Winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 2020. ‘The Tradition’ by Jericho Brown – Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Tradition Jericho Brown

‘The Tradition’ Jericho Brown

(Picador UK; Copper Canyon Press, USA

ISBN (UK) 9781529020472, 86pp, £10.99)

‘Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’ explores legacy, racism, queerness, trauma and where personal concerns intersect with historical legacies and in-built disadvantage. An early poem, ‘The Microscope’ manages to encompass most of these concerns. Musing on ‘my coiled hair on one slide/ Just as unimportant as anyone else’s’ spreads into carrying a pencil, which gets lost, ‘To stab someone I secretly loved: a bigger boy/ Who’d advance through those tight, locker-lined corridors shoving’. An action that’s a beg for attention but the lost pencil means the other boy will never know how the narrator feels so can’t react to it. Each memory contains a comment about it not being worth remembering; these were ordinary events not worth paying attention to. The poem ends, 

‘On the way to an American History exam
I almost passed. Redcoats.
Red blood cells. Red-bricked
Education I rode the bus to get. I can’t remember 
The exact date or
Grade, but I know when I began ignoring slight alarms
That move others to charge or retreat. I’m a kind
Of camouflage. I never let on when scared
Of conflicts so old they seem to amount
To nothing really – dust particles left behind –
Like the viral geography of an occupied territory,
A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white woman walking with a speck like me.

‘Redcoats’ are the British the American nation established independence from, but it’s interesting this history exam is about battling a foreign national and not the internal civil war and slavery. ‘Red-bricked’ refers to standard state education. The ‘slight alarms’ of institutional and person racism that allow assumptions that black children have low aspirations or are of lesser intelligence, that are too big and too established for one child to challenge. But they linger making the child wary of how they move, where they go and who they’re with. Grinding a child down to a speck of dust allows racist attitudes to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and creates passivity in the child.

In ‘Shovel’, a man paid to drive a truck and dispose of a body on behalf of an anonymous murderer listens to songs on the radio as he drives to the grave site and buries the body,

‘I completely cover the dead before I return
The truck where I assume someone else must
Scrub it – engine off – of the body’s evidence,
And I sing, again, those songs because I know 
The value of sweet music when we need to pass
The time without wondering what rots beneath our feet.

The driver may not have shot the man he’s just buried, but his need for pay makes him complicit nonetheless and the distraction of music is not permanent.

Throughout the poems are several duplexes, an invented form, described as a combination of the sonnet, ghazal and the blues. There are fourteen lines in couplets, alternately indented, where the second line in each couplet has its key theme repeated in the first line of the next couplet. Sometimes this might be a straight repetition, sometimes a word or two are changed to alter the sense of the line or the second repetition might answer a question set out in the preceding line.  In ‘Duplex (I begin with love…)’

‘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?

Here is one symptom of my sickness:
Men who love me are men who miss me.

Men who leave me are men who miss me.
In the dream where I am an island.

In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.’

‘Mediations at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’ part 2 contains the observation,

‘I can remember the brass band, it
Lives, every goodbye a lie. Every
One of them carries the weight

He chose. And plays it. No theft.
No rape. No flood. No. Not in 
This moment. Not in this lovely

Sunlit room of my mind. Holy.

So the Bible says, in the beginning,
Blackness. I am alive. You?
Alive. You born with the nerve

To arrive yawning. You who
Walk without noticing your feet’

It returns to the theme of the transformative powers of music, how, focused in one moment, it’s possible to push aside concerns, history and legacy. The narrator notices others are listening without the same intensity, those who have come to pass time and don’t need the music to take them away from a negative legacy because they enjoy the privilege of not having to pay attention to where they stand and walk.

In the title poem, Jericho Brown merges the tradition of natural science, tending to flowers, and violence against black men – John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown are named – which is posited as a tradition. It encapsulates the key concerns of the personal intersecting with history. However, if readers merely focus on the concerns, they will miss the skill and playfulness apparent in ‘The Tradition’, the mastery that makes Jericho Brown’s poems reward re-reading.


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