Jericho Brown, The New Testament
Poetry, 2014, Copper Canyon Press
Jericho Brown’s The New Testament reshapes the world with fresh syntax and magic. The collection transforms received views of religion, race, gender, identity, politics, and language itself, and brings new life to traditional forms like the ghazal, iambic pentameter, and the blues. Concepts of “brother,” “black,” “solider,” “angel,” “prison,” “hotel,” all become intertwined and remixed, and the outcome is a new poetic scripture. Death is confronted over and over in these poems, and death is transfigured into new life.
There’s a tenderness throughout Testament, a consideration for how it feels to be a child, paralleled with a sometimes desolate world, and an acknowledgment of ones ancestors and the dead, “My grandmother is dead she lives with me.”
One of the most striking elements of Testament is its vulnerability—the showing of loneliness and the need to be loved, “Why is it so hard to make friends here”—the sharing of such feelings that all of us experience brings an intimacy and universality to these poems.
The lines in Testament are deceptively simple. Efficiency at crafting and ending a poetic line is a standout of Brown’s poems. It’s as if each line tells the whole story. Through this style, a unique sense of time is created in the book. The reader is allowed the freedom to savor the music at our own pace—each line can be mused on slowly, or every poem in the collection can be read as an interwoven part of a whole. Both ways allow us to be transported, meditate, escape, and be redeemed by the gifts of song language and story that we seek in poetry.
In the opening piece, “Colosseum,” the narrator says,
I cannot locate the origin Of slaughter, but I know How my own feels, that I live with it And sometimes use it To get the living done, Because I am what gladiators call A man in love—love Being any reminder we survived.
The concept that love is the reason we’re not dead stays with me. Brown reminds us that love is the reason to be alive, and love is reminder that we are alive. Being able to love who we want is a basic human, spiritual need and a right for life on this planet. Paradoxically, these poems often feature a narrator who is pressured to hide his love of men from people like neighbors and family because of prejudice that remains too prevalent in the 21st century.
“The Interrogation” sets the tone for motifs that are woven throughout Testament—incarceration, the child self, death, visibility, invisibility, black, love, brother, questioning. Parts I and II of the poem are excerpted below:
I. WHERE In that world, I was a black man. Now, the bridge burns and I Am as absent as what fire Leaves behind. I thought we ran To win the race. My children swear We ran to end it. I’d show them The starting point, but no sky here Allows for rain. The water infects Us, and every day, the air darkens… The air, the only black thing Of concern— Who cares what color I was? II. CROSS-EXAMINATION Do you mean love? Certainly a way of loving. Did it hurt? When doesn’t it? We’ll ask the questions. Did it hurt? When death enters a child’s room, The child feels a draft. So you chose for it to hurt. I chose my brother over my desire To be invisible. We thought your brother was dead… He is. And his death made you Visible? You only see me When I carry a man on my back. But you arrived alone. That wasn’t me. That was the man who lost My brother.
Here we are given a dreamy q&a session, which is its own form, and an image of a narrator who must be martyred like the burning sky in order to be seen.
There is a threaded metaphor within Testament of an incarcerated brother and an incarcerated self, and perhaps an incarceration of an entire people. Because the brother is condemned through circumstances of oppression, the narrator himself feels condemned by association, guilt, love, or martyrdom, and the wish to save and love his “brother”—his kin and lover. The narrator thus becomes the accused, the condemned, and the guilty by association, whether in reality or through empathy. This echoes Whitman, “Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.”
Etheridge Knight’s prison poems come to mind while reading Testament, and Brown references infusing Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Terrance Hayes, and popular culture into this collection as well.
In addition to forced incarceration, Brown addresses the constant presence of war in our lives,
NEWS It’s like a love for me, this Love of language, and we are Men at war, says the news. No matter how long we speak English, English means not To count us or to count us Darkly, but I know what I want and so does channel 4. They give it to me, one heap After another: soldiers who, Following another battle, shed, Sweat, and spit like fountains.
Whether it’s an actual war being broadcast on the news, wrestling with using the language of colonizers, paying taxes that go towards killing others, finding oneself in impoverished circumstances that push us towards harm, or fighting to love who we want, it’s as if we must be soldiers or healers in order to live in this world. Testament gives us a wish to heal the brokenness through love, which is “reminder we survived.”
The New Testament reflects an American society that continues to recast unjust bias towards those who don’t fit into a white, straight, male homogenous mold, a world that poisons nature itself, and in turn poisons people:
“We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe”
Such lines allow us to reflect on the wastefulness, the confusion, the senseless violence of present day America, where authority can be cruel just for the sake of cruelness, and the sacred is condemned like a messiah.
There’s a fragmentary element to Brown’s poems, broken up pieces of memory, reality so harsh that we wonder if it’s even real, and lines that stand on their own, yet each line moves easily into the next, each poem resonates off the others. This feels cyclical and renewing. Cohesiveness is made from the fragments. The reader is invited into a reclaiming, where the question is asked, who cares who I love, as long as I love in a world gone wrong?
The New Testament is affirming and brave in giving us poems where narrators choose to embrace their true selves—their color, “Blackness as a way”, their sexuality, “So what if I love him / The one they call bad, / The one they call black”—over their “Wish to be invisible.”