by Weston Cutter
There’s such an ache at the center of Jericho Brown’s first book Please (released by New Issues from Western Michigan). The ache’s enormous and tremendous and wide and could maybe be described as made of three things: history (familial, cultural and racial), and sex/love/longing, and violence/hurt/pain/etc (and all three of those things are being wrestled under the bigtop canopy that is family). Of course, subjects like these are relatively common re: poetry, but Brown’s working them with a freshness that’s just a-fucking-stounding.
My way to Jericho Brown was through Hayden’s Ferry Review, which published a poem which in the book appears as “Track 3: (Back Down) Memory Lane” and begins like this:
Dangerous men park carefully,
Slanting over-sized automobiles
Into the ditches that line
77th. It’s Friday night
In Shreveport. Checks
Have been cashed, bills
Folded and stashed
Into wallets and bra straps.
The humming musicality of the lines is just mesmerizing (scan for rhymes), but it’s more than just that: the whole tone and theme of the poem’s right there, the first 8 lines, that mix of danger and luxury and hope, that little hint (somewhere: I don’t know how he pulls it off) of hope/goodness.
J. Brown’s working terrain anyone who has read Terrance Hayes (plus also maybe Kevin Young) will recognize, working his race and cultural history out through lines that are as spinning and glittering as any lines getting written anywhere else by anybody. There’s a (loose) structure overlaid on the book, too—there are poems-as-tracks, there’s an album idea. The form the book takes is, overwhelmingly, music: almost every poem in here would work as well as a song as a poem typed onto a page, but the great/amazing thing J. Brown does (differently from, say, K. Young’s Jelly Roll) is give each song a different singer, too.
Because the danger, as far as I can tell, from writing stuff that’s thematically similar is that the writer’ll end up using himself up, will end up saying the same thing again and again in only slightly different ways. What J. Brown does, though, is, through different voices, he finds new ways to slice all these issues up in smaller and stranger and finer and new ways; with all the voices he uses he can shift the focus bit by bit, offering new views of all the stuff he’s working through.
This feels like an awfully paltry way to review this book. The thing is, reading this book, you will make noise. You’ll say yes and you’ll maybe hum and you’ll whisper to yrself (especially on reaching the end of a few of the heaviest hitters in this collection, poems like “Detailing the Nape,” and “Pause” and “David”). And to read a book that basically demands that you respond to it, that you react to it instead of simply receive it, to read a book like that is incredible. Really, really incredible. But to write about it? To review it? (this always happens, to some degree, when reviewing stuff: at the end, you can just sputter and gasp and say well, just sit down and read it, but getting the amazement across when the amazement involves a mostly emotional response to music, it feels (to me) just awfully hard to get this all across).
Just read this book. Seriously. Everybody should be reading Jericho Brown; we now know another of the names that’ll make up Great Contemporary American Poetry. There’s people like Matthew Zapruder and Crystal Curry and Terrance Hayes and Cate Marvin and Matthea Harvey and Kevin Young and now, yes, thankfully, there’s also Jericho Brown. Read and believe.