by Rebecca Josephson
Jericho Brown’s first book Please is a provocative glimpse of the raw untamed places that can be found within the human soul. Beautiful and terrible in its turbulent message, a deep ache is palpably revealed from poem to poem. That which moves people in their deepest parts cannot always be rationalized or understood, and certainly not explained away. It does deserve, however, to be expressed, offered up in its entirety. Despite the pain and disturbing imagery Please admonishes the reader never to forget—our voice.
The tone of Jericho Brown’s poems is enhanced with sound and song. Appropriately, some poems are referred to as tracks. There are divisions within the book entitled “repeat”, “pause”, “power”, and “stop” that would suggest an electronic music device. Jericho Brown deftly intertwines the music of his soul with personal history and culture to make a song that is uniquely his. The words of his poems play over the reader’s emotions like the refrains of his beloved R&B/Blues singers and musicians. Sometime dissonant, sometime melancholy, sometime angry, they are the catalyst that stirs the soul. For example, taken from the title poem “Please”:
I who hate for people to comment
That I must be happy
Just because they hear me hum.
I want to ask
If they ever heard of slavery,
The work song—the best music
It is made of subtraction,
The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body
And opens his mouth
Trying to get out.
Jericho Brown explores the relationship between poetry and music, as a literary aspect as well as an emotional connection. Seeking the release that delivers from pain, he creates his own beat that begins to echo with the reader with each passing poem. In “Track 8: Song for You”:
And helpless as the clouds her son reached for while she watched
The boy drowning. Hit me with some Natalie Cole or some
Donny Hathaway in his heaven of screams before he crashed
Into concrete. Or all 20 Temptations. The arthritic and diabetic.
The cancerous and violent. I refuse to choose. Nothing hurts
Like old R&B.
There is a harsh reality present and Brown forces the reader to give acknowledgement. Sometimes his voice is a sob and other times it is a holler, but he always finds the appropriate groove. Just as music has various styles, Brown’s poems do not follow a formal structure. He remains diversified by embracing different schemes for his poetry. Most notable is “Tin Man” as it can be read both horizontally and vertically. This allows the reader a chance to interact on multiple levels with the poet and also to reevaluate the poem’s meaning.
Jericho Brown tackles heavy hitting issues like sexuality, family, and race. The voice of the poet is personal and raw emotions are laid bare. Beneath the surface of Please is a strong religious undercurrent. He creates a familiar response with some of his selections by utilizing persona poems and by naming his poems after people. There are poems about parental misdeeds, adolescence, and sexual encounters. Injury can be mended with effort but the repair leaves a scar—a seam of remembrance. The self-titled poem, “Because My Name is Jericho Brown” ends with:
Something had to be taken
From me. I was too beautiful
To be such a sinner. He must have hated me
For that. Maybe some of us are
Better broken into—we mend
Easy as a ripped shirt or
A damaged wall.
If ever asked about damage I will tell
What I tell myself. I am overwhelming.
He was overwhelmed.
See. I am just as much a man
As Joshua. I’ve got the silence to prove it.
Please has a delivery like a punch in the stomach, the stroke of a lover’s finger, the cool of baptism waters. Without pretentiousness, without apologies, Jericho Brown exposes the deep recesses of the human heart and mind. Life is unpredictable but there is an option in either moving toward hope or toward regret. Strong and proud, Jericho Brown vehemently declares, “I am not consumed. I am not consumed.”