Ben Riggs

Book Review:

Please by Jericho Brown

New Issues Poetry & Prose - 2008


Jericho Brown’s debut book of poetry entitled Please is a collection teeming with the most primal human emotions that are juxtaposed to grapple with one another throughout: love and lust, pain and pleasure, pride and shame.  Brown’s imagery is lucid and evocative, predominantly because of his superior gift of language.  His images wouldn’t be nearly as striking as they are without the sound that accompanies them, that powers the imagistic punch to the reader’s brain.  Please is a striking amalgamation of the lyric and the narrative, the colloquial and the elevated, the flowery and the curt.  For Brown, the language is both careful and brilliant, giving his images and ideas a lush framework in which to thrive.  More poets would be wise to take his lead.


While the individual poems in Please are held tightly together by the music Brown’s lines lend to our tongues, Please is woven into a book of poetry with musical themes, characters and lingo. From the outset—in a section titled Repeat and poem titled Track 1: Lush Life—Brown thrusts his readers into a scene where they have no choice but to listen to the music that is the keystone of Please:


The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you,

To see you shake your head. The mic may as well

be a leather belt. You drive to the center of town

to be whipped by a woman’s voice.


The poet’s musical tastes aid the reader in understanding speaker and poet alike.  Brown borrows from an eclectic musical palate with references to Diana Ross, Jannis Joplin and Marvin Gaye (to name a few).  The inclusion of so many R&B artists in Please is fitting for the rhythm and blues of Brown’s language.  These artists serve as fitting mouthpieces for Brown’s intense, agonizing lyrics.


            Nowhere in Please is Brown’s language more wrenching than in Herman Finley is Dead.  The poem rises to a crescendo in the last third of this stichic piece that demands silence in the face of death:


Call Nelson Demery

And Shanetta Brown.

Tell them to turn off the radio

Whether the station plays

Gospel or blues. Tell them

Herman Finley is dead. Then,

Tell them what God loves,

The truth: the disease

Your mother’s mouth won’t mention

Got bored with nibbling away

At the insides of his body

And today decided

To swallow Herman Finley

Whole. Tell them they must

Chop and torch each piano

Before helping me bolt the doors

Of all the Baptist churches

From Shreveport to Monroe.

I don’t want a single hum.

We will not worship

Save for silence. Watch

The birds shit in peace.

When the choir director’s arms

Fall, the choir must not sing.


Again, Brown’s language carries the day.  His subtle rhyme, alliteration and assonance ease the translation of idea and image from speaker to reader.

            In Derrek Anything But, Brown’s exhibits his strong lyricism, especially at the outset of the poem:


Derrick at the piano.

                                    Derrick under my car. Derrick stuck

At the bottom of a soup can.

                                    Look how his fingers go.

Derrick millionaire, stunt king.

                                    Derrick’s in the cooler

Behind the last longneck.


as well as in the final few lines:


…How do you do it,

                                    Derrick up a tree? How hard,

How hot is the metal

                                    Under the neighbors’ hoods?

How slippery the engines’ grease?

                                    Derrick sweaty hands. Derrick baby grand,

Tell me the stroke of ivory as I sing.


Brown is able to translate yearning through song and cadence, to relay pain with words and breaths.  There is no better example of the care poets must take to foster music in their art.  For Brown, music carries the day: It fuels his images, braids complex emotions and allows a collection of poems to become a single entity.  Please is a triumphant debut.