Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Copper Canyon Press, 2019
Jericho Brown’s third book, The Tradition, is his most powerful, and his most technically accomplished, yet. Brown attempts to interrogate mythology, the news cycle, police shootings, racism, and the vulnerability of his body in this stunning collection. If Brown’s first book, Please, was a poetry narrative of a boy growing up among his family, his faith, and his history—and if The New Testament was a further examination of art, race, and faith—The Tradition is more complex. Grittier, more nuanced, more self-aware, wearier of the racism and violence around him, more aware of mortality and illness. The speakers of these poems have been betrayed: by the gods, by their own bodies, by their country, by their fellow humans, by the tradition they find themselves in. These poems are bitter, mature, sometimes funny reflections on our culture. They feel important without being ponderous, personal without being petty.
The collection introduces a new form of Brown’s making, the “Duplex,” a sonnet-like series of couplets that includes repetition and, here, is used to devastating effect. In an interview with Michael Dumanis, Brown explained how he came up with the form:
Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms? I was looking at sonnets, looking at ghazals. I got really interested in ghazals when writing my second book. In ghazals, you take couplets that are completely disparate, then juxtapose those couplets so that some kind of magic happens because of the juxtapositions. So I was like, “Oh, if I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.
The first Duplex appears on page 18: “Memory makes demands darker than my own:/ My last love drove a burgundy car…” and the last one, “Duplex: Cento” echoes lines from it (as well as other Duplex poems in the book): “My last love drove a burgundy car,/ Color of a rash, a symptom of sickness…” and ends the book with “Steadfast and awful, my tall father/ Was my first love. He drove a burgundy car.”
Along with this innovation, Brown’s poems still hum with their trademark lyricism – song lyrics and Bible verses and poetry verses show up in all of Brown’s books. His persona poems in this book, compared to the previous two, are a little more worn, a little less triumphant. The subjects of slavery and rape come up repeatedly in the poems throughout the book, which opens with a poem about a boy raped by the gods, “Ganymede”:
When we look at the myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you?
The poet reiterates this question in several other poems. Brown makes use of mythology, but also writes of racism in light of current events. “Ganymede” ends: “The people of my country believe/ We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.”
In “Bullet Points” he writes about police shootings: “I will not shoot myself/ In the head…I promise if you hear/ Of me dead anywhere near/ A cop, then that cop killed me.” The reader cannot ignore the steady refrain of violence in this book, violence particularly against the bodies of people of color. Brown references blackness and darkness throughout the book as both his metaphors and his realities.
One of the most successful poems in the book is the self-conscious “Dark,” where he claims to be sick of himself, or perhaps he imagines his reader is sick of him. I wish I could quote the whole poem, because the sounds and the humor are incredible, almost like a new “Lovesong for J. Alfred Prufrock,” where self-pity and humor become an armor, a kind of beauty.
I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books. Sick of you…
Consumed with a single
Diagnosis of health. I’m sick
Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new…
Everyone you love is
As dark, or at least as black.
The Tradition is riveting and rewarding, and although I have been a fan of all of Jericho Brown’s books, this might be the most moving and the most stark. Yet he has not failed to maintain a romantic, hopeful glimmer throughout the book, as in yet another Duplex poem:
I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse…
Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good…
In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.
A poet who works with a gift for lyric language to speak to pain, relationships, politics, and the flaws of our community and our bodies, Jericho Brown creates in The Tradition a new kind of song, a new kind of lament, for a country and a self. He’s a poet who sets out to create a space for himself inside the Tradition, and he succeeds.
Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is http://www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6.