadness, feels happiness, experiences racism and segregation, goes to the cinema, gets pregnant with her second child, and pursues the spring at the end of winter.

The book is structured in 34 episodic chapters that read like poetic vignettes interspersed with dialogue and short narrative sections. Each chapter roughly corresponds to one year of our Maud Martha’s life, and the story advances in chronological order. Half a life goes by, hardly anything out of the ordinary happens to our protagonist – and yet, her mind is in full bloom.

Right in the opening lines, we are thrown inside of it: “What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch: and dandelions. She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies—yes, she would have liked meadow lilies, because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms, depending on who was by, rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky.  But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.  Yellow jewels for everyday studding the patched green dress of her back yard.  She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.”

As Maud Martha’s ordinary life blossoms, the image of the flower reads as an emblem of the exceptional within the ordinary, and resurfaces throughout the narrative. For most part, the story is told in a detached, impressionistic third person point of view – until, suddenly, in chapter 13 – “Low Yellow” – the first person erupts like a flower out of nowhere, breaking through a moment of love (“my whole body is singing beside him”), only to retreat and disappear in the following chapter.

You seem to be playing with perspective. In chapter 23 – “Kitchenette Folks” –, as we are given a panoramic view of our protagonist’s neighbours, in one of the longest sections of the book, you manage to talk about Maud Martha by describing the people around her and the way they are observed and seen by her.

The book begins with the possibility of something ordinary blooming into a flower; we watch as this flower strives and blossoms; and, finally, the story ends with the promise of life flowering anew: “But the sun was shining, and some of the people in the world had been left alive, and it was doubtful whether the ridiculousness of man would ever completely succeed in destroying the world—or, in fact, the basic equanimity of the least and commonest flower: for would its kind not come up again in the spring? (…) The weather was bidding her bon voyage.”

Nothing is just one thing in this book. In chapter 28 – “Brotherly love” – Maud Martha is butchering a chicken and thinking about the scarcity of food during the war. Her mind never leaves the chicken, but, in the space of a paragraph, it seems to turn to a larger subject – the brutality of war itself (“people could do this, people could cut a chicken open (…) But if the chicken were a man!”). Then, in the blink of a sentence, it moves forward to segregation and what it does to people: “And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.” Her mind never strays from the chicken and the task at hand – and yet, at the same time, it takes on an entirely different subject, and does it with anger and a strange sense of humour, bordering on cruelty: “When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the thought of her meal.”

Time is your plaything in this novella. We follow Maud Martha’s life in chronological order, but, unlike the conventional life narratives, hers is not divided in proportional chunks, but rather interspersed with irregular gaps. One minute in one scene does not last the same as one minute in another. And the major events in our protagonist’s timeline are sometimes as ordinary as… cutting out a chicken for dinner.

As time is flying by, Maud Martha’s memory seems to stick to random, arbitrary snapshots that flow into each other. Much like life happening inside one’s mind, the narrative of Maud Martha’s life hardly ever matches what we normally conceive as “plot”. “But she was learning to love moments. To love moments for themselves”.

Right at the beginning, at chapter 6 – “At the Regal” -, Maud Martha vows that to last is not her primary concern. “She did not want fame. She did not want to be a ‘star.’ To create—a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone. Great. But not for her. What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.”

Transience, a flower’s share of eternity and an emblem of the everyday, is your material in this book. In chapter 27 – “Paul in the 011 Club” -, as Maud Martha is sitting in a bar with her husband, “she watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all ‘happens.’ That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all”.

In the book’s epigraph, we read: “Maud Martha was born in 1917. She is still alive today.” Still and today seem to collapse into each other here, creating a sense of timelessness that extends throughout the following 34 chapters, only to meet in full circle with its beginning at the end. Maud Martha is still alive, persisting each season right into our time, and she is about to hand us a furious flower: the book will begin and end with an invincible spring, and the day will always be today.

Yours truly,

J.


Marian Anderson, by Beauford Delaney (1965)

About the book

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