Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” expresses what here at the beginning of the new millennium has become a truism. Poetry, simply by engaging in the world, shapes us, shapes our lives as we experience them, and the aesthetic of personal identity that defines current poetry is the clearest expression of the poetic as the political. Certainly this idea is explicit in The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press), Jericho Brown’s third collection of poems. Brown, who self-identifies as male, black, and queer, makes clear that he has good cause to be angry: at society, at his peers, at himself as embodied in various narrators. But Brown never gives into grievance, and these taut, thoughtful poems are much more complex than either memoir or manifesto.
“The Tradition,” the poem from which the collection takes its name, offers an example of what Brown is “about” in his writing. The word itself of course resonates: tradition not just as the transmission of personal or familial beliefs and views but also how those beliefs and views become part of a culture, an entire way of seeing the world. Moreover, “tradition” when applied to poetry evokes traditional subjects, and, especially, forms. “The Tradition” itself occurs early – the fifth poem – as though to establish as soon as possible the major ideas of the collection. The poem is a sonnet, right down to primarily pentameter lines and a rhyming couplet at the end.
But Brown is subtle, and it’s that subtlety that gives his poetry power. In “The Tradition,” lists of flowers provide the speaker with a springboard, so to speak, for weighty statements:
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us…
Sonnets are tight and thus can easily become overpacked. Brown avoids this: “The Tradition” moves deftly through “Men like me and my brothers filmed what we / Planted for proof we existed before / Too late,” and then, in two and half lines, concludes, with “colors you expect in poems / Where the world ends, everything cut down. / John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown” A list of flowers to a list of black men shot and killed by police officers; from family tradition to cultural tradition to societal “tradition.” The leaps are as stunning as they are smooth.
While not a formalist, Brown acknowledges form, and he’s probably at his strongest when he does. In addition to the sonnet-like poems in The Tradition – “The Water Lilies,” “The Card-Tables,” “Night Shift,” “The Crossing” (the latter two in 13 lines), among others – the collection features several “duplexes,” Brown’s nonce form that combines features of a ghazal, a pantoum, and a sonnet. A goodly number of the freer poems nevertheless employ unrhymed couplets (e.g. “The Long Way”), tercets (e.g., “Monotheism”) or quatrains (e.g., “After Another Country”). Even the overall arrangement of the collection displays an orderliness: three sections of 15, 15, and 20 poems each, respectively.
To be sure, such technical deftness can come at a price. Form can triumph over substance. Poems may, on the one hand, not say much of anything – but say it beautifully; poems may, on the other hand, say something, all right – say much of substance, and say with urgency – but that something may become lost in the merely pretty veneer of form.
This is not the case in The Tradition, driven as it is by theme. Here are racism, child abuse, rape, HIV; here are both the damning and the erotic. Even, or especially, those poems of the latter kind are weighty with danger and futility. “Ganymede,” for instance, reminds us that the original myth involves child rape; Brown makes this even worse (if such is possible) by tweaking the story so that Ganymede’s father, Tros, actually trades the boy for the wonderful horses that Homer has Tros receiving as compensation for the loss of his son. Or, again, in “Stand, sex, like poetry, might be a deliberately political act, but, as the narrator notes,
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
The narrator continues, “We didn’t / Stand for one thought, / Didn’t do a damn thing.”
Are Brown’s brave attempts always successful? Naturally not. “Yellow Flower,” with its trim couplets in trochaic dimeter, it too prim by half; and one must grimly conclude that the overwritten and shrill “Dear Whiteness,” in its use for a refrain of a line from Fleetwood Mac’s (not particularly memorable) song “Lies” – Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies – is a misstep. But where is any the flawless collection of poetry? In “The Tradition,” moreover, we might think of the Japanese word wabi, which means a defect that nonetheless enhances the beauty of the whole.
We might forget that in its origins, poetry is to be heard and not read silently. Alas, poets are not always the best readers of their poetry, but luckily, Brown reads his works with , and recordings are easy to find online. (Brown’s reading, at The New Yorker, of “Night Shift” is stunning it its pacing and resonance.)
One might read The Tradition in any of a number of ways: as handbook of craft, as creed, as as platform, as statement of aesthetic, as all of these, and yet more than all of these together. What is important, though, is that one read it, and read it again.