Reviewed By John James
- Copper Canyon Press (2019)
- 110 pages
The Tradition advances the promise of Jericho Brown’s luminous first two collections, Please (2008) and The New Testament (2014), not only by probing the violence inflicted casually and institutionally on black bodies, but by considering what the literary theorist Stephen Best describes as “black abstraction.” In his own celebrated study, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (2018), Best identifies what he describes as a “recovery imperative” at work in representations of a communal black, and specifically of a slave, past: “It is not too difficult to see the search for lost or absent black culture as substituting for the recovery of a ‘we’ at the point of our violent origin.” That “origin” is, for Best, the Middle Passage—the violent seizure of people from their myriad homelands, and the cultural erasure legislated by diaspora. Best’s response to this imperative, which Brown seems to be flirting with, is to circumvent this “perpetual failure”—its replication of history by way of plurality—through aesthetic self-negation. One establishes autonomy, and refuses melancholia, by denying the imperative to conform, be repressed by, or subsumed into collectivity: by creating artworks aimed at “self-eclipse.”
An urge toward eclipse motivates The Tradition, a shift that, especially in the first section, depicts a bleaker reality than that presented in Brown’s earlier volumes. In “After Avery R. Young,” “Black” contracts to “Blk,” a stricture that mimics erasure or minimization. It is directed, in the first line, at the speaker’s self: “Blk is not a country, but I live there.” The speaker inhabits not a physical space, but an aesthetic one, constituted by limitation. But there is a sense of collectivity in askesis. “Sometimes you ain’t we,” writes Brown. “Sometimes you is / Everybody.” The “blk” self is, by turns, individual and plural, jubilantly asserting itself in the process of erasure. “The blk mind is a continuous / mind.” An effacement of the embodied self gives way to collective consciousness: an ecology of selves not unaware of the wreckage that constitutes it, nor of the beauty that inheres in this damage. “Stunning. Incantatory. Blk.” As its title indicates, the piece converses ekphrastically with multimedia artist Avery R. Young; and while all ekphrastic art represents a combination of distinct perspectives—that of the original artist, and of the one practicing ekphrasis—Brown’s strategic engagement complicates an already fraught multiplicity, rendering self-negation (an escape from Best’s historical “we”) itself essentially communal.
But The Tradition’s drive toward abstraction is mitigated by a state-sanctioned extermination that enforces the speaker’s need to (re)present himself. As Brown writes, in “Bullet Points,” “I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me.” Not only does the piece spotlight the blunt discrimination of young black American males, it figures their extermination as an extrication from community: “He took / Me from us and left my body, which is, / No matter what we’ve been taught, / Greater than the settlement a city can pay / A mother to stop crying.” While the possibility of self-erasure recurs throughout the book, the stronger imperative to assert one’s presence in order to stave off extinction—by police, by economics, by one’s own community—ultimately wins out. In impeccably controlled lines, which accumulate meaning as they unfold along the page, the speaker stakes a claim to valuation: of the body, yes, but also of aesthetic worth. If the body or the “I” inhabiting it is worth more than a “settlement,” it is also more “Beautiful” than “the new bullet / Fished from the folds of [the speaker’s] brain.”
Extinction comes in other forms, not least in the havoc wrought by HIV and the stigma it continues to carry. “Cakewalk,” for instance, probes the treatability of the virus and the degree to which it affects relationships within the gay community. “My man swears his HIV is better than mine,” the speaker writes, “that his has in it a little gold, something he can spend if he ever gets old.” The comparative nature of HIV—that it is not shunned but becomes, metaphorically, a currency—illustrates its value as a status-marker among lovers. It can be precious, like gold, or, as in the speaker’s case, “Practical,” like “pennies” or “copper.” Each of these lovers experiences the virus differently. For the addressee, it is less debilitating; for the speaker, it “slows [him] down.” Still, the speaker marshals Brown’s signature optimism, which surfaces periodically in what might otherwise seem a grim, even dystopic collection: “I keep my eyes on his behind, say my HIV is just fine.” Like the familiar touch of old lovers, its practicality is erotic, signaling persistence against the contingency of infection: “It can conduct electricity. Keep the heat on or shock you. It works hard, earns as much as my smile.”
Intellectually challenging and lyrically thrilling, The Tradition is a welcome addition to Brown’s already accomplished oeuvre. Its trenchant investigation of police brutality, combined with its exploration of erasure, characterizes its celebration of vulnerability in the midst of extinction. What’s more, Brown’s development of the “duplex”—a sonnet-like repetitive form, whose name recalls apartment-style housing—showcases an adept talent for eloquent lyricism. Perhaps what sets it apart, however, is Brown’s penchant for optimism, rooted in an appraisal of physicality and the beauty of particulars. In this, it is especially apropos. As Brown writes, in the third of five “Duplex” poems, “In the dream where I am an island, / I grow green with hope.” For times such as ours, devastating as they may be—racially, politically, ecologically—faith in the good is all too rare, though perhaps, in the end, it’s what sustains us.
John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize (Milkweed, 2019). His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley.