A Review of Jericho Brown’s Please
by Erica Davis
Passionate, sing-song, and chilling at times, Jericho Brown’s collection of poetry, Please, is stunning. The dramatic mixture of love and hate, gentleness and destruction, is striking even to the poetry connoisseur. From the quiet, hopeless prayer of a child to illuminating persona poems, Brown relates to us the desperation, passion, and resilience of our short lives and of the human heart.
The finest example of the close connection between tender love and rage in Brown’s poetry is found in “Prayer of the Backhanded”: “…God, / Bless the back of my daddy’s hand/ which, holding nothing tightly/ against me and not wrapped/ in leather, eliminated the air/ between itself and my cheek” (8). One can just imagine a helpless little boy, still hiccupping with the remnants of his uncontrollable sobbing, trying to rationalize why the father he loves so dearly would hurt him so much. Even after his father has hit him, giving him “a broken nose…a busted lip… [and a] blazing jaw,” he continues to pray for his daddy. It seems to say that love between a father and son, no matter how damaged, is unconditional.
One of the most interesting elements of this collection of poetry is Brown’s use of persona poems. Throughout the book, he steps into the shoes of various classic characters from “The Wizard of Oz”, including the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion. In a classroom setting, Brown recently said that he likes the form of his poetry to follow the content. This is illustrated in “Tin Man” (36), as the unusual form has a lot to do with the experience of the character. Made of many small, chopped up parts, this poem can be read across or up and down. With this element, the poem gains more depth with each reading. In one sitting, the first line could read “In my chest/ a slit of air. Don’t say love.” The next time one could choose to read it going down and it could say “In my chest/ Drop a penny. / Cities shine gray. /No green is god…” Nevertheless, the end of the poem reads “I won’t feel/ one damn thing.” Brown could be inferring that we are all “tin men” because that is how the world makes us. We mainly do what we are told, even to the point of destruction at times, until we no longer feel a thing and nothing matters anymore.
Another type of persona Brown takes on is that of famous women in US history, particularly musicians of the 20th century. One such poem is entitled “Track 4: Reflections- as performed by Diana Ross”. As the title points out, Brown is portraying what he thinks Diana Ross would have felt had she written the poem herself. Ross prays, seemingly to become a bigger star; to dazzle the people. She prays with her “head titled backward, / [her] arms stretched/ out and up…” Throughout the poem, Ross finally realizes the power she holds: “Got another #1 and somebody/ Set Detroit on fire. That was power-/ White folks looking at me/ Directly and going blind” (11). This exemplifies Brown’s need to express the history and experience of modern day African-Americans in his own words, projected onto famous and influential people. This makes his poetry even more comprehensible to the common reader because we already know these characters.
Jericho Brown brilliantly combines the imaginary and true experiences of the anonymous with the legendary. He makes the reader truly feel the ragged, intimate emotions that flow within each of us, only amplified. I foresee this becoming an indispensible collection of poetry in America, as I predict Brown will become a world-renowned poet of the 21st century.