(Picador, 2019); pbk £10.99.
Jericho Brown’s The Tradition is a sharp shock of a book. Daring and lyrical, this collection examines issues of identity, race and sexuality, all set in the backdrop of modern American society. Brown’s defiant ‘I’ provides an anchor for this collection, grounding it with a deep sense of intimacy. Addressing himself by name in the poem ‘Dark’, Brown shifts to second person to confront his personal struggles with illness during the writing process:
Consumed with a single
Diagnosis of health. I’m sick
Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection stands as a bold testament to recovery, from both illness and violence. The poems began as an experiment to create a new form, blending sonnet, ghazal and blues to create the ‘duplex.’ Cutting up printed lines omitted from previous collections, Brown sprawled these fragments throughout his home and worked to piece them together to create something new. Innovation and breaking with tradition are thus at the heart of this collection.
Featherlight lines flutter and flow across the page, highlighting Brown’s eloquence even when depicting violence or pain. Although lithe in appearance, the collection is laden with symbolism and a richness of language. At times the poetry moves with a soothing lilt, others it is short and sharp, both exemplified in the poem ‘After Avery R. Young’:
Hooking and crooking or punching the clock,
It’s got to get done. That
Expectation. Stunning. Incantatory. Blk.
(‘After Avery R. Young.’)
Mixing prose and verse throughout, The Tradition exemplifies the range of Brown’s formal skill. In ‘Shovel’, flowing, hypnotic prose reads like a linear narrative, in contrast to ‘Meditations at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’, where short, strict verse produces a multitude of meaning. These experiments with form evinces Brown’s refreshing and innovative style.
Beneath the elegant exterior lies a gritty portrayal of trauma. Domestic assault, rape and childhood abuse are all addressed with considerable candour, bottling the emotions they elicit like tinctures imbues the collection with a sobering intensity. In the first of his ‘Duplex’ poems, Brown recalls the abuse he suffered as a child and its lasting effects:
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began,
For Brown, trauma takes root in the family, and his unflinching portraits of family dysfunction and violence are most poignant in this collection. But this is what makes Brown’s poetry so compelling, it never shies away from difficult emotions, using pared-back language it delivers blows that leave you breathless. The spaces on the page add to this effect, creating measured silences to catch our breaths.
Ultimately, family is a central concept for Brown, with the spectre of the father looming, a shadowy representation of violence and tradition. The originator of Brown’s experience with trauma, his influence is felt throughout. In the final poem ‘Duplex: Cento’, he emerges again to conclude the collection:
He was so young, so unreasonable,
Steadfast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Was my first love. He drove a burgundy car.
But where there is shadow there is also light, and this collection shines with hope for survivors of trauma. Poetry gives a voice to this pain, ultimately lighting the path for recovery. Piecing together lines of verse and prose, Brown begins the process of stitching up and healing the self:
In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.
For Brown, it appears poetry is the elixir.