“We are at our best when our poems are as vast and varied as the American people are,” poet Jericho Brown said during the Academy of American Poets Forum in October of last year. His remarks, among the highlights of the three day forum, were part of the Emerging Poets Panel discussion at The Philoctetes Center in New York City, which posted the discussion in its entirety on YouTube.
Soon after I attended, I checked out Jericho Brown’s poetry collection Please. Please is organized into four sections: Repeat, Pause, Power and Stop. Throughout, Brown emphasizes the double meaning of these words; “power” is the button that turns on the turntable or the mp3 player, but it also signifies the dynamic between people. The musical theme continues in a cycle of poems whose titles are all numbered tracks and whose content references song lyrics. Other poems reference The Wizard of Oz or Biblical passages.
These devices serve as entry points for Brown’s intimate explorations of love and violence and their intersections. Sometimes those lines fall between lovers, sometimes between father and son, sometimes within crime-ridden neighborhoods. He addresses issues of desire, identity, abuse, racism and homophobia.
Brown sidesteps fluidly from vernacular to elevated language, from “Turn the volume down./ Let me tell you something” in “Idea for an Album: Vandross, the Duets” to “No ash behind, I burn to bloom./ I am not consumed. I am not consumed” in “The Burning Bush.”
I can tell you that the poems are well crafted and ring with authenticity, and that they are as powerful as the poet’s statement quoted above, but the best endorsement of Brown’s book is his poetry itself. Below is the poem “Like Father,” which you can hear the poet read at From the Fishouse:
My father’s embrace is tighter
Now that he knows
He is not the only man in my life.
He whispers, Remember when, and, I love you,
As he holds my hand hungry
For a discussion of Bible scriptures
Over breakfast. He pours cups of coffee
I can’t stop
My father’s embrace is firm and warm
Now that he knows. He begs forgiveness
For anything he may have done to make me
Turn to abomination
As he watches my eggs, scrambled
Soft. Yolk runs all over the plate.
A rubber band binds the morning paper.
My father’s embrace tightens. Grits
Stiffen. I hug back
Like a little boy, gripping
To prove his handshake.
Daddy squeezes me close,
But I cannot feel his heartbeat
And he cannot hear mine—
There is too much flesh between us,
Two men in love.