Book Review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament

The New TestamentReviewed by Kyle Martindale

To say that Jericho Brown’s book The New Testament is relevant and timely—to say it speaks to the marginalized as powerfully as it speaks to the margin-maker—to say it sings in a key we hadn’t heard and in a voice we didn’t know we needed, and didn’t know could be so dear, would fail altogether at rendering a sense of its presence in the American landscape.  I call his voice dear, and recall him telling a student younger than I to expel all that is precious from our poems (no sunsets or kittens), but I mean that Brown’s voice, if it is heard, must become dear to us.  He gives us no choice as he writes, “This is the book of three / Diseases. Close it, and you’re caught / Running from my life, nearer its end now / That you’ve come so far for a man / Sick in his blood, left lung, and mind.”  The poems anchor us to the poet the way disease anchors to a body, and that closeness might unsettle us; Brown even predicts readers be “caught / Running” from the book, and while we might say that the alternative—reading the book—is humanizing, convicting and luminous as prophecy, there really isn’t an alternative; as Brown puts it: “Every last word is contagious.”  Brown’s vulnerability is mixed with vinegar, to be sure, but endears us to his closely autobiographical speakers with lines like the opening in “To Be Seen”: “Forgive me for taking the tone of a preacher. / You understand, a dying man / Must have a point,” and the internal rhyme riddles the lines with irony—but he does not cast this imperative lightly, as he even aligns himself with his doctor, or the doctor of the speaker, who “makes a battle of my body,” and who knows that “Your healing is not in my hands, though / I touch as if to make you whole.” The tension and introspection that complicate the book’s compassion are just two facets of Brown’s openness—a raw honesty and frankness, but even more vital in his voice is the sense of valiant availability. Forces of darkness and forces of light, of music—his poems encounter them all. The power behind his metaphors seems to find him, inhabit him and reoccur throughout the book simply because they possess him—images of light, blackness, fire, penetration, faith, disease, brotherhood—because although he has seized them and composed them masterfully on the page, it also seems that he cannot be dispossessed of these obsessions.  And these obsessions foster a particularity of lexicon which contributes towards a sparseness of language that invites us not just to entertain multiple readings of poems, but every possibility of every line. So when he writes, “Every last word is contagious,” we are haunted by the chance—with reference to disease and danger in the environ of the book—that the book itself is his last word. God willing, it is not, but beyond the simultaneous estrangement and endearment of this meaning, the line haunts us further with the notion of last words cast from loved ones and indeed every one we can imagine as lost.

The speakers in Brown’s poems are keenly aware of death.  Brown’s first book Please holds the poem “Herman Finley is Dead”, and The New Testament has four poems that bear the title “Another Elegy,” and another titled, “Obituary,” and in the poem, “Langston’s Blues” he asks, “What runs through the fat / Veins of a drowned body?” For Brown, death is just one of many dislocations that fracture the intersection of the words “Black” and “America.”  He asks, “What / America can a body call / Home? When I say Congo, I mean / Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood,” creating an unsettling metaphor for his lines, their multiple and deep-flowing meanings, and the stream of poems composing his book.

In an age when the legalization of same sex marriage is at odds with prejudice from religious fundamentalism, Brown pulls no punches by titling his work, which depicts scenes of same-sex intimacy, after the collection of books known as The New Testament. In The New Testament, Brown claims the good book as his own. His poems visit verses from the book of Psalms, Corinthians, Romans, Hebrews. They allegorize the stories of Cain and Abel, the Ten Commandments, the rapture, the garden of Eden—but the book cannot be reduced to a biblical allegory. It much less explores the bible as an object of allegory as it does a partner in a relationship, albeit an imperfect one, but what is most compelling about this relationship is how well both parties know each other—realizing yet another metaphor for intimacy.

