Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending ERIC Fest, an event which celebrates the creative industries and gives young people an insight into various possible career paths. At the event attendees were provided with goody bags filled with newly published books. By chance (or fate) one of the books I received in my bag was The Tradition by Jericho Brown. Contemporary poetry is always something I’ve enjoyed and have recently been on a hunt to find more poetry books written by POC writers/underrepresented voices so, when I found this in my bag, I was of course really pleased.
The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third collection of poems but the first that I have read of his. It is an anthology full of raw emotion, with a focus on the black and the queer human body, and how they have been subject to violence and suffering throughout history. Brown does this through references to police brutality, imperialism and slavery but also, on a more personal level, through addressing topics such as HIV and sexual trauma. Like his other collections, the poems in The Tradition serve many references to religious and the Christian faith. Rather than separating the body from the soul, Brown intertwines the two, with the body having strong ties to the spiritual world.
In terms of the book’s structure, the first half of the book seems to focus mostly on political themes, while the second half addresses more personal experiences. Both I thought were incredibly powerful but personally I found myself connecting more with the second half of the book. I felt truly moved by Brown’s personal experiences, they felt so raw and uncut.
I found the natural imagery which ran through the poems in the collection both beautiful and haunting. One poem I was particularly moved by was ‘Foreday in the Morning’ which provides a glimpse into the lives of Brown’s parents, who were landscapers.
I love my mother. I love black women
Who plant flowers as sheepish as their sons. By the time the blooms
Unfurl themselves for a few hours of light, the women who tend them
Are already at work. Blue.
Drawing on the historical, Brown likens America’s dark past and woeful present to retellings of popular myths. These myths seems to justify unsolicited violence and, in this way, are used as criticism against Western culture. Rape is a really powerful and widely used image to portray the exploitation of native populations by colonial powers. In these poems, Brown likens the racism faced by black people in America to the abduction of an adolescent boy in the well-known Greek myth, the rape of Ganymede.
When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you?
The final two lines of this poem are what make it one of my favourites in the entire collection: ‘The people of my country believe/We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.’ This poem, as well as many of the others in this collection, force the reader to question their complicity in a society whose ascent was built off of the exploitation of black people. Words used in the poem such as “trades” and “bought” suggest a criticism of capitalist America.
‘A.D.’ was another of my favourites about a man recalling feelings of loss for an ex-lover who mysteriously disappears from his life. The traditional love poem is upturned by Brown in his portrayal of inner conflict and emotional entrapment, as well as through his disregard for conventional form. In presenting queer relationships, Brown always seems to convey a sense of isolation, of suppressed feelings. The reader is therefore called upon to fill in the gaps.
Ten years, your feet hanging, tangled and long, and still
You’re the victim
Of such nightmares. You breathe
Like he’s been lying
On top for the last decade.
A man dies above you, you suffocate below the weight.
There is no doubt that Brown is a stylistic poet, the poems from this collection are all rhythmic and lyrical, demonstrating a stream of consciousness that firmly places the narrative voice in the now. Jericho Brown has also been praised for his introduction of a new form, which he calls the “Duplex.’ This poetry style consists of a sonnet-like series of couplets, complemented by frequent repetition throughout. Fighting against the literary canon, Brown ventures outside of established structures to create his own style of poetry, unaffected by the trends of Western history.
Favouring mostly short poems, Brown is able to manage his narration through a formal structure and arresting final statements. A risk with short poems is the sense that a poem isn’t quite finished or are lacking. But, with Brown’s poetry, its brevity only ever seems to add to its impact.
I feel a bit strange giving this book a rating because poetry is so subjective and relies a lot on the reader to get the most out of the text but, for the purpose of consistency, I would give this book a 9/10. The Tradition is a truly revolutionary collection as a reflection of the self and of our current times. If you’re the type of person who usually shies away from poetry in fear of not being able to relate to it, this may be the book that changes this for you...