Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On Jericho Brown's "Prayer of the Backhanded"

Exponentially more ambitious, Jericho Brown’s austere poem “Prayer of the Backhanded” reenergizes the trope of The Victimized Child. You can’t help but appreciate his investment in anaphora, alliteration, smart line breaks.

Not to mention the dark comedy. Which surfaces at several key moments. Take the poem’s opening. Lesser poets, like Tayson, seize on a particular graphic image to immediately attract us. Brown is wiser and more original. With inarguable novelty, he allows his child to articulate that he prefers, over other abuses, even over the belt, the striking of his father’s hand.

Pay attention to the cadence of the language:

Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closest extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand...

Who can deny the gallows humor in listening to the boy list how he prefers to be abused? With perverse, but understandable logic, the boy places the blame on himself. No one can deny the verisimilitude of such a psychology:

...forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target...

Yet another significant passage triumphs in its sheer musicality. Again, lesser poets would call too much attention to the alliteration, particularly with the steady stream of “b”’s. They would force the poem into unintentional self-parody. But Brown knows and does better:

...Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack

The line break after the “you” and before “what was a busted lip” creates a neat surprise. Because of this boy’s logic, we expect, to a degree, that he may “lift” the intangible, something abstract like love, sadness, etc. But the poem works against that expectation. All we sadly receive is the remembrance of what had been once a “busted lip.” This line break more than earns its pathos.

Unlike some of the other poems in Brown’s collection Please, here he uses the inherent austerity and stiffness of language to his complete advantage. The abused boy has no choice but to remain stoic towards his abuser.

Notice that in the following excerpt, Brown inserts a jarring word (“eliminated”) into the boy’s song. Brown knowingly disrupts our sonic pleasure; he knows that we need to not become so lulled that we lose sight of the tragic abuse. Here the boy describes the backhanded slap:

...holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek
Make full this dimpled cheek...

There is no doubt that this is a masterful poem.

However, as good as this poem is, and it is more than good, I do not think that it necessarily advances the poetic dialogue of abuse. Accurately, Brown conflates the victim’s inevitable pain and weird pleasure amidst tragedy. Unlike Tayson, he doesn’t resort to cheap images for our sympathy.

However, is he shedding any new light on abuse, victims and victimizers, or our world? A world which allows for such things to happen?

It could be argued that this may be asking too much from a single poem.

That may be true. At the same time, some poets can do that. Benjamin S. Grossberg, a seriously overlooked gay poet, does offer that sort of advancement. As a result, all queer male poets’ contributions to that dialogue need to be ranked in terms of their necessity.

Grossberg’s “Blue-Black” proves to be one of the most important poems in recent years that deals with this subject matter.

1 comment:

  1. As ever, so far, but not far enough. I find your reading of poems fascinating, but somehow, you always stop short, and in that gap manage to find the faults that you want to find. I don't hear "stiffened language". I hear control. I feel an intrinsic contrast between the control of the poem and the looseness of abuse, between the control of the hand writing the poem and hand that abuses within the poem. Does the poem advance the issues of abuse in a "new light"? Was it written to do that? Is this a sociological document? If anything, it represents the tradition of abuse...the accepted tradition...and ways in which the victim is bribed (backhandledly) to accept this. The poem is finely layered, and yes, Brown uses the plosive bs to effect--but what about the word-play as "I bear the bridge"/to make up is undercut to become a wound, a broken nose? And the poem is marked, like a bruise, with Blues and echoes. Grossberg's poem is wonderfully constructed. But I don't hear much that is new in it. Perhaps, your next post will persuade me.