Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black. I thought then
Of holding you
As a political act. I
May as well have
(‘Stand’ in The Tradition by Jericho Brown)
The Tradition by Jericho Brown won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – and rightly so. It is an incredible collection, vibrant yet harrowing, innovative and candid. Most of all, it is poignantly contemporary – Brown is certainly the poet of today – and The Tradition never shies away from simple truth.
‘Bullet Points’ has made its way into a few Tweets recently: ‘I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me.’ Victims of police brutality are named unapologetically. John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Avery R. Young. Say their names, Brown is instructing us.
Brown’s lines are rigorously neat and his diction liberatingly concise; his words hit home in quick succession. He writes with clarity about topics that are difficult to broach, but shouldn’t be: police brutality, exploitation, slavery, suicide.
The Tradition is a collection about flowers and art, and Brown is clearly informed by so much other work. But, more than this, it’s a collection about identity: what it means to be gay, black and American in the 21st century, and how this can be navigated. The titular poem, ‘The Tradition’, epitomizes this best:
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s breath.
A professor of English, Brown’s intellect shines through in poems like ‘Ganymede’, which bends Greek mythology into a poem that addresses slavery and exploitation; or poems like ‘After Another Country’, which draws on James Baldwin’s novel to consider suicide and whiteness.
Brown’s creation of the ‘Duplex’ is perhaps my favourite part of this collection, and is testament to his adept skill with language and its capacity. The Duplex is a new form that plays with the rules of the ghazal and the sonnet and blends this with the blues. Audre Lorde, in Poetry is Not a Luxury (1985), wrote: “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.” Jericho Brown epitomises this in the Duplex – this very rejection of the poetic tradition.
The Duplex is a 14-line poem written in couplets that luxuriates in repetition and reconsideration. “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”, writes Brown in an article written for Poetry Foundation. In that article, he also writes about the creative process that resulted in the Duplex: a flu-driven journey to produce a poetic mutt through which complex identity can finally be considered, in a way that forms like the sonnet do not allow. He cut lines of his poems apart, shuffled and rearranged them to produce something new – but, most of all, to challenge his own thought process, and to rethink what a line means.
In the light of the five duplexes that appear in The Tradition, the collection’s title, gains a new dimension as poetic traditions are redefined with Brown’s words, his repetition, his redefinition. Jericho Brown refuses to live in someone else’s world, and refuses to write in someone else’s diction, someone else’s form. The Tradition is a necessary read for today.
Words by Olivia Emily
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