Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

First Stage Separation

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Tradition.
Jericho Brown.
Copper Canyon Press. 2019. 110 pp.
ISBN 978-1556594861.

"I try to let language tell me what it wants," Jericho Brown explains to the reviewer from The Spectacle. "I try to let whatever subconscious things that come out of me show me the direction that the poem wants to go." The online journal describes itself as "based out of the English, Creative Writing, and Visual Art departments at Washington University in St. Louis. We are committed to publishing work from under-represented voices, including people of color, women, LGBTQ and gender-non-conforming artists/writers, and people who have disabilities."

These are the things most successful contemporary poets do. They teach classes and do readings in venues dedicated to diversity followed by question and answer sessions dedicated to diversity while they wait for the subconscious to call them away to write poems. At least if one considers department meetings, Christmas parties, clubbing, sex, etc., to be implied as context to that description.

That description also includes reading in casual jeans and Hands Up Don't Shoot tee-shirts, LGBT tee-shirts, #MeToo tee-shirts. It goes without saying.

This is what Jericho Brown does, now. He has a particular talent for it. He is clearly happy doing it. It seems to be everything he could have hoped it would be.

Then one answer, in a Guardian interview, goes "In 2010, I became very ill with HIV." In the extended video footage since then he appears physically well. The crisis seems to have submitted to one or another combination of drugs. The only tell-tale sign is a line from a poem in the present book:

My man swears his HIV is better than mine...

It is a single poem. Not one of the better. Likely included in this volume as an act of honesty, even courage.

So then Jericho Brown is living out his life's dream in spite of something—something very big. He lives mostly in the part of his life that brings him the joy of his success.

When a hurricane sends
Winds far enough north
To put our power out,
We only think of winning
The war bodies wage
To prove the border
Between them isn't real.

The confusion of pain and pleasure in The New Testament (Brown's previous book) which helped get him tenure at Emory University is less prevalent. The loving harshness of his upbringing—the evangelical rejection of his lifestyle choices—seems to be receding like the first stage of a rocket tumbling back toward earth while the second stage escapes the chains of gravity.

Behind it comes the hint of a new confidence in living in the moment. Of permission.

I'm sure
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black. I thought then
Of holding you
As a political act. I
May as well have
Held myself.

There are few such notes, yet, and they are new to Brown's poetry.

There is less discipline in this book than in The New Testament. The fierce tautness of those lines has relaxed, is evident now only in occasional passages. A loosely connected series of 4 poems, each entitled "Duplex," are scattered throughout the book—apparently "subconscious things." Another poem is composed of three brief, numbered "meditations." More poems feature short lines, ambivalent line breaks depending upon the reader to tease out meanings.

While pain and pleasure are generally opposites in The Tradition, they still are not far apart. More poems feature attractive flowers and gardens that morph into backgrounds for harsh realities of black and gay life. Cherished clichés and convenient perceptions are disconcertingly challenged.

Having abandoned the god whose worshippers could not embrace him, Jericho Brown is aware throughout The Tradition that for all that was gained things of importance also were lost.

When I die
A man or a woman will
Clean up the mess
A body makes. They'll
Talk about gas prices
And the current drought
As they prepare the blue-
Black cadaver...

Still, there are HIV drugs. There are readings in venues dedicated to diversity followed by question and answer sessions dedicated to diversity. Still, there is the poetry.


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