Ephraim Scott Sommers

04 December 2008

Review of Jericho Brown’s Please by Ephraim Scott Sommers


            Jericho Brown’s new collection Please croons like the countless rhythm and blues singers the author either innovatively describes or emulates in persona.  This book of poems, organized like an album, sings tales of an African-American, homosexual male with a bruised childhood, and does not run out of breath there.  Existing everywhere and nowhere at once, Brown throws his voice, stepping into the personas of Janis Joplin, Diana Ross and even “The Burning Bush.”  Please nudges the core of every reader.  Its many different voices enlighten through emotive songs laden with a deep richness of being.  For Jericho Brown, the act of singing best expresses the hurt of the human condition.

            The poem “Track 1: Lush Life” begins the selection, “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 vocalist becomes an instrument of punishment.  The singer is the median through which the man in the audience can remember his dreaded past and reflect on it.  One must note that no solace from the ache comes in the poem.  Brown illustrates only a moment at a bar where the singer and her audience of one meet in the center of the room and somehow understand each other through shared anguish.  Those kinds of moments give this collection its propulsion.  The reader wants to be whipped, and furthermore, wants to share that pain with some one else.  Brown’s characters and even Brown himself eagerly accept the task.  The last line reads, “Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long.”


            As Janis Joplin in “Track 5: Summertime,” the author writes, “Chainsaw, I say.  My voice hacks at you.  I bet/ I tear my throat.  I try so hard to sound jagged.”  The persona allows the poet to take on the mask of a singer deeply hurt in her attempt to be something great.  This time, the voice is not a leather belt, it is a chainsaw that “hacks at you.”  Not only does the listener hear a lament about childhood agony, they hear a throaty, screaming voice, harsh to the ear.  Brown has repositioned the characters in this poem.  Now, the reader is the man at the bar in “Track 1: Lush Life” and the poet is Joplin, who eventually kills herself.  The author heightens the tension, letting the singer’s injuries drip like black oil from her own lips, not the pen of the poet.  Surely, Joplin’s song jilts its audience with a line like “I get high and moan like a lawn mower/ So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl./ I’m such an ugly girl.”  These lines move away from a hope at a shared connection through song, and more toward a covering up of wounds.  Brown uses this singer to show art as a method of escaping that which deeply scars which, in Joplin’s case, was a terrible childhood.


Jericho pushes that idea further in the poem “Pause” which depicts a gay relationship based solely on sex.  The troubled narrator writes,


            I want to ask


            If they ever heard of slavery  


            The work song—the best music


            Is made of subtraction,


            The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body


            And opens his mouth


            Trying to get out.


            Just like Joplin and the woman with the leather belt blues voice, Brown candidly states the singer’s ultimate goal in what is perhaps one of the most profound lyrics in Please.  “The best music” is that which comes from the deep dark place that is specifically human and that is why the audience simply must listen.  The patrons at the bar are not there for joy, they are there to connect on some unspoken, unseen level which can be experienced and shared, but not ever quite understood with the musicians on stage.  D.H. Lawrence wrote, “We don’t exist unless we are deeply and sensually in touch/ with that which can be touched but no known[1].”  We can’t know why the pain expressed through a human voice in song connects us, but it does.  When a truly broken singer croons, it felt like being at a funeral, but instead of wanting to go home, one finds himself searching to hear that voice that oozes soul again and again.  Jericho Brown in Please sings to his audience to bring us all into that shared moment.  We keep rereading his poems for the same reason we keep going downtown, “to be whipped by a woman’s voice.” 



[1] “Non-Existence.”  Last Poems by D.H. Lawrence.  The Viking Press. 1933 New York.