“I grow green with hope”: on Reading The Tradition by Jericho Brown

The first book I read after AWP was Jericho Brown’s new collection, The Tradition

Please is still (and will probably forever be) my favorite book by Jericho Brown, but The Tradition doesn’t disappoint. Jericho Brown’s poems are some of the “cleanest” I’ve ever read. By that I mean, his economy of language is excellent. Some poems may look simple, but they are deceptively so. There is so much that goes on in a Jericho Brown poem, despite the fact that many of his pieces look straightforward in style and form. I’ve said this for years at The Poetry Lab, if you want to master precision: read Jericho Brown.

What really excites me about The Tradition is the serial poem “Duplex” that reoccurs in the book five times. Each poem is discrete, but since they exist under the same title I feel comfortable calling this a serial poem. Brown has said that when he was originally thinking of the poems he was considering a crown of sonnets, in particular he thought “What is a Jericho Brown sonnet?” And now we have the Duplexes. In each poem, a series of couplets with a repeating line cascades down the page in a startling unfolding. For example:

Duplex by Jericho Brown

I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

……….I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
……….Full f medicines that turn in the sun.

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

………Those who need most, need hell to be good.
………What are the symptoms of your sickness?

The poem goes on from there. I can’t include the whole thing for you, but I did find another “Duplex” online here. So what is this form? Why is this form? I’m so happy to tell you–if you didn’t already know–that Jericho Brown is a fucking scholar and the form is not for nothing. Which is to say there is an excellent essay by Brown called “Invention” that you should go read in full to bask in the creative intelligence of this man. 

For our purposes, I’ll include a short excerpt so I don’t lose you. 

I hadn’t written a thing and had no idea where to start and was fascinated by the fact that I was in the midst of inventing a form starting with the form itself and not with a single line of poetry. But it felt exhilarating to know I was doing so much of it unconsciously.

I should remind everyone who knows me that I do not believe that poems are made of our beliefs. Instead, I believe poems lead us to and tell us what we really believe. I think poems—working with language and seeing where it may lead us, seeing what kinds of choices we make when we have to find a rhyme or a syllable—tell us things about our individual and collective subconscious minds. I write in forms because formal work helps to push me toward saying what I couldn’t imagine I would say in poems. […]

Read that last line again if you want to better understand the Duplexes: “I write in forms because formal work helps to push me toward saying what I couldn’t imagine I would say in poems.” Like I said, there is nothing lackadaisical in the poetry of Jericho Brown. Later in the essay, Jericho says he kept the poems in couplets because the tension of one line against the other “woke him up.”

And it’s that attention, that “wokeness,” that you’ll find all throughout The Tradition. Probably one of the highlights from the book that you’re going to encounter out in the world (if you haven’t already) is “Bullet Points.” The full poem is on BuzzFeed:

Bullet Points by Jericho Brown

I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home […]

This poem is a great example of Jericho’s deceptive simplicity. You might think you have the gist of the poem from the first few lines. That the adamance of the speaker is the only poetic device Jericho Brown will use, and if you assumed that you are so incredibly wrong. Just look at these lines and observe, for example, the sound work:

[…] When I kill me, I will kill me
That same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise that if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me. He took […]

“The same way most Americans do, / I promise you: cigarette smoke / Or a piece of meat on which I choke” Hello! Jericho Brown is a master lyricist, too.  And it’s moments like these that show his precision. The delicate twist and twerk of his words, when a balance of sound and image and meaning come together like this the poem works so well you think it’s simple, but really its an exercise in restraint and an incredibly deft writer who has complete control of their diction and syntax. 

My favorite poem from The Tradition is the very first poem in the book, “Gandymede.” It was the poem that shocked and surprised me most. Almost line by line, the poem unfolded in a way that I didn’t expect and of that of I was incredibly in awe and totally jealous!

Ganymede by Jericho Brown

A man trades his son for horses.
That’s the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
Immortal. […]

Later, at the poem’s volta, I’m totally undone by these lines:

[…] When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you? Don’t you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
Up? And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven […]

I know, I know what you’re thinking: Goddamn Jericho Brown is fire. Listen, I hear you on that. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of The Tradition. I hope, if you haven’t already read Please and The New Testament you’ll get those too. If you have questions or if you want to continue this conversation, you know where to find me!

Now I’ll leave you with a writing prompt, because that’s where all Poetry Labs used to lead, and I miss our sessions very much (The Poetry Lab is currently on hiatus!). I can’t take credit for this prompt, though, this one is all Jericho. 

After considering a sonnet crown and the tension-building couplets of a ghazal, Jericho invented the duplex. Of the name he says, “I decided to call the form a duplex because something about its repetition and its couplets made me feel like it was a house with two addresses.”

Here are Jericho Brown’s “boundaries” for a duplex poem: 

Write a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem of 14 lines, giving each line 9 to 11 syllables.

The first line is echoed in the last line.

The second line of the poem should change our impression of the first line in an unexpected way.

The second line is echoed and becomes the third line.

The fourth line of the poem should change our impression of the third line in an unexpected way.

This continues until the penultimate line becomes the first line of the couplet that leads to the final (and first) line.

For the variations of repeated lines, it is useful to think of the a a’ b scheme of the blues form.   

~from the Poetry Foundation blog

The prompt is to write a duplex using the parameters above. Good luck!

Meeting Jericho Brown at AWP19 in Portland!

Drop a comment below and let me know what you’re reading these days.