The Tradition by Jericho Brown / Copper Canyon Press / 2019 / 978-1556594861
Soft. When a baby is born, we call their skin, their eyes, and the top of their heads soft. Soft hair. Soft baby. Hold this baby with the soft smile softly before they wail. Wail like they are triggered by a memory of a past unsoft life. Silence the baby with the bark black skin, once soft, but dangerous now. Dangerous unsoft skin. Dangerous black baby. This is tradition.
Jericho Brown’s The Tradition examines the historical softening of terror our society has normalized. The terror happening in adolescence behind closed doors. Our body’s history rewritten to soften the trauma. The violence we too often mistake for desire. Throughout my reading I felt seen in this work. Understood as someone seen as woman before girl. Dangerous before soft. Brown’s poetry within this collection is doing many things at once: breaking the tradition of complacency, placing the person and their body before the trauma, and demonstrating what freedom could look like if you understood that “nobody’s got to love you.”
Brown opens the collection with an image of a father trading his son for horses in “Ganymede”:
the boy. The boy becomes
immortal. His father rides until
grief sounds as good as the gallop
of an animal born to carry those
who patrol our inherited
kingdom. When we look at myth
this way, nobody bothers saying
Within this poem and throughout the collection, Brown directly addresses rape. Both the word itself and the act. He names the thing that nobody wants to talk about. The thing that our society still questions. Brown breaks the tradition of complacency when it comes to childhood sexual abuse. “Ganymede” ends with the lines: “The people of my country believe / we can’t be hurt if we can be brought.” At first these lines brought me back to the literal buying and selling of Black people during the slave trade. As I revisited the poem, I thought about the documentary Surviving R Kelly, and how childhood sexual abuse is justified when a “trade” is made. Man gets the girl. The girl becomes woman. Her age ain’t nothing but a number because he can provide. When we look at relationships this way, we tell ourselves lies like “it wasn’t like that.” “This was a different time.” “If she wasn’t being so fast…” We live in a society where money talks. Young girls’ bodies are evaluated and valued by men, for men trading our girlhood for wristlets and tennis bracelets. In the second “Duplex” Brown states that “the opposite of rape is understanding.” Rape is unjustifiable. In a space where childhood sexual abuse and sexual misconduct is tucked away in the folds of our society, Brown breaks the tradition of silence.
The Tradition features five poems entitled “Duplex,” one of which is entitled “Duplex: Cento” as it includes lines from the other four pieces. Brown’s invention of the duplex form, a combination of the sonnet, ghazal, and the blues, demonstrates Brown’s mastery of traditional poetic forms, and his ability to create a new space for the poems to exist. Black writers and writers of color have entered this space of repurposing traditional forms in order to continue examining the social issues that are still prevalent within our communities. This practice is one that I’ve adopted in my own writing in order to combat this country’s erasure of our history.
In “Shovel,” Brown writes: “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.” This is how we cope. This is how I’ve been taught to deal. Drown the thing out with loud mouth noise. “Riddle” takes on the voice of White America:
We do not know the history
of this nation within ourselves. We
do not know the history of our-
selves on this planet because
we do not have to know what
we believe we own
The title poem of this collection, “The Tradition,” places various flowers alongside John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown. In the poem, Brown states that “Men like me and my brothers filmed what we / planted for proof we existed before /too late.” I’ve never watched a flower bloom, but I’ve seen it in death. The wilting petals. The absence of life. The men that Brown names in this poem, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown, where men that I knew after their deaths, and to really know someone you must know them when they’re full of life and give them their flowers then. “Bullet Points”:
I promise if you hear
of me dead anywhere near
a cop, then that cop killed me. He took
me from us and left my body, which is,
no matter what we’ve been taught,
greater than the settlement a city can pay
a mother to stop crying, and more
beautiful than the new bullet
fished from the folds of my brain
The Tradition’s sense of urgency stems from the literal breaking of an American tradition of silence when it comes to childhood traumas and acts of violence against marginalized people. Within the rainstorm we get calm. We get flowers. Softness. A softness that Brown makes his own. A softness that I too want to make my own. In “As a Human Being,” Brown states that “you sit understanding / yourself as a human being finally / free now that nobody’s got to love you.” In this poem, the speaker sits across from their mother as she tends to her husband, marred by the speaker. The events of the poem are unclear, but the emotions are loud. In this poem we see a speaker separate themselves from the restraints of familial ties. Whatever caused the speaker to mar their father, neither their mother nor their aunt addresses it within the poem. Instead, the speaker learns to live without.
Separated into three sections, the third section of The Tradition introduces a speaker living with HIV, and the love shared between them and their partner. At times soft and enveloping. At other times mistaken desire. In “Of My Fury” the speaker states:
I love a man I know could die
and not by way of illness
and not by his own hand
but because of the color of that hand and all
his flawless skin.
The relationship between the speaker and their love is often either broken up by violence, or their complacency in looking the other way. In the poem “Stand,” the speaker is “sure / somebody died while / we made love. Some- / body killed somebody / black.” The world that this collection lives in continues to chaos around the speaker, even as he and his love are in a space of calm. Black queer men and the love between them is treated with tenderness and explored on a spiritual level throughout this collection. The speaker is living with HIV, and although the sickness can be burdensome at times, Brown meditates on the tenderness of black boys and men, separating who they are from who the world wants them to be. This is how you love. This is how you become free.