Making the Connection with Gwendolyn Brooks: Maud Martha & “Kitchenette Building”

[By Simone Savannah]
Gwendolyn Brooks Maud
(1953) is said to be an example of the decline of the protest novel
because it offers a shift to optimism. The novella is semi-autobiographical as
it does not offer a straight memoir of Brook’s lived experiences. Additionally,
Maud Martha  is structured in vignettes which adds to the
very poetic personal story of the protagonist. Furthermore, the novella
presents a theme of domesticity that is also present in Brook’s poem
“Kitchenette Building” (1963).
One could argue that vignettes fifteen and twenty-three of Maud Martha establish the background for
Kitchenette Building” and help readers come to an understanding of a
kitchenette. For instance, vignette fifteen, “the kitchenette,” describes the
type of apartment building. Maud Martha imagines the furniture she would like
to move into her apartment before she learns that she is not permitted to add,
remove, or rearrange any furniture. The apartment and apartment building then
become a “gray” space occupied by the odors and sounds of Maud Martha, her
husband, and other tenants. Further, “kitchenette folks” describes the tenants
and each of their habits.

Moreover, “Kitchenette Folks” alludes to many instances and
themes in Maud Martha. In the
novella, Maud Martha describes everything in the kitchenette as gray, including
sobs from other tenants, bodily functions, bathing, and romance. Domesticity is
also described as gray in the poem, and it grays in the “we” in the same way it
grays in Maud Martha. Additionally, just as Maud Martha, “we” imagines living
in a better place, but it also denied by the permanent atmosphere of the
kitchenette building. They all must go on living and creating habits that
coincide with the other kitchenette folks, such as waiting to use the bathroom.
Brook’s poem also works on its own. It successfully
describes the kitchenette building as a domestic space in which the kitchenette
folks live on each other’s impulses and actions. As the poem states, “[They]
are things of the dry hour and involuntary plan”. Inasmuch, the kitchenette
folks are not able to plan their lives or even live the lives that they have
dreamt. Instead, they must focus on dull or gray moments, such as paying rent
or tending to their significant others’ needs. They are not able to focus on
their desires because of the grayness. Furthermore, even if the kitchenette
building is in order—clean and warm—the tenants always bring their attention
back to each other’s gray habits and needs.
Overall, “Kitchenette Building” offers a glimpse into
private matters and their relationship to public dreams, or the American Dream.
Arguably, these private matters and dreams belong to poor people. The poem
focuses on their struggles as well as their optimism while denying them access
to the American Dream. Specifically, the poem begins with needs and tasks that
overpower their desires:
“Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong/Like “rent”,
“feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”. 
The speaker then ask if the tenant’s (“we”) dream could
defeat the grayness and give them access to their desires, but reality trumps
their wonder at the end of the poem when their attention is brought back to the
basic needs. Brook’s decision to begin with basic needs and end with basic
needs sends the message that poor people or “we” will not be able to escape a
less fortunate reality or navigate it according to our own plans and desires.
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.