A Poetic Body of Work Grapples With the Physical Body at Risk
By Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown’s third poetry collection, “The Tradition,” opens with a poem called “Ganymede.” It begins as an unassuming reframing of the Greek myth in which Zeus kidnaps a beautiful boy, but swerves into a charged recrimination of the victim (“Don’t you want God / To want you?”) and then takes a sudden jump into the context of slavery: “And when the master comes / For our children. …” This “master” emerges near the end like a sharp note in a song, tonally and narratively dissonant from the earlier mythological imagery. History and myth meet, however, in their mutual understanding of victimhood and subjugation, and Brown ends by moving beyond self-recrimination to solemnity: “The people of my country believe / We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.”
In “The Tradition,” Brown creates poetry that is a catalog of injuries past and present, personal and national, in a country where blackness, particularly male blackness, is akin to illness. The collection characterizes blackness in a number of ways: as a speck, as flowers primed to be cut down. (The title sonnet ends with some tragic, familiar names: “John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.”) Even as he reckons seriously with our state of affairs, Brown brings a sense of semantic play to blackness, bouncing between different connotations of words to create a racial doublespeak. “Dark” may be synonymous with “morbid” or “dark-skinned,” and “black” may connote death or ethnicity. That’s the point, of course, as Brown’s well-placed juxtapositions of words and phrases and themes allow contexts to bleed together.
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A writer who tends toward neatness, in the sense of formal order and lyrical restraint, in most poems Brown uses straightforward syntax studded with short sentences and questions pointed like arrows. In others, like “Shovel,” he flexes to the occasion; he mostly abandons the short sentences for winding, enjambed ones strung out by conjunctions and prepositions to lead us, with calculated precision, to lines about the nature of haunting. And in “As a Human Being,” about a domestic altercation, the poem’s obsession with pairs — repeated words and sentence structures — draws attention to the adjacency of a thing to its relative: the speaker to his father, his father to his mother, his mother to him. Every relationship is a study in proximities.
But it’s Brown’s invented form, the “duplex,” a 14-line poem of staggered couplets that’s part pantoum, part sonnet and part ghazal, that showcases his particular strengths, in linking phrases and images, repeating words in a kind of transactional exchange of distance between the speaker and the reader; the repetition invites us forward only to push us slightly backward, a rhetorical push-pull that lands us back at the line where we started. In this sense, Brown’s poems are flirtatious, teasing us with moments of sexual and emotional vulnerability. “Though the spring be less than actual, / Men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me,” he hints in one of his more riveting duplex poems, and a few pages later, he admits, “I’d oblige because he hurt me / With a violence I mistook for desire.”
Brown’s speaker also reveals himself in the exquisitely executed “Layover,” an account of an assault alluded to throughout the collection. A stripped-down stream-of-consciousness account that rolls down the page without interruption by punctuation, the poem reads like a long pant, fast and yet halting, due to the sharp enjambment. The scene isn’t performed or dressed up in metaphor, but rather delivered with the small, specific details that make a story come devastatingly to life:
In Dallas is
At 3:24 a.m.
Off I-20 where
I was raped
Though no one
Would call it
It takes us two-thirds of the way through the book to get to this revelation; Brown works up to the more intimate pieces, about assault, relationships and an H.I.V. diagnosis, prepping us along the way with hints of what’s to come.
“My body is a temple in disrepair,” he writes in one duplex. There are countless poets of the body, but the body in Brown’s poetry serves as a nexus of the corporeal and conceptual. The “body” of his work isn’t just a physical, individual one; it’s a stand-in for various (flawed) institutions of power and belief: national history, religion, mythology, the justice system.
Sometimes conversations about the body, however, risk becoming nondescript. Breaking his neat syntax, in “After Avery R. Young,” Brown writes from the view of a collective black consciousness: “Sometimes you ain’t we. Sometimes you is / Everybody.” Later, he continues: “The blk mind is a continuous / Mind. There is a we. I am among them.” Some of the more general poems about race (“After Another Country,” “Bullet Points,” “The Water Lilies”), while still worth the read, get bogged down in the conceit and buried in the broad strokes of the experience they capture. Brown’s best poems revel in the curiosities of their mythmaking and are self-confrontational in their gaze, as in the blunt, bold self-address of “Dark,” which begins, “I am sick of your sadness, Jericho Brown” and gruffly asserts, with an ironically singsong bounce and rhyme: “I’m sick / Of your hurting. I see that / You’re blue. You may be ugly, / But that ain’t new.”
The same shade of cynicism appears in the seductive “Trojan,” which finds the speaker in a sexual encounter: “Candles are / Romantic because / We understand shadows. / We recognize the shape / Of what once made us / Come.” Brown goes on to land the ending with characteristic aplomb; his poems delight in their own swerves, some discreetly steered toward like a bend in a road and others making a sudden about-face. “Romance is an act,” he declares, before promptly drawing a tragic parallel to the infamous death of Patroclus, who “died because / He could not see / What he really was inside / His lover’s armor.”
In Brown’s poems, the body at risk — the infected body, the abused body, the black body, the body in eros — is most vulnerable to the cruelty of the world. But even in their most searing moments, these poems are resilient out of necessity, faithful to their account of survival, when survival is the hardest task of all: “So the Bible says, in the beginning, / Blackness. I am alive.”
Maya Phillips’s first book of poetry, “Erou,” will be published in the fall.
By Jericho Brown
77 pp. Copper Canyon Press. Paper, $17.
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