Poetry as Prayer

Review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament (USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2014)
by Kendrick Loo

In an interview with Claire Harvey for The Interlochen Review, Jericho Brown speaks to the similarity between poetry and prayer. Poetry, Brown states, is incantatory: to be heard even though it is read on the page. Its ineffability is similar to Christian belief, where believers seek faith in what they cannot see. "Prayer is how we make our presence known to God,” Brown says, "[and] I think poetry somehow is a lot like that." The New Testament, Brown's follow-up to his debut collection Please (New Issues, 2008), holds true to this, testifying to the experience of a queer black man negotiating faith in both his personal and public life.

"Colosseum", the collection's first poem, is poetry as prayer at its finest. Rather than engaging in the experience of gratuitous physical spectacle and bloodshed that the title conjures up, Brown's poem locates itself in the aftermath of violence:

I don't remember how I hurt myself,
The pain mine
Long enough for me
To lose the wound that invented it

While the poem uses violence, Brown's purpose is to juxtapose it against moments of healing and introspection, demonstrating how beauty still emerges out of pain. This is why Brown follows his opening four lines with “none of us knows the beauty / Of our own eyes / Until a man tells us they are / Why God made brown.” In reflection, in both senses of the word, we understand that wounds are sometimes inflicted by our own thoughts. The inclusion of a same-sex relationship allows the poem to reveal how queer men struggle with loving themselves. This lack of love is violence too, and why the poem struggles against the jagged, enjambed lines of its body to its ultimately hopeful end. As the persona declares:

…I am what gladiators call
A man in love—love
Being any reminder we survived.

If poetry is prayer, "Colosseum" ends on the affirmation to love, the ability to give and receive intimacy. With twenty-one lines, Brown sets out his collection's themes—the foremost being the devotion and love between men. It is only when men are able to step out to engage with each other in love that true healing occurs. His poem is incantatory, revealing truth while also claiming that this will become reality.

Numerous poems in The New Testament are lyrical in their testimony to Brown's lived experiences, a recognition that prayers can be musical while discussing the uncomfortable. "Homeland", one of a trio of poems that speaks to Brown's anxieties with regard to the political and corporeal body, maintains a carefully understated tone in approaching the racial politics of America:

…In America that year, black people kept dreaming
That the president got shot. Then the president got shot
Breaking into the White House. He claimed to have lost
His keys…

The use of a reporter’s voice, enlivened by enjambment, presents an otherwise bleak truth in a humorous manner. His imagery likewise alternates between grotesque and mundane to create incongruity—"All the men thought me a vampire. All the women were / Women", revealing the paradox whereby individuals can be both ordinary yet capable of holding incredibly cruel beliefs. If prayer is supposed to present human dilemmas to God, "Homeland" parallels prayer in offering the hypocrisies of an allegedly post-racial country to confront readers. Brown does not flinch from presenting these deeply uncomfortable intimacies, though he anticipates not everyone is ready for such closeness. He reveals such in "Heartland", where his body itself becomes the poem:

This is the book of three
Diseases. Close it, and you’re caught
Running from my life…

Poetry, Brown suggests, is not merely art but word breathed into life. That is the sacrament of writing. Conversely, in a collection so closely related to faith and prayer, the comparison of reading to the act of devotion is hardly a stretch.

The flexibility of prayer as an extended conceit means that Brown's poetry encompasses a wide collection of themes, often times yoking together what appears to be diametrically opposed topics. "Colosseum", Brown's opening poem, for example, opens by invoking the personal voice in opposition to public spectacle, enhancing the poem's optimistic view on love as a means to "get the living done". "Homeland", by invoking the private body against the political reality faced by a black man, exposes the fallacy that the personal and political can remain separate spheres for discussion. Yet, one of the most fascinating juxtapositions in The New Testament is found in the poem "Motherland", where Brown's grief over his late brother is most clearly evoked.

In "Motherland", his brother's death is examined in a series of emotional landscapes ranging from childhood memories, the world of Eden, and even Brown's subconscious. Women figure with prominence—Angel, the wife of Brown's brother, being a key figure, Brown's mother being another. The dynamics of the relationship are quietly destructive: domestic violence has its place at the table, as does a mother's microaggressions, as when she tells Brown never to bring another Angel into her house. Taken as a gestalt, these emotional landscapes uncover the tragedy that has been hinted at throughout the collection, but the depth of Brown's feeling is concealed till "Motherland" ends:

But if I turn too quick on Line with the worst music, I can hear him again, explaining the satisfaction of hurting a woman who's still there the next morning. I think that's why he loved Angel, ugly or fine. What man wouldn't love a woman like that? And why can't I?

