Steady but uneven biography of the groat black American poet. The late Kent (English/Univ. of Chicago)--who was a longtime friend and literary associate of fellow Chicagoan Brooks--draws on interviews with Brooks (b. 1917) and her mother, the poet's correspondence, and exclusive access to her early notebooks--which Brooks kept from the age of seven. Kent pays heavy and perhaps undue attention to these early years; he seems to take those romantic poems that Brooks wrote as a teen-ager as seriously as he takes those from the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Annie Allen (1950), the pinnacle of Brooks' career thus far. Kent is also a clumsy narrator. The book lacks vivid anecdotes and tends to draw out or exaggerate the trivial, as when Brooks was named one of the ""62 Best People in Chicago"" by a Chicago newspaper. But Kent excels at showing Brooks wrestling to find her political niche in response to the social and literary pressures of black history. Conservative in her youth, Brooks became slowly radicalized by prejudice in her native Chicago, an experience partially captured in her most famous book, A Street in Bronzeville. In the 1960's, her lyrical poetic inclinations turned radical Riot, a three-part poem, dramatized angy black responses to the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. For such efforts, as Kent demonstrates without taking sides, Brooks has received both praise and criticism from critics and writers black and white, left and right. A compelling read for Brooks' fans--but patchy and, for others, a disappointment.