The Tradition by Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press, 2019. 110 pages.
Reviewed by Brendan White
Jericho Brown writes, “I am most interested in people who declare gratitude / For their childhood beatings,” which helps explain why roughly three-quarters of the 52 poems in The Tradition are about beatings, rape, suicide, or other evils. Foundational crimes are a big theme: “All land owned is land once stolen.” The first poem, “Ganymede,” obliquely compares the Greek myth, in which a beautiful Trojan boy is kidnapped by Zeus and made to serve the immortals, to the situation of enslaved people brought to America. Brown sidles into the comparison with a self-consciously perverse insistence that one can kind of put a positive spin on the story:
A man trades his son for horses.
That's the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don't you want God
To want you? Don't you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
The form of most of the poems is stichic tetrameter or trimeter, but two poems in the same form rarely follow one another. Brown also goes in for free verse, a few pentameter sonnets, some stanzaic song-like poems, and, my favorites, five seven-couplet poems all titled “Duplex,” where the last line of each couplet is partially repackaged as the first line of the next one. One of these begins and ends, “The opposite of rape is understanding.” Another begins, “A poem is a gesture toward home. / It makes dark demands I call my own.”
While each poem generally sticks to a form, Brown is happy to shorten or lengthen a line for effect, end an unrhymed poem on a rhyming couplet, or juice a poem with some internal rhymes two-thirds of the way through. The poem “Layover” starts with a joke about Dallas’s sprawl before moving into a first-person account of being raped off I-20, and the poem’s distressed stutter of only two or three words per line snaps into creepy polysyllabic fullness to explain the assailant’s motive: “He thought it necessary / To leave me with knowledge / I can be / Hated.”
A less successful poem like “The Shovel” is a merely competent elaboration of its first lines, “I am not the man who put a bullet in its brain / But I am commissioned to dispose of the corpse.” Its humorless intensity and careful vagueness reminded me of a network crime drama’s cold open, a sterile tension-delivery device. But all Brown’s endings, including that poem’s, click. Successful poems predominate, and spiral out of stylish assertions to follow their own parlous implications and rhythms. Brown likes to move his poems forward with tight pivots off associations, repeated words, or rhymes:
People say bad things about
Me, though they don’t know
My name. I have a name.
A stake. I settle. Dig. Die.
Go underground. Tunnel
The ocean floor. Root. Shoot
Up like a thought someone
Planted. Someone planted
An idea of me. A lie. A lawn
American racist violence abounds in the first two sections of the book, with poems about police brutality, mass incarceration, Emmett Till, and James Baldwin’s Rufus Scott, driven to suicide by white supremacy. Brown has a nose for painful ambivalence; plenty of poets could end a poem with the line, “no such thing as good white people,” but it’s wild that Brown leads up to it with admonitions of himself and his grandma and everyone else: “All is stained. She was ugly. / I’m ugly. You’re ugly too. / No such thing as good white people.”
The third and final section surprises with relatively chipper erotic poems, though these do not want for menace, and there is a poem from the point of view of the human immunodeficiency virus. After the turbulent first section lurches towards self-understanding and the confrontation of trauma in the second section (which ends with “Layover”), the hale gay sexiness of the third section finds the poet addressing and reckoning himself: “I am sick of your sadness, / Jericho Brown.” The book ends with a return to the rapist and abusive father in “Duplex: Cento”: “Steadfast and awful, my tall father / Was my first love.” The lines in this final poem all derive from earlier incarnations of “Duplex,” so this final confrontation carries the paradoxical sense that we already knew all of it, and have already lived through it.
Brendan White is a poet and local government employee who lives in Chicago.