Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews

I don't remember how I hurt myself...

The New Testament
Jericho Brown.
Copper Canyon Press. 2004. 91 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-457-1.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Jericho Brown's web footprint is modest in its extent and subject matter, recent and carefully curated. He is present in Facebook and Twitter and careful about what and how much he says on them. On at least one notable occasion it overtly offers the history of his persona and playfully admits that he likes to mix fact and fiction sometimes. What decidedly is not fiction are his qualifications as a poet: African American, gay, BA, MFA, PhD in Creative Writing and Literature, two highly regarded volumes of poetry, an American Book Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a member of the Creative Writing Program faculty at Emory University.

In short, Brown is young, highly intelligent, well educated, groomed to a casual stand-still, and adept at building an Internet persona, as well as being an exceptional poet. He is all these things to an unusually high level.

It might seem that he is contrived until one hears him being interviewed. While, he clearly enjoys his growing fame, he is also by all appearances entirely unguarded. His words are perfectly clear, precisely the optimum amount precise, and his laughter is free and engaging. His enthusiasm is communicable.

The one fact of personal history Brown freely reveals is that his father regularly struck him. This was not the limit of the abuse, there having been continual emotional harshness also. It is quite possible that it is all understated. Actually, there is a second fact: He was brought up regularly attending the Baptist church, which he appreciated a great deal more than he did his father. Both will be repeatedly present in the poems in this book.

The poet will be present, also, but it will not be as obvious exactly how much or where. Brown alludes briefly, here and there, to many of his poems being, all or in part, "persona poems." Whatever exactly they are, in in one instance or another, we all agree that they are gripping.

I cannot locate the origin
Of slaughter, but I know
How my own feels, that I live with it
And sometimes use it
To get the living done...

The poet's power of keeping the poem free of the overt details of violence, of deftly keeping such matters in the realm of suggestion, while keeping it emotionally precise, is striking from first to last.

The lines quoted above are from the first poem in The New Testament. The poem was so unusually good that I read the second in order to find out whether it promised more. That poem was entitled "Romans 12:1":

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

The persona of the poem is ambiguous, here a man, there perhaps a woman.

I let a man touch me until I bled,...

A pattern had formed from the first. This book would be about pleasure and pain, about tension, about emotional violence. The irony of the Biblical passage is as fraught as any I'd read since the young Geoffrey Hill. There was no question that I would quickly read the book through. I'd taken the hook.

In poetry and prose, Jericho Brown's favorite subject—the mystery that, by all appearances, makes him a poet—is the confusion of pleasure and pain and the other myriad confusions that wait upon it. Each of the lives into which he imagines himself is a passion of confusion, pleasure and pain. Only the lacerations are brought into precise focus.

Brown may or may not have had a brother who was ambivalent towards him (and does not seem to appear in his prose biography). The brother may or may not have died violently in one of the ways recounted in The New Testament. The narrator of the poems about the brother may or may not have been Brown himself. But the pleasure of pain and the pain of pleasure are very real and the poetry that brings them to us is often so attractive that we momentarily lose our way in it, we let go of ourselves and step into the confusion.

There is "The Interrogation" and the "Reality Show." Not surprisingly, "At the End of Hell" is heaven:

If I scream, Pastel—he
Swears he's sorry, unties
My feet. What if that's
Worth a few bruises

Not only the Bible is demanded to bear up under the proud persona the poet struggles to assert in a pain-filled pleasure-filled world. The poem "Receiving Line" has a date by way of epigraph: "November 4, 2008." The poet stands in a metaphorical receiving line, introducing himself to the nation that has elected its first African American president:

My name is Jericho Brown.
I like a little blues and a lot of whiskey. I read
When my children let me. I write what I can't

Resist. I'm as proud of you as a well-built chest, and
I am in unlegislated love with a man bound
To grab for me when he sleeps. Take my right hand,

The one that wakes him, the one I use to swear—

There can be no rest. Not until victory is complete... or the energy and perfect confidence of youth finally passes.

By the end of The New Testament, I was not able to forego an Internet search for "the real Jericho Brown." Finding that there may not yet be one was not particularly shocking in today's world. Will he need to find (or reveal) himself in order for his exceptional talents to give us still better books of poems? However that turns out, it will be interesting to follow along.


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