I picked up Jericho Brown’s poetry collection The Tradition because it won the Pulitzer Prize and because I was looking for some contemporary poetry. What I found is a collection of frank poems dissecting America and its dreams from a queer black perspective.
The Tradition opens with a poetic rendition of the myth of Ganymede. Ganymede, said to be the most beautiful of mortals (who isn’t in Classical mythology?), is abducted by Zeus. In some versions he is said to be traded by his father for horses – “the version I prefer”. But there’s another way of looking at it – “nobody bothers saying/Rape. I mean, don’t you want God/To want you?” It’s a fiery opening statement that sets up many of the collection’s themes – fathers, rape, sexuality (Ganymede’s abduction became the model for pederasty), God – and their complicated entanglement.
It also introduces a plumbing of classical and Biblical mythology, a remixing of history and tradition revealing that they are not as dusty as we might hope. This is most literal in Of the Swan, the feminine counterpart to the Ganymede myth, in which God (Zeus) “finds/Bared skin a landscape prepared/For use”. “I was,” says the narrator, “The Lord’s opening on Earth,/A woman”.
It’s an American nightmare. Recurring poems titled Duplex build to a devastating revelation of a violation suggested throughout the collection. America is a land similarly pillaged – by colonisation, slavery, capitalism, consumerism, police brutality, disease, masculinity. In Stake, the narrator wonders, “How/Old will I get to be in a nation/That believes we can grow out/Of a grave?” And, more mundanely in Crossing, commuters are “Rising just to find a way toward rest again”. In the The Legend of Big and Fine: “a house, a car,/A woman – all the same to men/Who claimed them: things/To be entered”.
Love too is fraught – particularly when it is with men. The lovers in Brown’s poetry are hungry, they are wolves. In Night Shift, the narrator recalls, “I once bothered with a man who called me/Snack, Midnight Snack to be exact”. “No boy hurts/Like the first one”, he says more forlornly in A.D. Love and sex are a battleground for the lovers holed up in an apartment during a hurricane blackout in the lovely Trojan (there are those classical references again): “We only think of winning/The war bodies wage”. HIV haunts the collection, particularly in the devastating Turn Over. But the spectre of illness is wonderfully flipped in Cakewalk, where the narrator and his lover playfully compare one another’s viruses, “His HIV is better than mine”.
What, then, is the tradition? It is violation, of the land, of women, and particularly of black men’s bodies. Emmett Till, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown: these are some of their names.
Is there a possibility of redemption in such a world? Again, love, in its most laborious form, might offer a way. On the two lovers in Stand: “We lay there together/As if we were getting/Something done”. And later, “All/Seemed like work worth/Mastering”. So then, work might be redeeming. Brown pays tribute to the work of women, particularly mothers, “a woman risked her freedom by giving that risk a name,/By taking it to breast” (Hero).
And there is the work of the land – gardening – a creative opposition to the destruction of colonisation. Flowers appear throughout the collection. “I sweat the earth as I repair it” (Shovel); “I am growing green with hope” (Duplex). The delightful poem The Rabbits is full of fecund plenitude, as the narrator comes come home late to find, “Furry little delights fucking/In my own front yard”.
There is also the redemptive power of art and culture. Mirroring those black men violated, Brown pays tribute to his forebears: James Baldwyn, Avery R. Young, Titus Kaphar, Essex Hemphill, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tramaine Hawkins. “So the Bible says, in the beginning,/Blackness”, the narrator notes in Meditations at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
The personal is political in The Tradition, although the “I” of these poems shifts. Sometimes it seems to be Jericho himself. Other times to inhabit his lover – as in Dark – or other characters entirely, such as the man keeping women in the basement in The Peaches, perhaps the same grandfather of a lover who “raped women/Who weren’t yet women”. And The Virus gives voice to a parasite inside, “the way anger swells in a man/Who studies the history of his nation”.
Many of the poems build to a revelation, a line that subverts or reveals what has gone before, as does the collection as a whole. For me, this meant only sporadically did whole poems fully engage me, even if individual phrases impressed me. And inevitably for a Pulitzer winner, this is American Poetry, even if it gestures to the world outside. But I can’t deny the cumulative power of the collection.
Gay rating: 3/5 for queer themes, sex and discussions of masculinity.