My “no pride without Black lives” month of reading continues with Jericho Brown’s incredible poetry collection, The Tradition.
I have been following Jericho Brown on Twitter for some time, now, and I have read various of his poems in other places, but this is the first time I’ve picked up one of his complete volumes. Somehow, I ended up with a signed copy, which was wholly accidental but perhaps one of the greatest surprise gifts.
I was floored from the very first poem, “Ganymede,” where he writes, “Grief sounds as good as the gallop / Of an animal born to carry those / Who patrol our inherited / Kingdom.” The poem looks at myth “this way,” luxuriously and deceptively, to remind us of how we’ve convinced ourselves to see the rape of a people, their enslavement, from a slanted perspective. We need to be careful not to memorialize it in our memories the way we have so many other truths-turned-legends, lest we turn the ultimate pain into a fantasy.
The collection contains three parts. Running through all three is a series of poems all of which are titled “Duplex.” Each one grows considerably sharper and more poignant, more pressing, as the collection roars forward to its conclusion. Somehow, Brown creates beauty where none should exist. His poems make explicit the horror we have grown accustomed to in our daily lives, but they do so in the way “Ganymede” promises from the outset. When he asks us, who doesn’t want to be loved by God, we see the answer in the very craft of the poetry. Everyone, everyone. And what have we sacrificed for it?
“I begin with love, / hoping to end there” Brown writes in one of his “Duplex” poems, and I have to cheer him for succeeding. This collection and every poem in it, whether it is tackling issues of rape or terror, mass shootings, workplace struggles, or the intimacies of the bedroom, is filled with love. Crafted with love. Expressing love in every word and line, in every syllable and caesura. I’ve been reading poetry more regularly this year, but I haven’t been as moved by a complete collection since Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. In both cases, we have a queer poet of color singing the rhythm of his life. I find that Jericho Brown’s rhythm, like Vuong’s, both harmonizes with and dances away from the lyric of the great American life; a life that both men, perhaps, have felt has never fully included them in its promise or its machinations.
These are poets of power and critique, of eros and of deep pain. And the songs they sing, though remarkably individual, will resonate deep in the soul of the collective American psyche. Jericho Brown is one whose voice I hope to become more and more familiar with; his is a song that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.
quotes, excerpts and reviews
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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