(Book Review) The New Testament by Jericho Brown

By Elizabeth O’Brien

“I don’t know how I hurt myself,” Jericho Brown begins in The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), bringing readers immediately into intimate territory and holding us there. He continues:

The pain mine
Long enough for me
To lose the wound that invented it
As none of us knows the beauty
Of our own eyes
Until a man tells us they are
Why God invented brown.

brownThe book’s first person speaker focuses with soliloquy-like intensity from page one, confining readers initially to a vexed interiority without temporal or spatial context for several pages. Finally, halfway through “Heartland,” Brown brings us to “The house / that graced this open lot,” giving us a setting, somewhere to land, where we are plunked finally in a defined physical space outside the speaker’s mind. Here, the focus broadens at last.

Throughout the book, the body’s cramped interior is a consistent preoccupation, and indeed the second poem in the book opens, “I will begin with the body.” Brown’s work explores the body’s beauty, its sexual functioning, its failings. This is framed further by the book’s dedication to Messiah Demery, a Shreveport man shot and killed as he attempted to rob two other men. The circumstances of Demery’s death become commentary in “Found: Messiah,” a found poem that quotes a racist blog entry verbatim, arriving at the disturbing conclusion that “one less goblin is One / Less goblin is one less.”

This is not primarily a political book; the love poems and elegies are confessional, and the depictions of violence are overwhelmingly personal. But for people of color, the body negotiates constant scrutiny and threats of violence from the outside,. In “Hustle” the speaker says, “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” As the poems grapple with sex in ritual and transactional forms, and with tensions that range from sexual to parental to neighborly, with relationships and expectations and disappointment and violence, political specters are raised by necessity.

The New Testament complicates themes Brown explored in Please, his debut poetry collection, which also offered a richly conflicted discussion of sexuality, love, violence, and family. In Please, Brown’s characters skewed toward the archetypal: he wrote primarily about his father and his lover. He repeatedly referenced characters from The Wizard of Oz, as well as a field of singing crickets, and these served as supporting personas, giving the book’s tension and violence the semblance of fictional comfort by lending the events a bit of metaphorical remove. And there are fleeting reminders of Please in The New Testament (such as a poem addressed to Dr. Frankenstein, which opens, “I, too, know the science of building men / Out of fragments in little light”). In general, though, there is little relief to be found here as the book’s two central traumas slowly unfold, and the cast of characters is broader: we have brothers, mothers, sisters- in-law. The speaker’s brother’s violent marriage and subsequent murder are central to the book, and the details are delivered in pieces interspersed with biblical allusion and metaphor so we infer the events before Brown makes them explicit.

The speaker approaches sex, and homosexuality, with a mix of pride and shame; the struggle to cope with familial judgment is enmeshed with the struggle to find love, and to differentiate between love and sex. The book’s confessions come out in pieces that grow weightier and more conflicted as they accumulate. For example, a series of poems throughout the book share the title “Another Elegy.” The first “Another Elegy” suggests through its title that what came before was also–in hindsight—actually an elegy, adding further weight to the already dark ending of the poem that precedes it: “Every last word is contagious.” Ranging in subject matter from the passage of time to devotion to, of course, death, the series further suggests elegy-making is, for the speaker, a devastatingly routine event.

“Motherland” is a standout among these poems. The poem spans six pages and shifts between narrative moments and a more meditative mode, the pieces braided together, the whole delivery so fist-tight that the poem lands like a punch. “Motherland”  links the speaker’s brother’s violent marriage and subsequent murder to the speaker’s own sexuality, Eve and Genesis, and the speaker’s mother’s disdain, juxtaposing the characters and contexts such that everyone is implicated by the end—the speaker, his brother, his sister-in-law, and us. Love, in this poem, is

Quick and murderous, bleeding
Proof of talent.

The poem extends blistering resentment and deep, abiding sympathy in equal measure to everyone involved, and the results are devastating.

The speaker, the “I” of these poems, is generally consistent throughout this book. The New Testament takes readers deep into the complexities of racial, sexual and filial tensions, and when the speaker changes—as it does in “Angel,” a poem that complicates how the brother’s wife, also his murderer, is read—the shift is dramatic. Through “Angel” Brown lets his brother’s wife speak for herself. As the victim of domestic violence, this gives her more nuance than she might otherwise be afforded if we saw her only through her brother-in-law’s judgment of her, and this allows her to speak in the book as a flawed, individual speaker in her own right.

The New Testament is no less lyrical or moving than Please, but the music is more stripped down, as raw as it is elegant. While Please drew on pop culture, this book reaches for the biblical, the more fundamental, and the language signals this as much as the book’s title does. The voice is often sharp, sure of itself, and direct. And yet the syntax can also be richly dense: “I spent what light Saturday sent sweating / And learned to cuss cutting grass for women,” the speaker states in the opening of “Labor.” The line forces us to slow down, coming at us in a thicket of alliterative c and s sounds as we sort out how “what light Saturday sent” is embedded in the sentence. The insistent alliteration and consonance, paired with the poem’s long sentences unmitigated by commas or stanza breaks, make this a poem that earns its title.

Brown’s manipulation of syntax, diction, and form creates poems in which each stanza, each line works as a free-standing poetic unit. The syntax, the deliberate formal decisions, and the careful use of repetition underscore meaning sonically and visually, tripping us up but rewarding us with rich meaning for our effort. The form matches the content, and love here is similarly slow, labored, doling out reward and punishment in equal measure.

Likewise, the speaker in “Heart Condition” begins, almost playfully, “I don’t want to hurt a man, but I like to hear one beg.” One of the central unresolved paradoxes the book struggles with is that while shame, devastation and death are the results of violence, it can cause great pleasure as well. The poem continues,

My name is Slow and Stumbling. I come from planet
Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable.

The New Testament is saturated with deep, erotic grief. Sex and death and love and violence wrestle in Brown’s poems without resolution—if Please tempered its darker impulses with Rhythm and Blues and characters from The Wizard of Oz and fields of pulsing crickets, The New Testament strips all of that away, suggesting that its conflict—as biblical and ancient as it is modern—has no resolution.

Are love and life worth the violence they entail? Yes, Brown asserts again and again, through a furious insistence on its power, in spite of his ambivalence: “What if that’s / Worth a few bruises / Better than the light / Called spring, and I love / It, every drop of God / Weeping over me,” he wonders at the end of “At The End of Hell,” in a line that—like the book itself—seems to be equal parts question and confession.

Brown’s work revives the confessional impulse and demonstrates deft mastery of form. These poems demand an attentive reader parse the syntax line by line, enacting the idea that complicated emotions resist easy expression. I loved this book—every demand the syntax makes is deliberate; every word feels necessary and urgent. From beginning to end, The New Testament is a masterful collection that begins with fraught confession and ends, finally, in prayer. The last poem in the book offers its final paradox, through the juxtaposition of sexuality and sin with prayer and mercy, as it pleads at last, “Let that sting / Last and be transfigured.”

The New Testament will be available soon at GPL.

Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many literary journals, including New England Review, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Whiskey Island, decomP, PANK, CutBank, Ampersand Review, Revolver, Swink, and Versal.

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