Jeannine Hall Gailey

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Tradition by Jericho Brown

Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Copper Canyon Press, 2019
Softcover, $17.00
ISBN: 978-1556594861

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 and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Deaf Republic
by Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf, 2019
Softcover, $16.00
ISBN: 978-1555978310

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic uses deafness and sign language as a powerful metaphor for the capability to stand up to brutal regimes, the refusal to cooperate with evil, and our shared reactions to the violence of the world. It’s a book about love, the power of communication, horrific evil, and the double edge of silence—“an invention,” says Kaminsky in the book’s end notes, “of the hearing.”

If Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa was a joyful yet unsparing narrative of a boy, and the history of the city he came from, Deaf Republic is something altogether different: more ambitious, more sprawling, more imaginative. An extended metaphor that at once encloses the intimacy of marriage and the shocking aftereffects of violence. A play (it lists characters as “Dramatis Personae” and has sections labeled “Act I” and “Act II”), or a parable about a fictional country and the revolution, deaths, and lives of its people. There are revolutionary puppeteers, soldiers who shoot anyone for deafness or for speaking up, women who seduce soldiers and murder them, soldiers who murder women in the street.

The book begins with the shooting of a young boy, Petya, at a public protest in the fictional country Vasenka, and ends with the revolution over, all the brave insurgents dead. It’s a difficult, angry, angsty fairy tale and, at its heart, a dark warning about the nature of humanity. Did I mention the poems are interspersed with an invented sign language, the language the villagers use to communicate without the soldier’s knowledge?

From “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins”:

Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.

In the name of Petya, we refuse.

At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alleyways, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears. At eight, the bakery door is shut in soldier Ivanoff’s face, though he’s their best customer. At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldiers’ barracks.

By eleven a.m., arrests begin.

Our hearing didn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.

One of the most impressive aspects of Deaf Republic is the way disability—the plague of deafness that the soldiers vow to annihilate—is an expression of rebellion, an act of defiance against inhumanity. (Kaminsky himself is hearing-impaired.) Echoes of the violence in the history of Odessa, which he explored in his first book, resound in this book, along with contemporary news stories. He reframes hearing or not hearing as an act of resistance. From “Checkpoints”:

In the street, soldiers install hearing checkpoints and nail announcements on posts and doors:


And Kaminsky’s characters—a female puppeteer who arranges the murders of soldiers, a pair of newlyweds who celebrate their new pregnancy while stubbornly refusing to bow down to the new order—offer touching glimpses into life before the war. Or despite the war; these characters enjoy entertainment, celebratory sex, and other small joys, although their inevitable massacre is more a foregone conclusion than a surprise.

The framing of the poems “We Lived Happily During the War” and “In a Time of Peace,” both set in America, indicates that Kaminsky has something to say about contemporary American culture. But to fully understand the indictment in these two poems, you have to read the whole story of Deaf Republic: the fictional monstrous behaviors of soldiers, the cowardice and bravery of the invaded country’s populace, the way that silence, murder, revolution, resistance, and sacrifice all fall inevitably together. From the first poem, “We Lived Happily During the War”:

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we


but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was

in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—

The poetic forms in this book, which include prose poems, lyric narratives, fragments, and poems in dialogue, indicate a narrative ambition that’s rarely seen in poetry collections. The story that Kaminsky intends to tell could have been contained just as easily in a play or in traditional lyric fiction. But Kaminsky’s ability to juxtapose stark reminders of evil with little pleasures could only be contained within the small, dense spaces of poetry.

Deaf Republic challenges us to think about listening, silence, and communication in a world that regards both violence and joy with dull indifference. As a disabled person myself, it made me think of my disabled body as an instrument of defiance against a world that regards bodies as mere tools or currency. Kaminsky’s work offers a way to consider how we challenge the evils we encounter every day, and how we value the small pleasures offered in the time “between bombardments.”

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 web site is and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6.

