Today, I’m thinking about community. The people who constitute home for us. The ones who keep us from getting lost, losing track of where we are going or who we are in the process of becoming. The ones we watch sometimes in silence, proud and inspired by what their hands and heads and hearts have managed to do.
Perhaps community is such an important part of my world view because I am a writer, which means that I have chosen to devote a great portion of my energy to an extremely solitary act. I crave the solitude it takes to get words onto a page, but when I come up for air, I crave faces, voices, laughter, human warmth. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this, but I say it now because having access to a community of people who warm and teach and astound me is something for which I am powerfully grateful.
One of those people is Jericho Brown. I love him fiercely, and I’m pretty sure he loves me just as hard back. I remember deciding upon the final order for the poems in my book Duende while Jericho and I were on the phone. Some third thing seemed to be there on the line with us, helping me to move the pages around on my floor, telling us what that book would come to look like. And when I was trying to make sense of what was going on among the poems that would become Life on Mars, Jericho told me “Tracy, don’t you get it? This is your God book.”
Jericho’s first book, Please, appeared in 2008, and what a gift it was to see all of those poems—poems I’d read and coveted and critiqued and come, by sheer adoration, to feel were somehow part of me, too—bound together and breathing on their own, familiar and new, like a miracle.
Now, Jericho has sent me the newest version of his new manuscript. I won’t tell you the title; that’s for him to do in his own time. But I have gotten his permission to talk here about some of the poems that have already been published. For clarity’s sake, I’ll stick mostly to the poems that I can link to online.
And now is probably as good a time as any to shift from calling him “Jericho” to referring to him as “Brown.”
Brown’s voice astounds me at every turn, first and foremost because of how quickly and deftly it’s able to change registers, to move from a pitch-perfect articulation of living language—language that struts or limps, shimmies or stands stock-still sucking its teeth and staring you down—to a high-lyric that sounds quite nearly holy.
“Odd Jobs” is one of the poems that speaks, for the most part, like a person you’ve met somewhere before:
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell
The damned difference between their mowed
Lawns and their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs.
That first breathless sentence has a character inside of it, a community. It describes a patch of private history by bringing your ear up to a wall and letting you eavesdrop on the conversation on the other side. The word “cuss” does a whole heap of that work in and of itself, but then there’s also the rich spoken quality of a phrase like “The damned difference,” and the quirkily rolled-up bill making way for the metaphor of a skinny joint. The lines feel downright cinematic. And as the speaker steps subtly away from the scene and from the version of the self there in it, a space is opened up in the poem for a rhetorical shift, for the insertion of something with a different kind of authority, something Beatitudinal: “The loneliest people have the earth to love[.]”
It’s such a quick shift. The speaker becomes momentarily larger than himself, oracular, before returning to what sounds like the register of ordinary recollection. But something remains changed. Some of the power brought in on that gust of rhetorical authority remains, inflecting the poem’s closing lines—
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands[—]
with a touch of grim defiance. In those lines, I hear a refusal to be the hired boy, to be bought or bossed, along with a refusal to heed an admonition like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” This act of recollection allows the speaker to put those parts of the past behind him, making this a poem about memory and empathy, but also, very subtly, a poem about desire and death.
A poem like “The Ten Commandments,” with its brief sentences and sentence fragments, echoes the Biblical Commandments:
But I could be covetous. I could be a thief.
I could want and work for. I could wire and
Deceive. I thought to fool the moon into
A doubt. I did some doubting. Lord,
Forgive me. How will I speak of Joe Adams
And his wife?
The poem opens as a plea, or perhaps an interrogation of the self; the “Why” Joe Adams’ wife asks is also the speaker’s question directed at himself. But as the poem progresses, and as a more colloquial begins to take over, the question’s target shifts:
………….…I let her light into me. I cold be last
on a list of lovers Joe Adams would see and first
to find his wife slapping the spit out of me.
I could be sick and sullen. I could sulk
And sight. I could be a novel character in
A novel by E. Lynn Harris, but even he’d allow
Me some dignity. He loves black people too
Much to write about a wife whipping her rival
Suddenly, this poem has remembered that other commandment which sits outside of the Ten: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and it becomes a lament not just for the self, but for the community of brothers and sisters (in the Lord, but also very much in terms of race) who have let that love lapse. That it takes a cameo by pop-fiction writer E. Lynn Harris to drag this poem toward its larger truth is, as far as I am concerned, a stroke of genius.
That the Bible should enter into this blog post is no accident, for it provides the manuscript’s guiding metaphor. I wish I could say more on that, but I’ll content myself to end this entry on a note of Praise. “Whenever a man wins,” Brown’s speaker tells us in “Receiving Line,” a poem about the election of the 44th US President, “other men form lines/To wring his right hand like a towel[.]” If that is the case, well, when this book comes out, get ready to line up….