With one paragraph, Brown's narration is blown apart by an interrogative that turns the poem's eye onto Brown himself, exposing a paradox in his inability to accord himself mercy when he easily forgives others. A deeply introspective narrative ends with a question. The reader is drawn in, involved intimately in the process, as if led by the poem's violent turn to engage in reflection as well. At the height of its power Brown's poetry is not only luminous, but a light over the soul.

As implied, Brown does not simply stop at confession or confrontation in his poetics—he also seeks to explore. In "1 Corinthians 13:11", Brown probes biblical verses and narratives to find a space where queer bodies can exist. Before exploring Brown's craftsmanship, let us first consider the original verse from the New King James Version:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

While the biblical verse creates, via syntactical repetition, an untroubled childhood that is eventually set aside, Brown's act of returning to his childhood places the poem in direct conflict with the original verse. The reason for this is made apparent, as the poem rapidly diverges from a simplistic narrative, giving way to a nuanced and troubled voice. Instead of a childhood filled with childish concerns, Brown's narrator speaks with remarkably prescient, adult concerns:

…I was never alone. I owned
My brother's shame of me. I loved
The words thou and thee. Both meant
My tongue in front of my teeth.
Both meant someone speaking to me.
So what if I itched. So what if I couldn't

While there is a childish tone generated by the internal rhymes and falling tones of each sentence's closing word (me, thee, teeth, breathe), the rhythm of the line is a smokescreen for the adult concerns that plague the persona, most dramatically visualized by the act of suffocation. This is traced to the actions of elders that populate the poem, who are implied to be a part of the persona's church. These elders may only engage in nothing more than speech acts ("old men called me", "old men asked for", "Old men / said that"), but the actions of these elders, symbolic representatives of externally imposed expectations and boundaries, limit Brown's younger self in his ability to peacefully explore his queer identity. Much of the collection can therefore be seen as a belated response to this erasure, taking its assigned title of The New Testament literally.

While a small number of Brown's adaptations or responses to the Bible may lack the punch of his other poems ("Psalms 150" for example, does not hold its weight when it adapts a devotional psalm to an earthly love sonnet), the majority of Brown's responses are lovely to read. "Romans 12:1" is a delightful take on the concept of transubstantiation and the conception of a body as an acceptable offering to God. Here, for the figure of God is substituted another man, and the speaker's body made wondrous under a homosexual gaze. The act of giving oneself is a form of transformation in itself—"my blood met his hunger / And was so changed”—the yoking of homosexual desire with spiritual awakening, drawing an implicit conclusion that the two can in fact, be one. However, this radical offering is not accepted by all, and Brown reflects on the reality where men revile him, "won't call [him]... Brother". Needless to say, Brown stands by his interpretation that both the divine and the earthly have their place. Rebelliously, he suggests that the queer body is still an acceptable offering, declaring himself to be "Dear dying sacrifice".

Despite rejections by family, church, and society, the collection never loses sight of "Colosseum" and the hope of reconciliation between brothers, lovers, and friends. "Hebrews 13", a poem reliant on simplicity stands out against the many acts of male-on-male violence and discomfort lurking throughout The New Testament. Its rarity lies in the poem's setting, which conjures up domestic peace with its opening lines, "Once, long ago, in a land I cannot name, / My lover and my brother both knocked / At my door like wind in an early winter". In rapid succession, the persona invites both men in, brewing coffee for his visitors. The tension between the speaker's brother and lover—a charged situation to say the least—is overwritten by the promise of shelter offered by the speaker. When one looks up Chapter 13 in the Book of Hebrews, the verse exhorting Christians to entertain strangers, for one may end up hosting angels in disguise, leaps out. Silence, which hovers among the men, becomes holy, not unlike grace. Come in from the cold, the poem prays—not all truths are so aching. Sometimes, forgiveness is as simple as silence.

The breadth of a life well lived is evident throughout The New Testament. This review will end with Brown's beautiful homage to James Baldwin, whose words greet us on the front page: “One’s lover—or one's brother, or one's enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions.” Brown's collection, I believe, is a beautiful testament to this in action: if one lives, prays, and reveals one's true face, extraordinary changes can be made. Brown ends his collection on such a moment: “Let that sting / Last and be transfigured". How difficult it is not to be moved.

Kendrick Loo is an English & Management undergraduate at University of St Andrews. His poetry has been published in SingPoWriMo '16, The New Paper, and L'Ephemere Review. He is part of the ATOM writing group.