In Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, out now from Copper Canyon Press, poetry—like a virus—becomes a form of knowledge susceptible to transmission. Brown researches the act of communicability, as a pathologist might, to uncover in his poems how culture self-replicates within the cells of our bodies but requires intimate contact with an external body to proliferate.
In “Cakewalk,” the speaker describes their human immunodeficiency virus as “just fine. Practical. Like pennies. Like copper. It can conduct electricity.” In “Dark,” the speaker is resigned, wearied by their corruptible human body: “Though you’re as tired as anyone else yet / consumed with a single / diagnosis of health…” Viruses in these poems—like culture—conduct, consume; speak: “I want you / To heed that I’m still here / Just beneath your skin…”
Brown’s book considers another kind of transmission: the act of betraying a fugitive, of turning a person over to foreign authorities. This archaic meaning can be heard in the more modern way we use extradition. Brown’s poems exist in a racist system in which, at any time, “Some- / Body killed somebody / Black.” He writes: “There is a we. I am among them.” The members of this “we” are treated as fugitives in a land whose intermediate authorities are as distant and untrustworthy as “maggots / who live beneath the floorboards.” The speaker in “Bullet Points” goes on to express the real and present danger of being perpetually marked for seizure and extradition: “I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me…”
Whiteness acts as the foreign requisitioner in this treaty system but Brown’s speakers persistently invert the arrangement, directly indict whiteness, and leave the reader to consider: Who will surrender whiteness—with all its incumbent powers and privileges—and to which authorities? Can whiteness be extradited from literature? From the self? From a nation?
The speaker in “Stake” asks: “How / Old will I get to be in a nation / That believes we can grow out / Of a grave?” after expressing their exhaustion with another person entangled in corporate identity, a person whose imagination is dulled by their ensnarement. “I am a they in most of America. / Someone feels lost in the forest / Of we, so he can’t imagine.”
Whiteness recurs several more times in The Tradition. “After Another Country”—written in response to James Baldwin’s novel of the same name—invokes whiteness to depict the experience of death by suicide. Whiteness also appears in the mouth—teeth are jaundiced or brushed clean. In “Token,” it acts as a backdrop: “If I needed / Anyone to look at me, I’d dye my hair purple / And live in Bemidji”—referring to a predominately-white, small town in Minnesota. White appears again in “The Water Lilies”—an ekphrastic treatment of Monet—and there is the epistolary “Dear Whiteness” in which the speaker goes to bed with whiteness, suggesting some possibility of union or intimacy, until the final image which reveals the layers of self-absorption, deception, and erasure contained in whiteness: “When you look in that mirror, it / Will be clean. You’ll be content / Seeing only yourself. Was I ever there?”
In “Good White People,” the speaker asks forgiveness for their family member who defended whiteness and conflated isolated acts of personal kindness with evidence of broader virtue. The poem ends with the assertion: “I’m ugly. You’re ugly too. / No such thing as good white people.” In “Riddle” Brown takes critique further and makes compelling use of the anaphoric first-person plural; he transforms “we” to portray the possessive, willfully ignorant, and destructive viewpoint of white Americans:
We believe we own. We believe
We own your bodies but have no
Use for your tears. We destroy
Such examinations and interrogations of whiteness are indispensable in light of this nation’s original and ongoing inability to grapple with whiteness as an infectious plague. The Tradition confronts these questions: Can the violence of whiteness be faced? Be undone? Is such an act possible without erasure? Or is the American tradition fated to be “A single anthem of blood— / All is stained”?
Equally weighty, the sexual encounters in The Tradition are filled with conflict between the mortal and the immortal. The opening poem, “Ganymede,” asks the reader to re-imagine the possible mindset of the eponymous boy, the most-beautiful-of-mortals, who was abducted by Zeus—”I mean don’t you want God / To want you? Don’t you dream / Of someone with wings taking you / Up?”—before the poem shifts away from mythical visions towards the more terrible realities that arise when human desire is mixed with fantasy of total possession, as in American chattel slavery.
The language of being taken up is reminiscent of Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”—“being so caught up”—or Paul the Apostle—“caught up together with them in the clouds”—and these rapturous echoes are extended to the slender couplets that comprise “Of the Swan” in which the speaker—quite plausibly Leda, quite plausibly a version of Brown—declares “Immortality requires worship” before divulging:
The Lord’s opening on Earth,
With feathers strewn round
These mythological acts of rape inform poems like “Layover,” in which the speaker, a survivor of sexual violence, makes use of short, aching lines to recall the aftermath:
On the freeway
The second section concludes with a “Duplex”—an invented form which combines the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues—which makes an argument for empathy as a contravening emotional resiliency in the face of physical violence: “The opposite of rape is understanding.”
The inclusion of five duplexes—whose creation stands out as the most striking formal innovation of The Tradition—sets the book up as its own apocryphal, formal authority. The duplex depends heavily on linear repetition, like the ghazal, and the couplets, in their self-replication and symmetry, are reminiscent of diagrams that depict retroviral reverse transcription, the process by which viruses create double-stranded DNA from an RNA template. This process is known to allow for mutations, in the same way each repeating line of the duplex takes on slight changes and generates new meanings.
Reading The Tradition can be, at times, unsettling because of the ground these poems cover. They deal in themes as uncomfortable as the disposal of corpses, murder, incest, suicide, and the mythological model for pederasty. But one comes to Jericho Brown’s poetry to be troubled. I recall the closure of “Heart Condition” near the end of The New Testament: “My name is Slow And Stumbling. I come from planet / Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable.”
And one leaves The Tradition with more than trouble. There is ample opportunity to share in the sheer beauty of Brown’s language, to be soothed by his sense of romance, to appreciate his skill and inventiveness with form, and, as in “I Know What I Love,” to renew an awareness of how desire confounds us and binds us:
I wanted what anyone
With an ear wants—
To be touched and
Touched by a presence
That has no hands.
Like the Psalmist, whose “cup runneth over,” Brown reminds us, quite convincingly, that to be in the presence of another person means, as stated eloquently in the epigraph, to “have us twice as much / of love and everything.”
This reviewer is a former student of Jericho Brown.
Photo credit: Copper Canyon Press