More Than a Conqueror

Review of Jericho Brown’s The Tradition (USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2019)
by Theophilus Kwek

For readers accustomed to the irreverent, even iconoclastic flavor of so much contemporary poetry, the title of Jericho Brown’s new collection (or simply the idea of tackling so fraught a theme, this side of history) might seem a curious choice. But those familiar with Brown’s work, and especially his spellbinding sophomore collection The New Testament (2014), will find here a deliberate return to the rich histories and richer cadences that, from early in his career, marked a truly remarkable voice.

The term “tradition,” of course, contains far more than the past. While its anthropological dimension defines tradition as the transmission of culture from one generation to the next, tradition has a second, religious dimension, one which references doctrines that are seen as divine even though they are not found in scripture. This divine aspect of tradition, which frames itself as unquestionable and righteous, is also examined in Brown’s new book. The Tradition traces the way history is not only learned and remembered, but embodied—in careful rituals of order and desire that survive to the present day. Though the bruising confessionalism of Brown’s poems might render them foremost a record of personal history, The Tradition serves equally as a living chronicle for a community, as well as a stern reminder to a nation that has forgotten its past. For Brown, these separate dimensions blur into each other, as violent histories leave their marks on the individual person. In one of the opening pieces, "As a Human Being," he writes: "you fought/ Your father and won, marred him./ He’ll have a scar he can see all/ Because of you.” Like a wound, the same poem goes on to show, one must "tend" to this history, "no matter how sore the injury.”

But how does one turn old bitterness into beauty? The collection’s third poem, “Flower,” sheds some light on Brown’s craft. Composed almost entirely of two-word lines, the poem is formally distinct from much of the book, but distils Brown’s gift for repetition, innuendo, rhyme, and balance into four perfect quatrains. Its sing-song opening lines ("Yellow bird./ Yellow house./ Little yellow/ Song.") have the quality of a whimsical ditty, but, slipping into the second stanza, begin to signify powerfully the heat of desire and disease ("Light in my/ Jaundiced mouth.") Yet even this heat will not contain the poet, who turns a phrase that may suggest a lover’s subordinate position—"This/ Black boy/ Keeps singing”—into a declaration of his intent to "keep singing,” whatever the cost: "Tiny life./ Yellow bile."

Such deft instincts serve the poet well as he tackles some of the collection’s thorniest questions. Echoing contemporaries like Danez Smith (Don’t Call Us Dead, 2017), Brown writes with piercing clarity about the multi-generational legacy of HIV and its inescapable stigma, which intertwines so closely with race that it sits "Just beneath your skin"—and deeper yet—"in/ Each organ/ The way anger dwells in a man/ Who studies the history of his nation" (“The Virus”). For its sufferers, Brown suggests, the incurable fact of the disease gestures towards another ailment so deeply entrenched in the way black bodies appear in society’s eyes that it seems equally immutable: "I am sick of your sadness,/ Jericho Brown, your blackness,/ Your books" (“Dark”). While others, including Smith, focus on the immediate precarity of living with HIV, Brown shines a light on the deeper, more permanent violence wrought by prejudice on the way many patients have come to see themselves: "I understood myself/ That way, as danger … but I thought/ Infestation. Now I worry/ No one will ever love me" (“The Rabbits”).

With shared history so closely intertwined with shared pain, what positive benefits can tradition give? Brown’s answer to this question (particularly in poems like “After Avery R. Young,” which refer directly to a lineage of black writers and musicians) is twofold; a sense of community, yes, but also a sense of the transcendent: "Sometimes you is/ Everybody/ … / I am one of the ones. I belong." In this way, tradition is not unlike faith, or love. He grapples head-on with the obvious parallels to institutional religion, careful to emphasize that whatever others may find there, he finds instead in history, community and identity: "Some people need religion. Me?/ I’ve got my long black hair" (“Monotheism”). At the same time, he writes about his (and our) deepest desires with more than a hint of the divine: "I wanted what anyone/ With an ear wants—/ To be touched and/ Touched by a presence/ That has no hands" (“I Know What I Love,” whose title harks back to the old hymn “I Know Whom I Have Believed”).

The poems’ symbolic landscape, which is thoroughly biblical (with a sprinkling of Hellenic and contemporary references), may put off readers who are less familiar, or less comfortable, with the Judeo-Christian lexicon. Brown, however, is cognizant that biblical language is fraught with its own inequities, and thus uses The Tradition to interrogate America's tendency of using moral language as an organizing principle. He suggests, in a stinging rebuke, that such language perpetuates a simplified way of thinking about issues, thereby failing to capture what is happening on America's streets. For example, in one poem of a series all titled “Duplex,” scattered in every section of the book, Brown uses the duplex's unique form (invented by the author himself) to subvert the oft-repeated Christian ideal of the body as a temple.

A building of prayer against the grasses,
My body a temple in disrepair.

My body is a temple in disrepair.
The opposite of rape is understanding.

Brown’s handling of symbolic language is even more stark in his title poem, “The Tradition.” The sonnet begins by listing common flowers—"Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium."—whose names’ Latinate roots locates the poem's use of flowers within the European philosophical tradition. But Brown ends with a devastating couplet that reminds us how black boys’ names have, for the most tragic reasons, come to resonate all the more painfully: "When the world ends, everything cut down./ John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown." This turn towards an American context refuses the urge to remain within the comfortable regions of Romantic poetry, but to gaze instead at the ongoing war American wages against its own citizens. Furthermore, it explores how names—innocuous but personal symbols of existence—have transformed into a communal call for change.

All in all, it seems that tradition brings Brown to a place where he does not have to "shine shoes" or "suffocate [himself] handsome/ In a tight, bright tie" to look his best on a Sunday morning, but where he can still partake in the grace of community; where he can forget himself in the voice of black gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins "halfway into/ the fifth minute of “The Potter’s House”.” Coming more than three quarters into the book, it is in this poem (“Deliverance”) that Brown presents his personal and poetic project in the most moving terms: "I am not a saint," he stresses, "Because I keep trying to be a sound, something/ You will remember/ Once you’ve lived enough not to believe in heaven." We see, once again, the "black boy … singing" (from “Flower”), whose song figures both as the poet’s individual quest to transcend the bitter realities of an "ugly people," and give voice to their shared inheritance.

There is a note of triumph, even authority, in Brown’s voice as he fixes on this impossible task. "I’m more than a conqueror, bigger/ Than bravery," he assures us, turning to Paul’s bold declaration from the Epistle to the Romans; "I’m set/ on something vast" (‘Crossing’). Perhaps it is because this enterprise has its own distinguished lineage (as Brown is acutely aware), of writers, preachers, activists, and statesmen, working with different means in each context and generation. But while others are focused on the now, Brown also knows that his work, his song, is for the ages. It is work that reaches back in time and will resound to the future, and our collective inheritance is richer for the honesty—for the sheer searching reach—of it. In Brown’s own words: "I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps."

Theophilus Kwek is a writer, editor and translator based in Singapore. He has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Irish Examiner, and the Mekong Review.