Book Review

It could be easy to pigeonhole Jericho Brown’s second collection The New Testament into the confessional school of poetry. The book, after all, conjures a singular narrative consciousness—a cohesive voice—that moves us through a litany of emotionally fraught subjects of both public and private interest: racism, violence, sexuality, and faith, among others. Confessionalism, though, implies a need to shed one’s history and seek forgiveness for particular transgressions. Brown’s book questions, rather than engages with, these conventions of confession. Rarely, if ever, do we get the sense that absolution is even a possibility. It doesn’t seem to be in the endgame for The New Testament, which instead directs our attentions to processes of witnessing, questioning, and telling.

Attempts at personal redemption are constantly undercut by the book’s speakers in ways that hauntingly mirror our darkest admissions. We see Brown’s speakers run up against their own limited capacity for catharsis and empathy throughout this collection. In the first of four poems titled “Another Elegy,” we listen to a speaker struggle not only with the death of his brother, but with the domestic violence that he failed to prevent. He recalls phone conversations with his sister-in-law and reveals, with chilling frankness, his hardened reactions:

Sobbing as usual, she
Calls to say if you don’t stop
Your brother, she will kill him
This time. Why rush? By now,
You think she likes it, his hands
Slapping her seven shades of red.

It’s a moment of immeasurable humanity—reactionary and cold. And yet the speaker, almost assuredly recounting from personal history, constantly deflects the action onto “you,” the reader, the watcher, the witness. Brown isn’t afraid to present these moments, unsettling in their closeness to our own psychic detachments, for what they are. Despite the largeness of the book’s scope (and its perception of one’s place as both controller and recorder of history), it is one’s powerlessness—the terrible inability to change anything—that finally emerges. “Another Elegy” finally leaves us to stand and watch as the speaker, suddenly understanding of his place as the witness, does the same:

Expect to lose
Again as you stand for nothing
Over his body, witness
Or reporter, murderer or kin.

However, The New Testament is not entirely a poetry of witness, either. Made all the more vital by the violence and racial tensions we see daily on the evening news, Brown’s poems position him somewhere between recorder and controller. The speakers often imagine themselves existing in multiple moments at once, taking on the burden of the present while struggling with the atrocities of a past, which can never be altered regardless of how they are represented. Take, for example, the spectacular sequence “The Interrogation,” which plays out as a simultaneous examination of the societal strains of contemporary black life and the bloody path that brought us here:

Don’t you have a story
For me?—like the one you tell
With fingers over my lips to keep me
From sighing when—before the queen
Is kidnapped—the prince bows
To the enemy, handing over the horn
Of his favorite unicorn like those men
Brought, bought, and whipped until
They accepted their masters’ names.

Here, Brown’s speaker begs a narrative, but draws considerable attention to his own silence. He is listening for the story, unable to manage even a sigh, as the power of history, of the accepted narrative, pressures him into wordlessness. Still, in the space of the poem, the speaker asks for more, an attempt to alter the cycle and disrupt the story.

The mood of Brown’s book is highly varied and textured, but the almost metaphysical interplay of time, identity, and circumstance runs through and binds The New Testament like electric wires. “Psalm 150” finds a speaker trying to stop time as a means to control it, in order to relish, for once, in the pleasure of love not complicated by history:

Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time or maybe

Eliminate it from our lives, which are shorter
Since we learned to make love for each other
Rather than doing it to each other.

Though shadowed by the very real threat of death, which hovers over many of the poems in this collection, this is a moment in which a speaker legitimately hopes to make the imagined real. But, as we see again and again, the speaker is all too aware of the impossibility of such a pursuit—like holding one’s breath, it can only go one for so long—and acknowledges just that in the final line: “Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.” Time is relentless. History is endless. Always, Brown is trying to paint his speakers as ethereal beings who exist on opposites ends of moments, days, and years. Though, surprisingly, these figures do not fall short in psychological complexity.

Brown accomplishes this ghost portraiture through an impressive control of syntax and image. Rarely do we come across a line break or image that isn’t charged with meaning. He oftentimes relies on his rhetorical prowess to weave our attention around key images—not quite vivid, but vital—and gently guide us through poems that, at times, function as complex arguments. For the most part, Brown strikes this balance wonderfully. If we were to pinpoint a weakness in Brown’s style—and I want to stress that I am using “weakness” here in the loosest of terms—it would be where we see the rhetoric overpowering the image in a way that becomes more of an argumentative maneuvering than balance of art and rhetoric. The longer poem “Reality Show” might be the best example of this. However, one could posit that the poem is more of an exercise in voice that relies on us conjuring images from the zeitgeist to provide visual structure.

The New Testament is a book of incredible ambition and even greater complexity. Its interconnectivity and cohesion are nearly indescribable. Despite my efforts here, I’ve only scratched the surface of a collection that grows more pertinent and meaningful with each reading and whose unraveling will require many more conversations.

Published 1/20/2015

About the Reviewer

Chad Abushanab's poems and essays have appeared in The Raintown Review, Bayou Magazine, Jellyfish Magazine, and Resources for American Literary Scholarship, among others. He currently lives in Lubbock, Texas where he is a doctoral student in literature and creative writing at Texas Tech University, as well as an associate editor at Iron Horse Literary Review.