The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2019)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kudlacz
…I am ashamed of America
And confounded by God….
It was these lines from the poem Foreday in the Morning in Jericho Brown’s third, Pulitzer Prize winning book The Tradition that captured the emotion I, as well as many other Americans, felt as we watched George Floyd die by asphyxiation when a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while three other officers stood by. Ashamed and confounded not just by this singular outrageous and gross injustice, but by the fact that this sanctioned atrocity, involving another black American male, is a pervasive and persistent malady. This powerful book is built upon a foundation of poems in which Brown repeatedly forces us to confront the issue of racism in this country and the grim, indeed fatal, consequences that so often accompany it.
Consider a few of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word “tradition”: 1) an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior; 2) cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions. Applied to this body of poetic work, it is an apt term to describe racism since it not only reflects how chronic it is, but also infers its acceptance. Written in the “traditional” style of a sonnet, the book’s title poem begins with the names of three summer flowers (Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium.) and ends with the names of three black men who were killed by police in the summer of 2014 (John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.). The piece presents an interesting juxtaposition of two very different traditions; the annual planting of flowers and the killing of black men by police. Both of these were once beautiful and both were ultimately cut down in their prime. The shift between the two occurs with a description of men photographing flowers for posterity, odd unless the reader realizes that the final moments of these 3 men were captured on video.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Ironically, Eric Garner was himself a horticulturist. Ironically, his final words were “I can’t breathe”. And yet here we are again, viewing the video of George Floyd’s death that has finally sparked a greater sense of outrage than has been seen in the long history of this appalling “tradition”.
In other poems, Brown continues to acknowledge other black Americans killed while under police arrest. Although not specifically named, the poem Bullet Points clearly refers to Victor White III and Sandra Bland, the former allegedly shooting himself while his hands were cuffed behind his back by Louisiana police and the latter allegedly hanging herself with a trash bag while in Texas prison cell. To underscore the absurdity of the cause of death claims regarding these cases, Brown admits that he may die by his own hand as a consequence of smoking or choking or freezing but:
“I will not shoot myself
In the head, I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag…”
And he makes it clear that
“…I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then the cop killed me…”
In The Tradition, Brown’s descriptions of trauma are not only those public but also personal, apparently the consequence of the men in his life, such as his father and lovers. The book’s opening poem Ganymede is named for a mythological youth reputed to be the most beautiful mortal alive. In legend, he was abducted by Zeus to serve as a cup-bearer on Olympus and became a symbol of homosexual love in visual and literary arts. In this regard, Ganymede is an ideal representation of Brown’s own sexuality, as described in the poems that follow later in the book. But Ganymede also serves as a metaphor for the black experience, considering his abduction and servitude that brings slavery to mind:
“…And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
The first line suggests a tension in his relationship with his father, since the man is not even named as such as if the failure to acknowledge the paternal relation could sever the tie:
“A man trades his son for horses.”
Scattered through multiple poems, Brown includes painful allusions to this man and their possibly abusive relationship. Nevertheless, the book both opens and closes with references to his father. The sentiment appears echoed in the last poem Duplex: Cento, whichincorporates lines from other similarly ghazal-inspired Duplex poems in this book:
“Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Was my first love. He drove a burgundy car.”
While not all the pieces focus on the plight of black Americans, Brown doesn’t let himself, or the reader lapse into complacency in the latter section of the book when he affords reprieve with verses that relate what is often carnal pleasure. Indeed, even when spending time with a lover in Stand
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Jericho Brown keeps good company with a growing number of other black American poets, men (such as Terrance Hayes and Danez Smith) and women (Claudia Rankine), who write unflinchingly about the plague of racism. Indeed, these writers have the most urgent of contemporary messages to convey: to collectively and individually remind us again and again to be outraged because black lives matter.
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