Pretty straightforward, right? We've got a one-word line that states "love," and since the poem's title is "Beale Street Love," that's no big surprise. Still, let's dig a little deeper.
The word love, by itself, gives us an entire line's pause to think about love. It's an open-ended line, and we could go in just about any direction from here.
That open-endedness comes from the line break. By breaking a line after one word, Hughes leaves us eager for more, but it also gives that word a lot of power and emphasis. We want to know what love is because we know that it is darn important. For more on these line breaks, check out our "Form and Meter" section.
Still, we can't forget that the word does come with its standard associations. We're settling in for a little romance. Maybe we'll swoon… maybe not.
Is a brown man's fist
Remember that open-ended opener? Well it's not so open anymore. Now, we find out just what love is – a fist.
Not just any fist, but a brown man's fist. Since Beale Street was a center of African-American culture – specifically the blues – it's safe to assume that the brown fist is actually that of a black man.
Here's the thing. After that first line, we were expecting a love poem, right? But now we have a fist, which is unexpected to say the least. It's a scary metaphor. It implies love is angry, violent even.
With hard knuckles
Not only is love a fist, but it's a fist with hard knuckles. This is a rough, tough hand. Its punch probably packs a big wallop.
This line seals the deal. Whatever Beale Street love is, it's not of the hearts and candy variety.
By adding details of the fist, our speaker creates a little something called an extended metaphor. Some metaphors just take a line to make a comparison, but this metaphor lasts two lines, and might keep right on going, developing this violent, angry idea of love 'til the cows come home.
Crushing the lips,
Uh oh. This fist is doing some serious damage. It has made contact with somebody's face, but whose? Hughes leaves us hanging, so we'll just have to keep on reading.
Note, too, that this fist is crushing something we often associate with beauty and femininity. Love seems brutal here, and masculine. And it's destroying something feminine.
Oh, and that extended metaphor just won't quit, will it?
Blackening the eyes,—
Nope, it won't. Now the fist, or love, is blackening some eyes. That's standard fist behavior, of course, but it's not something we think of when we think of love. Love should definitely not result in a black eye.
On a literal level, we can think of this as a simple description of a man punching someone in the mouth, than the eyes.
But we have that pesky extended metaphor to deal with. It's love that is crushing the lips and blackening the eyes, remember? So what exactly does that mean? Is someone really being beat up here, or are we talking about more metaphorical injuries?
Unfortunately, we're still in the dark as to just whose lips and eyes are getting punched by this man's fist, so we don't have a lot of clues about what's really going on.
One thing we do know is that Hughes keeps ending the lines in the middle of the sentence, pushing us through the poem because we're hungry for more information.
This line, in particular has a strange end to it – a comma, and then a dash. Both these punctuation marks indicate a pause, so there is some sort of double pause happening here. But that dash also tells you that whatever comes next will be closely related to this line (and the line above it). It's as if Hughes wants us to pause, but also wants us to plow right on through the line break, because we're dying to know who's on the receiving end of this love-punch. It's a moment of hesitation, but we're ready to take the plunge and find out the truth.