Five Poems

by Jeannine Hall Gailey



For the Love of Ivy

(Poison Ivy Leaves a Note for Batman in the Wake of Another Apocalypse Attempt)

You can see, can’t you, the appeal of such a world – lush with growth,

an earth empty of men’s trampling? In college, sitting through botanical medicine


classes, ecotoxicology, experiments in plant poisons – it became clear

that this was my verité – an orchid dressed to seduce wasps, a blooming


parasite wrapped around the trunk of a tree. You might take me home,

beg me for a kiss, but don’t you see the xylem and phloem in my veins


can’t pulse for you? My only offense not-death, regenerating from venom

fed me by my own professor? Feculent, fecund and feral, my power


you couldn’t understand, being born of cave-dwellers, bats and humans,

and your peculiar love of stray cats. My very existence, perhaps, my only crime


against nature. You can’t stem the murmur of voices under soil,

buried against their will – radioactive trees, GMO fruit. Just consider me


another mutant gone wrong, my betrayals in the distant backstory, my tears

now flow a green ooze as I try to heal the land, cesium in the sunflowers,


goat genes welded into innocent corn. Despite drought and denial,

I will continue to grow unharmed, my defense all delicate leaf and toxic petal.



The Black Widow’s Bite 

is full of tired venom, a ballerina lost in flames.

The years spent conforming to black bodysuits

and government cabals. Can’t whitewash her childhood

away, can’t forget years spent whispering secrets

into untrustworthy ears. How many hawks and highwaymen

on the side of the road, how many daredevil escapes?

Fighting for one country or cause after another,

it’s not exactly patriotism or passion that mobilizes her

but where else, exactly, does she fit? Educated in warfare

and mind games and little else, her 73rd birthday

behind her and barely a wrinkle, what can she turn to now

but the bottle of fine vodka, Mussorgsky (another team player

betrayed) and dreams of fallen empires? Peel back the layers

of her identity – who was Natalia before the orphanage fire,

a little girl playing at being the last Romanov?



Why I Love The Supervillain 

Because I, too, was raised by wolves in a town seeped through with secrets and radioactive spiders.

Because I am tired of the shiny and strong.

Because once I believed that everything could be fixed, and now I am tempted to believe

the bald man with the laptop and Persian cat, the wheelchair-riding scientist in dark glasses and German accent, the brittle-boned over the muscle-bound. And all those tights.

Because my father was a mad scientist, and my mother a tragic figure I could not save. Because my twin brother is alive on another planet in a parallel universe.

Because I, too, long for a laser ray to wipe the slate clean, to write my name in the blank smug face of the moon.



The Scientist Solves a Puzzle 

Like the boy in the Snow Queen story,

playing with ice and fire, trying to spell “love”

or “salvation,” ending up with only broken shards.

I don’t remember what I wanted to accomplish.

When did I find myself so far away, so bruised with frost,

so unseeing? There are crystals in my heart, fragments

of mirror in my eye. I stack one atom next to another,

then force them apart, race them against the clock.

I’m only guessing. Endothermic, exothermic.

Is that what brought on this nuclear winter? I forget.

I remember a long time ago I thought it would always be exciting,

that logic would save the day, man’s triumph over matter.

White lab coats, secret caves for experiments.

Atomic man. Radioactive boy. Tick tick tick. 



Introduction to Girl Detectives 

It’s important to start with a powder blue car and a locked diary.

The mystery is the disappearance of the mother. No role models.


The girl detective catches the film noir festival downtown, the theatre

with patchy velvet curtains and fading murals. The images light her up.


Silk blouses, nefarious hot-rollered hair. Pools of blood, dim corridors. She thinks:

contemporary versions of my character might sport tattoos, nose rings, contempt for law.


She has a lot of male friends, but no permanent love interest. Sometimes

she thinks it is because she is too good at solving mysteries.


She indulges in shinrin-yoku, to soothe her nerves, control her impulse to clean

her purse again. She meditates, tries hot yoga. Still the tick of that clock in her head.


The girl detective says, if you’d been working since 1930,

you’d be worn out too. The girl detective’s sleeves are getting frayed.


One more puzzle to solve: the clock tower whispering too latetoo late,

the shadowed hallway leading once more to a tower of books, to solitude,


to a storyline where she might once again be the heroine, thumping along

solid as the engine of her vintage Mustang convertible.