I don’t read a lot of poetry. I never really have. And though I’ve picked up and loved a few collections over my years on this blog (notably: If They Come for Us and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings), I haven’t really been what I would consider “converted” to the art form. However, as is clear, I’ll occasionally pick up a collection that I have heard a lot about or for some other reason catches my attention. In this case, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year (2020) and realizing that I hadn’t read any poetry yet this year pushed me to go ahead and request it from my (finally open for contactless curbside holds pick-ups) library.
Like I said, I am not really experienced in reading poetry and, therefore, feel like my ability to review it is questionable and anything I say here should be taken with a (large) grain of salt. However, I want to share some reactions and my favorite pieces anyways. Do with my words what you will. First, I tried to slowly read through this, taking breaks at the end of each section, re-reading poems, and generally taking the time to think through each piece. But I still sped through this collection in a single day. The overwhelming “sense” that I have after finishing, like a feeling about the general vibe and message of the collection, is that it is a strong reckoning with the trauma in the US for Black queer male bodies (as a single entity and as individual characteristics as well), as well as the trauma specific to Brown’s own experiences, emotions and relationships. These themes are sometimes explored separately and sometimes as they intersect with each other. He addresses many salient topics related to fear and terror in the US today, from police brutality to rape to family violence and more. And he connects them through the way they both result from and feed into the creation of an atmosphere of oppression that invades every part of a person’s (especially and most particularly, a Black person’s) life. All in all, this was a true lyrical examination of the path Black and Brown bodies were forced to take and must fight to break from in the US; an intense and weighty collection.
Some of the poems I liked best (with some thoughts/reactions for why):
Every Duplex piece – I read afterwards that Brown invented this style. I am almost not surprised because overall they were my favorite poems, the ones that I felt (subjectively) were the “best” – every single one of them. So that fact that he created them makes sense, you can feel the passion for and understanding of the style in each. I loved the wordplay in them, the flow and rhythm they create. And the topics he chose for each are some of the strongest in the collection. And then the last one – the closing poem of the collection, the way he pulls together the words and themes from the rest for one final emotional combination blow, is stunning.
Hero – This one got me emotionally, looking into motherhood and the thanklessness of Blackness and Black motherhood in the US.
After ‘Another Country’ – An emotional gut punch, very affecting look at mental health and (TW) suicide and suicidal ideation.
Bullet Points – That this is even something that it must be said so clearly, in this country…it’s what we accuse our worst “enemy” countries of, and yet, here we are. It’s terrible, not-to-be-believed, but oh, Brown says it with such beautiful harshness.
After Avery R. Young – Just…wow. This is one where I don’t feel like I understood enough to really comment specifically, but the emotional impact and overall impression were strong.
A Young Man – The sibling relationship here really touched me deeply, and that last line, the inherent assumption of what is to come, the use of “yet”…damn, it carries an indescribable heaviness.
The Legend of ‘Big’ and ‘Fine’ – A strong and indicting message about ownership and the deep assumptions about it that form the formation of white cisgender patriarchy in the US…phew.
The Long Way – The way the poem accuses present (white) generations of ignoring their ancestors’ transgressions because it’s easier and not something they had to experience or know or live with and what good would Brown’s refusal to comply/efforts to acknowledge that past on the daily really do in the grand scheme when those in power continue to ignore it? The message here is strong and brutal and one of the clearest of the collection, at least for me.
Of my Fury – So sorrowfully touching.
Stay – This poem is one of the shortest in the collection and yet is packs one of the strongest emotional deliveries. I read this one like five or six times. So evocative.
Stand – This is an intense combination of personal and “political” and the way its unavoidable for Black people in the US today.
And just a few lines from other pieces that stood out to me, even separate from the whole of the poems they were part of:
“… I am not a narrative / Form, but dammit if I don’t tell a story.” (After Avery R. Young)
“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.” (Shovel)
“… I’m more than a conqueror, bigger / Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.” (Crossing)