By Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by Emily Banks
In Jericho Brown's The Tradition, the tradition we encounter is not of a single source but is, rather, an amalgam of traditions that compete, contradict, and coalesce in the speaker's voice. Weaving together Greek mythology, familial and religious traditions, and the African American literary and artistic tradition, Brown aptly addresses subject matter at once universal, cultural, and personal. The fear permeating this impactful collection is a broadly human fear, but it also pertains specifically to the vulnerability of the black body, the black male body, and the black male queer body in contemporary America, thrusting us into our present moment while reminding us how we got here.
The poem that begins The Tradition, "Ganymede," refers to the Greek myth in which a Trojan king's son is kidnapped by the gods for his uncommon beauty. Brown's poem rearticulates the story as a way to approach sexual assault, monotheism, and the legacy of slavery in America, concluding with the lines, "The people of my country believe / We can't be hurt if we can be bought." This reworking of a classical text exemplifies the position Brown's speaker inhabits relative to mythic, religious, and historical tradition. His perspective on the story—where he sees the threat of rape and enslavement, and the oppressive potential of faith in an anthropomorphized God—lays the groundwork for the rest of the collection, in which the individual body emerges from and contends with the collective narratives that have preceded it.
Fear and faith, or lack thereof, circulate in various forms throughout the book. "The Microscopes" introduces a bodily fear both physical and ontological: the threat of violence set against the terror of seeing "Our actual selves taken down to a cell / Then blown back up again," the speaker's realization of "what little difference / God saw if God saw me," and, with it, his developing awareness of queer black invisibility. Brown diminishes the speaker's fear as "puny," but the language with which he illustrates it, winding sentences punctuated with fragments, imitate a panic that belies its gravity:
Narrow as the pencil tucked behind my ear, lost
When I reached for it
To stab someone I secretly loved: a bigger boy
Through those tight, locker-lined corridors shoving
Excuse me, more an insult than a battle. No large loss.
"No large loss" refers literally, and comically, to the pencil but resonates broadly with the anxieties of identity and violence, whether historical or hyper-local, woven through the poem. It underscores the speaker's feeling of insignificance within the education system and America as a whole as he learns to see himself through the literal lens of science and the figurative lens of history. The poem's concluding image, "A white woman walking with a speck like me," emphasizes the racial nature of the speaker's invisibility and, when read alongside the first line which describes the microscopes as "hard and black," indicates that blackness, particularly queer blackness, is simultaneously invisible and hyper-scrutinized. Black boys are held under microscopes, broken down to their smallest parts, but never truly seen.
The racialized fear portrayed in "Microscopes" is made explicit in poems like "Bullet Points," in which the speaker puts on record that, if he is found dead in police custody, his death should not be ruled a suicide, alluding to Sandra Bland and the numerous other Black men and women who have died under similarly suspicious circumstances. Interspersing explicit fears of racist and sexual violence with a more general, subtly pervasive trauma, Brown makes palpable the constant state of terror experienced by bodies socially marked as vulnerable. In his chilling instructions, "I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me," he gives voice to the dead, articulating the dual horror of being killed and not being able to tell about it. In his speaker's insistence on dying on his own terms, Brown emphasizes the extent to which state-sanctioned murder robs potential victims of human dignity:
When I kill me, I will
Do it the same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
If this biting portrayal of American death is what the speaker longs for, it is because the dehumanization of his alternative is so much more painful to face. In our current political climate it affirms that, yes, people are suffering all over, but not all people are suffering the same. Not all people are being killed by cops. In the book's next section, "Riddle" holds a mirror up for the oppressor. In its litany of condemning descriptions—"We own your bodies but have no / Use for your tears"—Brown calls upon readers to supply the answer to his riddle themselves, or perhaps admit that the answeris themselves. Followed by a poem titled "Good White People," which concludes with "No such thing as good white people," this powerful moment in the collection asks his audience to question their own complicity in the violence that permeates these poems.
An undercurrent of sexual trauma circles around and within racialized violence in The Tradition. In my favorite poem from the collection, "The Long Way," Brown declares to an unnamed listener, "Your grandfather was a murderer / I'm glad he's dead." These provocative opening lines address an individual, but do so much more than that; as a speech act, they reject culturally ingrained niceties of respect for the dead, demanding that we call the dead and their inheritors to task for the crimes they got away with. Brown details that the grandfather in question ". . . raped women / Who were not yet women," and imagines his addressee ". . . as a baby / bouncing on a rapist's knee." While admitting that he, too, enjoys clean teeth, Brown's speaker ultimately cannot forgive these ancestral crimes, explaining:
. . . I can't help you. I can't hug you.
I can't grip your right hand, though
It never held a gun, though it never
Covered a lovely mouth, and you can't pay me
To cross the ground floor without wishing
I could spit on or mar some slick surface
This poem expertly encapsulates the complexity of our ethical enmeshments with the past, questioning whether it can ever be, as Faulkner would say, even past. The repeated image of teeth cleaning signifies an alluring but threatening whiteness that functions to erase its own disturbing history. In the poem's final couplet, Brown cautions:
You'd end remembering
What won't lead to a smile that gleams
In dark places. Some don't know
How dark. Some do.
The "some" in this final line resonates with the many allusions to embodied darkness throughout The Tradition while also bringing our attention back to the "women / who were not yet women" harmed by the toothbrush-creator's violence. Both whiteness and predacious masculinity are implicated here, bound together by the image of the toothbrush. "The Long Way" is one of many poems in the collection that stick with you long after reading, its powerful voice amplified by the haunting repetition and stark syntax of its concluding couplet.
"Foreday in the Morning" highlights another of the collection's prominent threads, that of growth and regeneration through planting. Brown writes, "I love my mother. I love black women / Who plant flowers as sheepish as their sons," and leaves us with the image of laborers waiting at bus stops to do manual work, of which he writes, "My God, we leave things green." The recurrent imagery of garden work speaks to the beauty that arises from necessity and survival—a message that applies, of course, not only to physical labor but to art. And "God" is not merely an expression in this collection, which is ultimately deeply spiritual even in its skepticism. Brown, who writes in this poem that he is "confounded by God," calls upon the divine frequently throughout this collection, and even when these references are cynical or flippant they reveal, through jocular concealment, a vulnerable earnestness.
Stylistically, one very innovative element of The Tradition is Brown's invention of a new poetic form, the duplex. A combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues, the duplex as a form illustrates the complexity of tradition, the project of drawing from a wide array of received knowledge, art, and ritual to create new traditions. Situated as they are throughout the collection, Brown's duplexes act as a refrain within the larger work, providing a musical quality as striking phrases like "The opposite of rape is understanding" are repeated and remain stuck in our heads. I've already seen many poets announce via Twitter their own efforts to write duplexes, and it is remarkable to see how much The Tradition has already impacted the poetic community, sparking new artistic traditions of its own.