Jericho Brown–The New Testament–An n-dimensional Hybrid of Homogeneities
Jericho Brown combines confessionalism with mysticism, sexuality, and politics with an energy and determination hardly ever proved by any other young poet nowadays. And the feverish will to fuse and diversify concomitantly is paralleled by the wide formal range that he masters like a true virtuoso. In a longer sequence like “Motherland” for instance, the free verse and alternation of voices in a family reunion episode is followed by elucidating prose accounts, by a sharp blues on Teddy Pendergast being shot, and a sonnet where Brown typically rewrites a biblical passage. This time he deals with Eve’s temptation—which pans out even more intriguingly than one would expect as the ‘realist’ fragments in the rest of the poem tell the story of an abused wife who finally decides to take fate into her own hands.
But shrewd contextual interplay aside, Brown has an indelible way of revisiting the holy scriptures, neither simply heretic, nor just ironical (if ever so), nor simply rendering it (homoerotically) political, but while indeed doing all of the above actually reinterpreting and profoundly reliving the scriptural scene in a way that will stay very long with the reader. The sense one gets is that while Brown’s rereading of the bible may be strongly iconoclastic and subversive, it still unveils an unexpected, secret, and deadly profound meaning hidden in religion—which is as a matter of fact quite the feeling we get while reading William Blake, isn’t it?
No matter how low she seemed squatting to piss,
The damned snake couldn’t stop staring, and she couldn’t
Understand—though he inched close enough
To whisper something wet and true. He needed to confront
Her with what he knew, needed her stuffed
On a sweet that made her see herself, see him
And every beast in the young world watching.
This black Blake, Brown, very much like the English Romantic, won’t hesitate to descend to hell to celebrate his mystical marriage; it is only that he has the advantage of also celebrating a ‘satanic’ racial color and a damned sexual orientation. The latter actually gets to eroticize—uncomplacently and with no easy romance—hell and death itself. Instead of saying black and homoerotic is not bad, the poet chooses to be ultimately defiant and save even the supreme evil by making it black and gay, and thus sensual, playful, intimate. Being intimate with an Other portrayed as “The one with the gap/ In the teeth only I get/ To see…” (“At the End of Hell”) invites a telling ambivalence by dint of a strong enjambment (“I get/ To see”) which only announces the powerful image of taking death’s head from the closely following lines; the lingering ambiguity helps to conjoin soon the impressive staging of the descent to hell with a surreptitiously subversive yet equally overwhelming (one could say per…verse) sexual meaning—the head is taken because… head is being given:
To see. What if I risk
Taking the head of death
Here in the dark, far
And deep, where
[…] nobody witnesses
My underworld gangster
Play kidnap, play Mama’s
Baby turned queen, and
If I scream, Pastel—he
swears he’s sorry…
Hell/death not only becomes the speaker’s lover but at the same time, a hidden place where the “underworld” game of turning into a “queen” can be played safely. Unlike the British prophet-bard, the young American poet can of course write in slang and in (consistently transparent) queer lingo while still being mystical and submerged in the experience of hell.
Jericho Brown is actually not the only one doing that. Other young African American poets have also explored such potential convergences to further cultural ramifications and minuteness. Amaud Jamaul Johnson, for a brilliant example, has included in his Darktown Follies (Tupelo, 2013) a poem on Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, in which the star is reified as both “homegrown” [“pigmeat”] and, given his career—that eventually emerged out of the chitlin’ circuit only when absorbed by the mainstream ‘white’ entertainment industry—a Frankenstein of segregated America, “the artificial Negro.” Johnson, like Brown, also explores the infernal corrosiveness of Blackness, but taking advantage of Markham’s story as forerunner of rap, he also bundles up apocalyptic imagery, entertainment glamor, and mock ‘White’ gibberish or pretentious phrasing, and translates them into hip hop rhythms and rhymes: “Here comes the first crystal stair./ Here, come Hell or high-water, Hell// Or some falter. All the ease in legalese./ Here comes my tautology—// A blackness of a blackness of a blackness./ My monochromatic rainbow” [emphasis in the text]. Apocalypse [is] now [and] is black, as Markham’s “heyeah (here) come da judge” schtick gets restaged and reperformed by the poet as a tap-dancing second advent on an African American Judgment Day: “Here. Step. Stutter-step, hush. I come./ Here comes the judge. Here comes the judge” (Johnson’s emphasis).
And of course, the brazen sexual connotation is also there (fitting perfectly in the larger ‘traditional’ orgasm-death-apocalypse paradigm), “I come.” But the most remarkable accomplishment of these wild African American poets is I think the way in which they can talk so naturally about sex, spirituality, and cultural-political issues in the same poem and, more importantly, in the same language. That is, the same words and phrases, and ultimately, the same speech, can be read as either erotic or political or religious in a way that ensures a totally verisimilar cohabitation of all these registers while not impeding on their own specific contiguity. Their poetry is therefore an n-dimensional hybrid of homogeneities.
And as an illustration of that, let us go briefly back to Brown’s poem quoted above. The speaker’s screaming “Pastel!” during the “kidnapping” (erotic wrestling) game could be read in slang as—if I’m not wrong—“[this is too much], I’m giving up” and/or “[this is so powerful/overwhelming that] I’m passing out.” But at the same time there is a more sophisticated reference there; Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” does exist in a couple of pastel versions, hence in less stark or striking colors. But Jericho Brown’s speaker detests ‘lighter’ to the extent to which he detests light itself. “A few bruises” are, he ends the poem, “[b]etter than the light/ Called spring, and I love/ It, every drop of God/ Weeping over me.” Damnation and redemption, crucifixion and communion, as well as a graphic climactic scene—signalled and anticipated by the “annotated” enjambment “I love/ it”—are all there, all contained by a minimal yet layered diction.
A diction also empowered by form and by the already mentioned tireless and merciless enjambments. Look how strongly the latter work here, deeply embedding eroticism in denouncing racism (and on top of that, interracial exclusion), and sexual-orientation-triggered discrimination; also, repeating a sentence but changing the place of the line break is a shrewdly ironical nod at William Carlos Williams: “Will black men still love me/ If white ones stop wanting me// Dead? Will white men stop/ Wanting me dead? …”
A brief note on form in this collection. I have already mentioned the sonnet (Shakespearean or irregular), the blues as well, couplets, alternations of couplets and tercets (irregular wavelets, if you may), irregular terza rimas (sometimes arranged as blues), blank, free verse, and prose, and there is also a trademark compressed ballad of sorts, where the syllable count is either 5, or 6, or 7, and the beats alternate, 2 and 3 per line, a meter that lends a compelling Nina Simone sound to the poem. All this amazing formal diversity does not stem from sheer exuberance or ostensive experimentalism though, but (paradoxically?) from the author’s compulsive if not obsessive focus and adamant involvement.
Jericho Brown. The New Testament. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.