On Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Old Mary”

from Gwendolyn BrooksSelected Poems

My last defense
Is the present tense.

This month, rather than an image per se, the blog looks at a small resonant moment that is like an image. Brooks’ modest, concise poem “Old Mary” seems simple and direct. What other meaning could the three-couplet poem offer? Together the couplets describe someone who realizes that youthful dreams (going beyond the boundaries of what they’ve always known) will not come true. And though the speaker says “it little hurts,” little hurts does not mean not hurting.

The opening couplet highlights Brooks’ command of rhyme, wit, and epigrammatic concision, but the couplet’s indicative mood also enlarges and suggests more. What meaning should the reader choose for defense? Security, resistance, deterrent, fortress, support, vindication, weaponry, alibi, testimony, plea . . .

Gwendolyn Brooks

The word “last” implies that the speaker has tried before to protect themself from death. But all of those efforts have failed. The speaker focuses now only on the present, while denying not only the future where dreams might be realized, but the past, which shaped the romantic dreams that life so often gives rise to. The speaker’s sense of time metaphorically and ironically shapes itself into a bulwark against time, diminishment, lost dreams, and oncoming death.

But the poem also shows that language itself is an expression of time. How the speaker interprets or uses language can turn “defense” into resistance or a plea. The last defense is not the present moment—or time—but language itself, how we describe, think about, explain, or shape fortresses from words. My last defense is the present tense.

Gwendolyn BrooksSelected Poems, Harper & Row, 1963