Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Reviewed by Brenda Mann Hammack
Jericho Brown’s second collection, The New Testament, opens with a poem called “Colosseum.” Some readers, familiar with the gladiator figures of STARZ’s Spartacus, might associate the poem’s title with choreographed spear-play amid gratuitous blood-spatter. But Brown’s opening gambit really isn’t a foray into that male bastion of theatrical aggression.
His colosseum is figurative. Readers will not be transported to Rome’s extreme fight club. Although men (and women) do smite one another in this book, much of the combat that transpires is internal. Sometimes, it is self-wrought. As Brown confesses in the first line of the opening poem, “I don’t remember how I hurt myself” (1).
What matters is not the first “wound,” or even “the origin / of slaughter,” the poet admits (4, 14-15). What matters is his determination to not only “live with” the hurt, but to “sometimes use it / To get the living done” (16, 17-18):
Because I am what gladiators call
A man in love—love
Being any reminder we survived. (19-21)
Brown’s primary subjects are men who manage to love other men (and allow themselves to be loved in return), despite the ravages of this world. The men in these poems are lovers and brothers in multiple senses of those words. Brown borrows a quote from James Baldwin for his epigraph: “One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions.” Indeed, some men are quick to deny brotherly love even in the most innocuous interactions.
In “The Rest We Deserve,” Brown addresses the passive aggressive behaviors that lead other (presumably heterosexual) men to avoid the gay man’s gaze. The speaker of the poem complains of a neighbor “who won’t say hello,” “won’t even nod my way as black men / Do when they see themselves in you” (1, 3-4). Such slights lead to so much inner conflict that cannot be explained in rational terms. He admits that snubbing provokes anger, though kindness competes with that impulse. He could offer advice to help his neighbor, a single widower, to cope with a screaming child, but he doesn’t. Although no one rests easy in this poem, no one is outwardly attacked either. The violence committed remains internal—and the neighbor may not even be aware of the hurt he bestows.
Although the speaker in “The Rest We Deserve” is self-conscious about the way in which resentment competes with sympathy, he does not confront his offender. Perhaps, he cannot perceive a successful outcome resulting from a direct approach. In another poem, “Romans 12:1,” Brown tries to explain the haters to himself: “On the whole / Hurt by me, they will not call me / Brother” (13-15). He suggests that misogyny underlies this desire to deny the “woman / They smell in me” (19-20).
And, perhaps, there is a trace of that hatred, directed inward, in another poem that employs scriptural reference. In “The Ten Commandments,” the speaker insists on potential sinfulness: “But I could be covetous. I could be a thief” (1). Guilty conscience might explain the speaker’s passivity, his refusal to fight back when his lover’s wife “slap[s]” the “spit / Out of [him]” (15). The poem’s closing lines suggest some ambivalence over whether he “deserved” the assault or not (23).
The discovery of adultery is not the only motive for retaliatory violence committed by a female in this book. In one of several elegies, Brown speaks of a sadly common failure to intervene in others’ domestic conflicts. When the wife of a brother calls
sobbing as usual
[. . .] to say if you don’t stop
Your brother, she will kill him
This time. Why rush? By now,
You think she likes it, his hands
Slapping her seven shades of red. (“Another Elegy” I. 9-14)
Not only has the “you” justified his failure to intervene by convincing himself that the female victim is masochistic, he has procrastinated in order to postpone confrontation because he has experienced the bigger man’s violent response to intervention in the past. Perhaps the self-preservation rationale allows him to draw a distinction between the battered woman and his own previously abused self. Only she eventually does resort to murder, while he (the “you” of the poem) finds himself “stand[ing] for nothing” over another man’s body, the poem’s conclusion expressing uncertainty over the passive man’s role as “witness / Or reporter, murderer or kin” (19-21). He may refuse to be his brother’s keeper, but must accept some degree of culpability in the breaking of the sixth commandment if only because prolonged vacillation left the woman to carry out her threat.
Although Brown’s decision to adopt The New Testament as the title for his book might suggest advocacy of the “turn-the-other-cheek” approach to meanness, the ending of the aforementioned elegy does not support such an interpretation. Inaction is an unsatisfactory response to social injustice. And, in this context, Brown’s poetry might be perceived as a speech act, an attempt to fight back against hate in its many guises.
While Brown’s confessional poetry can be quite brave when it comes to exposing his own vulnerabilities, the poet’s willingness to call his work The New Testament is also rather audacious given that detractors are likely to perceive his use of Bible verses as blasphemous. William Blake would probably approve of the twenty-first century poet’s willingness to interpret scripture through his own imaginative lens. At least, Brown isn’t taking a passive approach to dogma.
In “Psalm 150,” Brown speaks of a kind of grace that can develop between loving partners. The sonnet form seems especially appropriate for a love poem, in which consenting adults learn to “make love for each other / Rather than doing it to each other” (6-7). The eroticism is more suggestive of “The Song of Songs” than it is of the biblical “Psalm 150.” The speaker expresses a preference for a more introspective form of worship, one that does not involve noisy praise-song, the subject of the original scripture. “Only memory / Makes us kneel, silent and still,” Brown writes.
Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,
Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,
Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head.
And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.
Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet. (7-14)
Here, “his” is lower case and, therefore, probably refers to the human lover the speaker has come to revere. But the direct address to the upper-case “Lord” suggests that belief in an enlightening spirit endures, despite the damages sustained by existing in a perilous world. Notice how Brown alters the familiar “I once was lost, but now I’m found” to “a man who’s lost and lived.” This speaker isn’t sure if he’s saved. But he’s kneeling and praying. And the general tenor of the book is suggestive of hopefulness.
Obviously, not every reader will be comfortable with this poet’s appropriation of scripture, but Brown hasn’t set out to soothe our consciences into that restful state we think we deserve. He does not pen parables as palliatives. His testament does not pose as that kind of covenant. Instead, the poet warns, “I come from planet / Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable” (“Heart Condition” 29-30). And it’s up to readers to determine whether they are going to avert their gazes from whatever threat they expect to find in Brown’s words.
Brown, Jericho. The New Testament. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Print.