The Pleasing Power of Please

By Lisa Grove


Review of Jericho Brown’s Please


Jericho Brown’s debut collection of poems, Please, tackles issues of race and social tensions to the ground with an intensity that makes them say—no, sing—uncle. As Brown confronts the complexity of these topics, he freely plucks from pop-culture and eloquently champions its mediocre and marginalized figures. Often, the music of his lines flows in the powerful cadence of a preacher. That said, Brown does not preach his import, rather, his poems play with the honesty of an old LP transferred to MP3s, as the reader moves through each section: Repeat, Pause, Power, and Stop.

Brown’s pop influences, such as Diana Ross, clearly present themselves throughout the collection, as in the poem “Track 4: Reflections”:


Got another #1 and somebody 


Set Detroit on fire. That was power—

White folks looking at me


Directly and going blind


So they wouldn’t have to see 

What in the world was burning black.


Invoking the Detroit race riot of 1967, Brown makes Ross sing with more power and conviction than she could ever muster in real life under the thumbs of record producers. Brown acknowledges the conflict of her concomitant roles as an African-American woman, as a Detroit native, and as a diversion for white audiences from racial inequities and disquiet of the 1960s. Her character is conflicted within herself and surrounded by conflict outside herself, but Brown allows her reconciliation through his song.

            Brown becomes more hymn-like in his poem “Scarecrow,” one of his many references to The Wizard of Oz.


I am a mouthless man made of straw.

I hang to keep the crows away.


The fruits they pick. The murders they make.


When your Savior asked for water

They gave him vinegar instead.


Sweet Jesus, how long before you come?


I am a mouthless man of straw.

I hang to keep your children fed.


The fruits they pick. The murders they make.

Forgive us, Father, the use of our hands.


Read aloud, Brown’s repetition, alliteration, and iambs accelerate his words and then suddenly slow them with interspersed free verse, conjuring up the natural inflection of a minister leading his congregation in fervent prayer. Indeed the poem is a synchronized prayer of absolution for sinners and a prayer of deliverance for those sinned against—perhaps they are the same. Brown does not does not draw clearly defined lines for his readers; rather he provokes them to ponder the grey areas of racial and social tensions.

            In “Detailing the Nape,” Brown explores an intimate moment between grandmother and granddaughter, revealing literal and figurative friction between these two African-American women.


My sister kneels under the rush, a sinner prepared for baptism, while Grandmother scrubs as religiously as she scours the toilets each Saturday.


Grandmother takes a break to wring and squeeze the towel free of water, soap, and a bricklike, muddy dirt. Child, all that noise isn’t necessary. If you could see this nastiness, you’d be thanking me.


Seeing my sister’s distress, I open the door wide. M’dea’, I think that’s blood.


Grandmother quiets and bandages my sister well. I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t know you were that black.


This prose poem contrasts with the rest of the collection. There is a marked lack of musicality in these lines. Instead Brown relies on the blunt images and dialogue to convey the force of the story. The imagery of physical and spiritual purification and the simile comparing the girl to a toilet are disturbing and compel the reader to question standards of acceptance within minority communities and the larger society.

            Please will challenge the reader as it progresses down the yellow-brick road, playing out both quiet and loud scenes of conflict. Brown’s poems give the reader pause, but they also offer a pleasurable aesthetic experience, and they provide hope of reconciliation and redemption for conflict-mired, marginalized members of society. Through his lines, Brown elevates the voices of the disenfranchised into a beautiful and powerful pop aria that shatters standards and expectations.