Sunday, March 15, 2009

Please, Jericho Brown.


I wish poets and publishers didn’t feel the need to herald new poetry editions with bombastic recommendations. Of course, this is a sign of the Age. The public has to be told which brand of soup to buy: such decisions are presumed too difficult for the mass. But poetry? Does an art aimed at sensitive readers require an approach designed for the (allegedly) anaesthetised? Jericho’s Brown’s Please is announced by three powerful voices. Mark Doty’s recommendation is to the point and “live-wire” is a fitting phrase for the energy in Brown’s poetic lines. Less to the point are Hayes’ indulgent tribute which ends bathetically with “I could never say all I love about this book…” and Claudia Rankine’s mystical pronouncements, which sink into darkness. “Please continually repositions its readers inside the violence of the interruption, the psychic break.” She is knocked-out by the poet's “devastating genius”. (If only she had been hermetically silenced before writing her blurb and not managed to combine two clich├ęs into a hysterical summation). Jericho’s Brown’s Please does not require this very American approach (but I suppose this is what you get when devoted friends write notes of recommendation). Please is thoughtfully put together. It is a finely produced book. It heralds itself beautifully, through skill and modest eloquence. The publishers (Western Michigan University) have assembled a handsome volume: an allusive cover, a resonant photo-page, a clear and attractive text. The author demonstrates a craft that is rich in tone and has clearly devoted time to arranging poems and considering the subtle relationships between parts and the whole.

Please, as a title, is perfect. The word suggests request and demand, prayer and conversation, plea, ease, and finally pleasure. Jericho’s Brown’s poems, by following musical connections, continually work with echoes from the title. Some of the strongest poems in the volume, such as “Lush Life”, “Crickets” and “Lion” are truly aware of pleasure’s shadow and how, like a cut, pain awakens the body into vital sensation.

Jericho, from the Hebrew, draws upon two senses, sight and smell. The city was bright as the moon and fragrant with herbs. The final poem in the volume, “Because My Name Is Jericho,” references the battle between Joshua and Jericho. It is a climax to a book which allows the author to say, with justification, “I am just as much a man/As Joshua”. But it isn’t just the final poem that plays with Jericho. The poetry develops through a sense of otherness, the moon, “Dark Side of the Planet”. The imagery of smell is inseparable from the poet’s sense of existence and survival: “One fist clenched/My brown bag as I sniffed for magnolia and made a deal with the dark.” (“Runaway”, P. p.58); “I smell liquor on your breath/Soon your arms will be too heavy to lift…” (“Your Body Made Heavy with Gin”, P. p.53). Unlike the metaphysical Donne, Jericho Brown doesn’t labour the connection between city and body, but implicit, within Please is the spiritual equation Jericho=city=body, and how the poet refuses to allow his body to fall, like the Biblical city, to blows of physical and mental violence. Please is a modern volume with an original voice. Yet this freshness is enriched by the author’s awareness of the past. “Prayer of the Backhanded” sings along to James Baldwin, linking musical strain to emotional strain. There are moments of jazz, stressed rhythms and falling cadences that echo Langston Hughes. And in the city-body linkage there is the troubled voodoo music of Essex Hemphill, though this is sung in a different key. In “Rights and Permissions”, Hemphill offers a bleak image of existence: his “warm seed” has nowhere to go. In “Family Portrait”, Brown offers a similar vision but within the context of love:

“My breath is also released
As I shiver onto my boyfriend’s back,
Then open my eyes to the faces
Of my children, faintly

Sketched in white swirls
On brown skin…"

(P. p.56).

Please is a volume that requires careful reading. I would have to disagree entirely with Melissa McEwan’s claim that “Some poems have to be read and then reread. But not these poems.” In her desire to free the poems from accusations of “difficulty”, she has done the volume an unintended disservice. Please is a complex musical composition and though some poems, such as “Lunch” and “I Have Just Picked Up a Man” are ironical, single-read poems, most of the poetry requires re-reading. Re-reading doesn’t imply a flaw in a poem: it is what a conscientious reader should wish to do, especially if the poem is pleasing, and (in the case of Please) desire to do! Please is a volume of poetry that bestows pleasure in relation to the time given to it, much like love, much like music. It isn’t a poetry of trumpets that stomps its way around the page…leave that to Joshua…rather a poetry of sentience written by a poet who knows how to modulate language and make the score on the page become music in the reader's mind.

6 comments:

Christopher Hennessy said...

Wonderful, astute and well-written review!

Eshuneutics said...

I had no idea that "Please" had been nominated for a Lambda. Tough opposition. I'm glad the review pleases ;-). It's a talented debut: the volume!

Id it is said...

Thanks for sharing; I certainly want to read this collection.

Eshuneutics said...

Id it is.
If you can locate it...it is well worth every second spent.

Id it is said...

Firestone has it in the ready reference section!

Eshuneutics said...

That's great!