JUNE 18, 2019
DRAWING ON the language of myths and flowers, Jericho Brown’s newest poems extol, dismantle, challenge, and enlarge the tradition. He writes of the body — the black body, the queer body — subject to the whims of power and violence, history, myth, sex, and death. “My body is a temple in disrepair,” the speaker of one poem claims. “Men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me.” The poems of The Tradition, Brown’s third collection, are at turns tender and vulnerable, severe and riveting. The book complicates “traditional” themes of love and death in poems that merge sharp accounts of national injustice with private pains. The Tradition contains love poems and elegies, poems that bring into thrilling contact the tropes of “traditional” lyric — lilies, Greco-Roman landscapes, museum paintings — with an urgency borne of threat. Brown deploys “traditional” lyric form, too, to make his starkest and most memorable critiques. In the crucible of Brown’s imagination, even in its most personal — most lyrical — moments, the body struggles to break free of the forces that seek everywhere to ensnare and erase it.
Jericho Brown’s electrifying Please, published in 2008, signaled a poet marvelously equipped to craft poems of bright music and sinister subtexts. Song was a major engine of that debut collection, and its exploration of music and culture soon opened up to poems more directly confrontational to forces of power and subjugation. His boldly titled 2014 volume, The New Testament, was a veneration of the self in all its messianic beauty and ferocity. The Tradition is a major step forward for the poet; the collection is assured in its handling of autobiography and public history, as well as in its formal variety and play. It’s a collection full of ghosts, a complex and multifaceted Liebestod; its images, figures, and statements draw close and fade away, haunting its reader.
In The Tradition, a dark American past and a dark American present collide with a world of myth. The stories Brown gives us are old, and our strategies for telling them determine how we come to understand culpability for the suffering of others. In the opening poem, Brown wryly recasts Ganymede’s rape by the god as the wages of immortality. “That’s the version I prefer,” his speaker claims, “I like / The safety of it, no one at fault, / Everyone rewarded.” So often in the collection, these myths stand in for history. The stories we tell shape our interpretation of transactions of violence and harm: namely, slavery, imperialism, HIV, capitalism, and police brutality:
And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven, that far terrain […]
The poem ends with a direct statement, so far removed from the world of Olympus. It is a piercing and memorable thesis for Brown’s book: “The people of my country believe / We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.”
Remarkably, Jericho Brown’s mythic retellings critique the assumptions behind them as well as the ways they justify historical and contemporary violence. In a poem in the voice, presumably, of Leda, there are haunting evocations of lynching and enslavement:
But God’s soul rises out of its black
Bared skin a landscape prepared
For use […]
In another poem, “Trojan,” there are echoes of modern American realities of state violence:
Patroclus died because
He could not see
What he really was inside
His lover’s armor.
As with “Ganymede,” many poems in The Tradition grapple with problems of masculinity, as men navigate between desire and violence in exchange:
It was the start of one fear,
A puny one not much worth mentioning,
Narrow as the pencil tucked behind my ear, lost
When I reached for it
To stab someone I secretly loved: a bigger boy
Through those tight, locker-lined corridors shoving
Excuse me, more an insult than a battle. […]
Here, as elsewhere, touch between men is frequently possible only through acts of aggression. The sacred and secret desire these lines hold, highlighted by Brown’s artful isolation of “without saying” on its own line, is one more suppression of language and feeling, one more silence.
In the title poem, a remarkable sonnet that critiques Age of Enlightenment notions of taxonomy, Brown merges the names of flowers, “classical / Philosophers said could change us,” and the death-bound subjectivity of black men, “Men like me and my brothers.” Brown draws a line between “the tradition” of natural science and “the tradition” of violence against black men at the hands of the state. The flowers, imagined blooming in a video as “proof we existed” in glorious and ephemeral colors, yield the names of the lost men in the sonnet’s chilling final couplet: “Where the world ends, everything cut down. / John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.”
Brown’s critique in the poems of The Tradition is expansive enough to include the violence of both American history and the foundational myths of Western culture, as well the very history of lyric poetry.
The sense of an inescapable paradigm of American culture, history, and literature finds its most urgent expression in Brown’s “Riddle.” The poem is a series of statements in the first-person plural, a kind of perverse ballad of whiteness: “We believe / We own your bodies but have no / Use for your tears.” In another haunting poem, inspired by James Baldwin’s Another Country, Brown describes Rufus Scott, “Bold as an officer of the law,” jumping off the George Washington Bridge:
Dirty against the whiteness
Of the sky to your escape
Through the whiteness
Of the water.
The collection’s very best poems even show the violent world pressing in on the private space of erotic lyric, as in “A.D.,” my favorite poem in the collection. The poem imagines its speaker in a moment of erotic memory which is, like so many memories in the collection, also one of loss. The speaker’s bed is haunted with the lost man, his mysterious disappearance a threat to the speaker’s own life:
Ten years, your feet hanging, tangled and long, and still
You’re the victim
Of such nightmares. You breathe
Like he’s been lying
On top for the last decade.
A man dies above you, you suffocate below the weight.
Here, as elsewhere, Brown handles his complicated and messy subjects with a strong sense of formal order and emotional restraint; he favors mostly short poems, poems with direct and arresting statements, and poems whose meditations usually arise out of the framework of narrative.
In one of the significant accomplishments of The Tradition, Brown invents his own nonce-form: the “duplex,” a poetic structure that takes features from the sonnet, the ghazal, and repeating forms like the pantoum or villanelle. These poems, with their contained set of images and hauntingly repeated lines, stop time in the collection. The ghost of the “burgundy car,” for instance, one memorable object in the collection, cycles through the poems through a haze that is erotic and painful, intoxicating and distressing. In the duplex poems, Brown’s characteristic statement-making gives itself over to something more lyrical, imagistic, and even voice-driven:
Love in the subway, love in mall restrooms.
A bore at home, he transformed in the city.
What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city.
You can’t accuse me of sleeping with a man.
The juxtapositions the duplexes make possible create meanings out of fractures and disjunctions, challenging the writer’s own sense of authority as his sentences turn and reappear. The collection’s final duplex, a “cento,” a poem made up out of the lines of the previous poems, functions like the “tradition,” accumulating its bodies and conscripting them into art: “We were the symptoms, the road our sickness.”
One of the risks of the short lyric and, more dramatically, the collection of short lyrics, is the sense that a poem is underdeveloped, that it presents the premise for a poem and not entirely — not fully — a poem itself; it’s in their self-containment, though, that Brown’s poems find their power and dynamism. In contrast to the facile politics of so many poems in the internet age, The Tradition revels in complexity and self-incrimination:
I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
For all their sharp turns and fractures, Brown’s poems don’t feel muscular; instead, their impulse is lush and sensitive, not martial. The “tradition” that Brown interrogates and transforms in this unforgettable poetry collection is the site of death and the site of survival:
I want to obliterate the flowered field,
To obliterate my need for the field
And raise a building above the grasses,
A building of prayer against the grasses.
Richie Hofmann is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and his poems appear in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Ploughshares, and The New York Times Style Magazine. His debut collection of poems, Second Empire (Alice James Books, 2015), won the Beatrice Hawley Award.