Saturday, March 28, 2009

For James Allen Hall: A Passing Idea (Or Two) About Jericho Brown's Please

After I was challenged by another poet to talk about what I labeled as "the stiffness" in the language of Jericho Brown' s Please, I was grateful. My extremely brief (it might have been less than a sentence) assessment of his book yielded a response (my paraphrase): Why is stiffness necessarily a bad thing, one that should be avoided? Can one deliberately use it in an effective way, especially in a book ordered around music? No doubt I agreed with him. However, I do feel that Jericho's poems employ that strategy in ways that are sometimes unintentional.

But that poet's comment made me think.

To reflect about my critique from a different angle, I started to list words that describe the poems of Jericho Brown. I seized upon the word austerity. As economical. As unadorned. I would claim that both of those connotations are in play in his book in equally intriguing and frustrating ways.

My initial post started looking at "Pause," a poem I believe that is an inquiry into austerity. It obsesses me. And as I've said before, I prefer to write about books that inspires this tortured ambivalence. The following is the brief, and possible draft of an essay's beginning about Please. As I continue to reflect about my reactions to his poems and receive feedback, I will write more.


In regards to Jericho Brown’s much acclaimed debut volume of poems Please, I’m most intrigued by his formal and thematic value of austerity . Everyone, including Jericho himself, seems oddly to be most invested in the poems’ “music.”. Which to me sometimes sounds overdetermined, even, at times, tinny.

But his exploration of austerity surfaces time and time in ways worthy of sustained close readings, investigation.

In regards to this issue, the poem “Pause” investigates the concept of austerity through work, sex, race as well as periodic overlaps between the three.

One can scan the poem quickly for words that connote austerity (in the sense of the economical as well as rigidity): “a chore,” “slavery,” “subtraction,” rigorous experience,” “empty,” “cold,” “without” trees etc.

The poem begins with the narrator talking about a man who presumably surfaces and re-surfaces as a regular trick. As the narrator himself says, “From bed to dresser drawer/and all the while rolling latex down/he’d whistle, and I felt/daily at first, a chore, a long walk/without trees...”

Sex as chore. As unwanted work. Brown establishes this idea within four short lines. In a useful way, form reflects content.

Now look at this subsequent excerpt:

I should have known-
I who hate for people to comment
That I must be happy
Just because they hear me hum.
I want to ask
If they ever heard of slavery,
The work song-the best music
Is made of subtraction,,
The singer seeks an escape from the scarred body
And opens his mouth trying to get out...

The poem continues with formal (the rigidity phrasing of “I who hate”) and thematic preoccupations with austerity. Some connections I made:

“chore” =sex= work. “slavery” =work. work=unadorned, economical. austerity=unadorned, economical. I don't understand the idea of the best music as being made of subtraction."

But still. The concept of austerity seems to link slavery, work, sex in odd, thoughtful ways. Even choosing to capitalize the line’s first word’s letter yields an unusual austerity as well.

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