In much the same way that Brown’s second book is in conversation with books of the bible, his first book, Please, takes the form of a tour through the canon of R&B, and, in the language of his second book, “other old music.” His poems rekindle the magic of musical greats, from Marvin Gay Jr. to Diana Ross to Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd—Brown casts his own voice through theirs. In “Track 3: (Back down) Memory Lane,” Brown channels the quick-syllabled, short, and rhymed lines from Minnie Riperton’s 1979 single “Memory Lane,” but into the language of his own not-quite nostalgia for school-aged life in Shreveport, and his encounter with Riperton’s “Memory Lane” at a clandestine, weekly neighborhood gathering: “Dangerous men park carefully, / Slanting over-sized automobiles / Into ditches that line / 77th.  It’s Friday night / In Shreveport.  Checks / Have been cashed, bills / Folded and stashed.” The playful rhythm contrasts with the heavy situation; the poppy, white-America-friendly track from a black woman whose pleasant, up-beat, melancholic vocals might have seemed a life buoy to the young speaker in the poem: “We learn to listen to music / Over hollers, through / Smoke.  Her soprano comes across / A photograph in giggles, / But ends up crying, / Save me.  We think we’d like that / Kind of love, sad and steeped / In trumpets,” and throughout the book is a sense of confounded redemption such as this; a pleading without clear response. In the final three poems of Please, Brown’s focus is on complicated relationships. The long lines of his quatrains in “Track 8: Song for You” mirror the slow rhythm of the standard by Leon Russell, covered in 1971, as noted by Brown, by Donny Hathaway. The speaker’s attempts at benevolence are insistent as the song’s, but likewise subverted, as perhaps the knowledge that Donny Hathaway would jump eight years after his recording from the 15th floor of a hotel in New York City: “God bless the couple next door—they muffle / Our misery. They must sleep close on nights this cold, a woman / With her man’s fat hands all to herself. I pray she never has a son.”  The obvious contradiction in these lines—the mitigated, or dammed goodwill is consistent with the yearning, subterranean pleading of the R&B standard, which implores the beloved to listen to the melody, even if the words don’t come together, because the singer’s “love is in there hiding.” So it is with Brown’s second to last poem in Please, “Like Father,” where love between father and son is extended, forgiveness on the table, but love is somehow withheld when they embrace. Brown writes, “I cannot feel his heartbeat / and he cannot hear mine— / There is too much flesh between us, / Two men in love.” The father asks for forgiveness, but it is somehow unrealized, much as “A Song For You” is an attempt to redress wrong, love hidden in melody, soaked in melancholy.

The book is a wonder of juxtapositions, which serve its music like syncopations—affection with estrangement; Memory Lane’s sad trumpets with the gunshots and sirens of Shreveport; singing with silence; black with white; The Wizard of Oz with witness to racial injustice; the language of faith with seething carnality. “Say carnivore, and I kiss back,” he writes, “I eat / My meat rare.  You bare your sharpest grin,” and elsewhere: “Hear us, Lord.  There is too much to pray // Sweet Jesus, how long before you come? // Forgive us, Father, the use of our hands.”

Brown continues to disinter the terrible beauty of love shortcoming in The New Testament, serving coffee to visitors in the poem, “Hebrews 13.” He writes, “My lover and my brother both knocked / At my door like wind in an early winter… // two bitter friends who only / Wished to be warm again like two worn / Copies of a holy book bound by words to keep / Watch over my life.” Here, Brown remains possessed by the gravity of reconciliation, and the beauty of simple love offered. The biblical passage he refers to asserts the importance of hospitality to strangers and “loving one another as brothers and sisters,” and yet a few verses further espouses “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.” These verses both edify and unsettle the speaker’s relationships in the poem, both with brother and lover, who are gulping their coffee fast enough to burn their tongues, and who share silence, if anything else. Brown achieves a poetics beyond allegory, here, because while the poem’s title and the simile comparing the two men to two worn copies of the bible create tension, implying two readings, perhaps, of the same book, the reference is so simple and the comparison, so shallow (maybe because it is all laid flat on the table) that the figurative elements recede from the poem’s dramatic situation, providing only a slight tension, leaving the image of three men in need of warmth, sharing coffee in awkward silence—an austere commitment to watch over the other. And in the climate of the book, with all its virulent language and searing drama,  “Hebrews 13” strikes a quiet chord and lets it linger, all the poet’s muscles relaxed, and the reader brought in, welcomed and cared for in the cold—and yet here is something altogether new, altogether singular and lovely. Dear, to any receptive reader. Poetics, metaphor—these are personal forces to our poet, Jericho Brown, and while they should advise the wisest councils, his works are the further human thing that any reader can do this day. A master’s language, channeled and wrought, wild but hinged on a rising singularity, a spirit that cannot help but be and be read, but one which can help us—indeed, hurt us and help us as only a dear friend can.

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