A good poem is a window you need to learn how to look through, and in learning how to look you may begin to discover something new about the world behind it. This is something that occurred to me several times while reading Jericho Brown’s The New Testament (Picador). Race, Nation, Sexuality and Religion are at the very centre of this collection and when writer and reviewer share none of these things it would be remiss to ignore the fact; but we don’t pick up books to have our own experience of life reflected back at us (at least not all of us, not all the time), and it is a mark of the strength of this collection for me (white, heterosexual etc. as I am) that it doesn’t say the things I might have expected it to. What it does say is said in a way that forced me to look through these difficult windows carefully, not once or twice but three or four times to try and make out what is happening in the world they open onto.
It’s a world in which allegory and confession twist and intertwine at times in such a way that Brown could perhaps have been accused of a sort of Dylanesque self-mythologising were it not for the fact that he is entirely open about his project: “That story I told about suffering/Was a lie” the speaker of ‘Paradise’ tells us, in a voice which may or may not be Brown’s; and “I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison” says the speaker of ‘Hustle’ – this time surely Brown – referring to the fact that he changed his name, and in doing so turned his ‘real’ self into part of the symbolic layering and fusing that run through the collection. I have not found from the internet whether Brown himself has spent time in prison, but that word itself has a wider meaning here too, and the blurring of the real and allegorical is entirely in keeping with the way the poems build their meaning. There are times, in fact, when Brown seems to have expected his readers’ confusion, and he heads off criticism pre-emptively (parts II and IV of ‘The Interrogation’ do this with particular insight) forcing the reader to re-examine their own prejudices and expectations (“We thought your brother was dead…/He is” – ‘II. CROSS-EXAMINATION’; “And this preoccupation with color,/Was that before or after you lost yourself?” – ‘IV. REDIRECT’).
Poems like ‘The Interrogation’ seem to imply a white audience/interrogator, and although I may be mistakenly reading that into the text, if I’m right it goes to illustrate one of the many ways this collection tries to understand and deal with an isolation caused by being caught within dichotomies (black/white, gay/straight, masculine/feminine, religious/secular, real/symbolic). In this case, the speaker is aware of being caught between a black audience and a white one in a sort of check-mate: “Will black men still love me/If white ones stop wanting me//dead?” (III. STREET DIRECTIONS).
This feeling of being trapped is most fully and touchingly evoked in the magnificent penultimate poem of the collection, ‘Heart Condition’, simultaneously a love song, a howl of pain, and the knitting together of nation, family and history through phone lines and flight paths: “He holds down one coast./I wander the other like any African American, Africa/With its condition and America with its condition/And black folk born in this nation content to carry/half of each.” Here Brown places American between African and Africa, the one identity surrounded by, defined by, the other; while at the same time the long-distance-lovers’ on opposite coasts also encompass the nation itself within their metaphysical ‘domain’. Identity trapped by nation, nation defined by race, sexuality perhaps transcending both. The complexities of identity are further cut across in the line “What’s my name, whose is it, while we/make love?”, where labels, definitions, are rendered meaningless by the physical act of love; but the urge to question and describe returns almost immediately afterwards: “My lover leaves me with words I wish/To write.”. As with all my favourite poems, this one does not present its meanings to you on a plate, and at the end there is a surprise: “Greetings Earthlings./My name is Slow and Stumbling. I come from planet/Trouble.”. This statement, fewer than twenty lines from the end of the book, comes right out of left-field; alienation here is taken to its logical, comic (in both senses) extreme, and the child-like, almost retro, fifties-sci-fi connotations of its tone takes a massive gamble that pays off because it feels a little intentionally awkward and builds to the poem’s final, stunning claim, which could serve as a mission statement for Brown’s whole project: “I am here to love you uncomfortable.”. And here the ‘I’ is as multitudinous as Whitman’s but it is also specifically the ‘I’ of a gay, black artist attempting to represent America honestly; and in the same way the ‘you’ is all of us as readers but it is particularly the country of Brown’s birth, which needs (the suggestion is, I think) to face some uncomfortable truths about itself and its own identity.
There are many other poems which could be singled out to illustrate the originality and power of The New Testament, but the one which does so most clearly, I think, is ‘Found: Messiah’, a ‘found’ poem which versifies a blog post from a right-wing website which is still – at time of writing – up and available to see. The original writer is ‘celebrating’ the shooting of a Shreveport man by the two men he had been robbing (the final lines “one less goblin is one/Less goblin is one less” could hardly be more dehumanising or sinister). This being the town where Brown grew up and the dead man’s surname being Demery the blog post is frighteningly well-chosen, and the fact that his first name is Messiah wraps this single violent death, one amongst thousands upon thousands, in all the symbolic and religious meaning that many of the other characters in the book have (the brother, the mother, the father, Angel, Jericho himself). Here, the real and the allegorical meet most completely, and visiting the website we as readers of any colour or sexuality take a glimpse, a brief one in my case, at what it must feel like to be hated, deeply and irrevocably hated, because of what you are and who you are. Jericho Brown leads you to the very edge of a world you know you do not want to inhabit, but for the first time, you can see.
I am, of course, describing my own experience of learning how to look through the windows of Brown’s poems on to the complex world of contemporary America. It’s a world I thought I knew better than I now feel I do after having read The New Testament; and that, at the risk of ruining my review with a cheap pun, is testament to the importance of this collection.