I often lie open as a field. —Jericho Brown, “Open”
The human mind essentially measures distance using two dimensions; space, three. If you want a jolt from the past, call them y and z axis, respectively. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has allowed for, what: splitting atoms, chaos theory, the simultaneous existence of science and spirituality; but it also remains a stage to showcase artistic endeavors. Modern physics helps to display the craft at work in Jericho Brown’s first book of poems titled Please.
Einstein’s theory can best be described through his example of a railway carriage and a dropped stone: if the train is moving uniformly in one direction, a dropped stone from an observer’s position hanging out the window looks to travel in a straight line; from a pedestrian, however, the same stone falls to earth in what looks like a parabolic curve. The war of voices in Brown’s collection—seeming to link various trajectories in life’s longing, yearning, regret—still plead with so many of his inner selves, still find spaces to breathe. For Brown, the body is a vessel that catalogs intense memories, painful emotions. It’s this space (the world inside and around the body), and the emotional distance (visiting and revisiting our memory, our perceptions of reality), that allow Brown to pull a reader into his world, one of intense autobiographical heat. Brown’s poems admit the insecurities we feel in our bodies—wrestling with race, abuse, homosexuality—those spaces we hide in. His opening poem “Track 1: Lush Life” begins, “The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you[.]” The nightclub is a space where song must travel. And Brown’s willingness to shapeshift—the performer’s identity communicates the speaker’s desires—sets the reader’s expectations:
That’s what satisfies her, the woman With the microphone. She does not mean to entertain You, and neither do I. Speak to me in lover’s tongue— Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long.
The off-rhyme from “tongue” to “long” creates a dissonance in a poem filled with song, and thus foreshadows the journey ahead. The long night creates a distinct space of newness, possibility, potentiality, though we already get a sense of a speaker addressing issues of identity—the spiteful “woman inside the misunderstood man.”
This voice starkly contrasts the dispirited child in “Again,” who opens with: “You are not as tired of the poem / As I am of the memory.” Brown’s diction suggests recurrence and distances the reader from the subject matter. Yet the poem’s efforts create mystery, elude a simple reading, and subtly manipulate the image of the “falling arm,” which at first seems a gesture of love:
Right now my mother’s asleep In the same place around her
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims, “Memory—what a strange thing it is!—does not record concrete duration[.]” It’s the space of memory, however, that creates mystery. We register the father’s arm and how it has landed in the “same” place for “most” of thirty years. Again, recurrence, a haziness associated with time, begins to lessen our emotional connection. We become distanced from the father’s love because it feels common, withdrawn. Our own bodies begin to bend away from the speaker’s memory. But the paradoxical nature of Brown’s image and the mystery in the word “landed” somehow ground us with hints of abuse:
And the shape of her body Even if hunched in retreat,
The allusions of hurtful memories remain unclear, unknown, and thus affect our basis for reality in much the same way. Brown’s diction and image bend or pull in opposite directions opening a space for the reader’s perception of reality. We enter that space, and must redefine a sense of love: what we thought were images of love suddenly transform into allusions of pain.
Pablo Picasso writes on his art: “The secret of many of my deformations—which many people do not understand—is that there is an interaction, an intereffect between the lines in a painting: one line attracts the other and at the point of maximum attraction the lines curve in toward the attracting point and form is altered.” Brown’s craft is his use of the sentence, line break, illusory image, to achieve what Picasso abstracted with a paint brush. In “Crickets,” for example, we notice the music immediately:
Again and in the proper key, we are The sound of a man’s back and the distance And widens as he runs over us Away from you, your screened porch, And the glass of wine he dropped there, Now a patch of splinters at your bare feet.
Each additional adjective or adverbial phrase lulls, creating (like crickets) syntactical music. The music pulls us beyond reason, and remains consonant with the syntactical chunking, pushing a reader farther and farther away from the lost body. With each appositive, each layer of metaphor, we find ourselves (like the man in the poem) running with the music, until we are so far away the world seems more patchwork of memory. The drama in many of Brown’s poems heightens through line break, creating spaces of common experience: “We wouldn’t dare let you / Out of the night without us.”
While so many poems in Please create open space, others work to trap. “Detailing the Nape” is a prose poem that tells a child’s story, and the innocent perspective reveals another helpless witness: “I peek through a cracked bathroom door as she and my sister wait over the tub until running water grows hot enough to kill bacteria.” The image of the speaker peeking through not a space in the doorway, but a “crack,” helps to reinforce a feeling of paralysis. The bathroom itself feels a space to confine, not a place children generally enjoy: “My sister kneels under the rush, a sinner prepared for baptism, while Grandmother scrubs as religiously as she scours the toilet each Sunday.” The image of the sister both kneeling in reverence, but also a slave to the grandmother, hints again at the duality infused in much of the book. In some moments we are drawn (like the speaker) to step closer into our experiences, no matter how painful; we cross thresholds: “Seeing my sister’s distress, I open the door wide. M’dea’, I think that’s blood.” In Brown’s work no one lives free of implication, and he sometimes confines us in those small spaces.
Confinement can haunt; in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty writes about closeness:: “We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. That is what makes home so safe and appealing, that we do not need to look at it.” This is precisely the idea Brown looks to debunk. Read about the roach-filled home in “Beneath Me” to understand how memories swarm the spaces of our minds: “The roaches at 51 Felton Street / Went to work when we snored. . . Sleep and they’d creep / Into my ears come night.” As in many other poems, Brown’s music—the rhymes in “beneath” and “street” and “sleep” and “creep”—move us eerily into the poem. We sense the same liberation the speaker feels in moving past each harrowing moment: “All that crawls / Beneath me dies / When I try my walk away.” The body’s vessel holds these images and experiences, like the poem “Pause” that muses on the simple, daily torments:
I who hate for people to comment Just because they hear me hum. If they ever heard of slavery, The work song—the best music The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body
What a great turn when the speaker uses slavery to describe how things are not always how they seem. How the soul—feeling trapped and nonexistent—might actually seek space and emotional distance. Moving into spaces means moving beyond certain moments. Brown covers these distances, is not afraid of these spaces. In the poem “Fall,” he captures a fearful, haunted speaker who witnesses his own death: “The dream begins with / The plummet.” If the repetition of an experience creates habit and desensitization (as in “Again”), the repetition of dreams creates anxiety, intensity. The space of memory works differently from the space of the subconscious; both require, however, a letting go. Many of Brown’s poems confine space (loss of control), or break it open (accepting loss of control). The speaker in “Dark Side of the Planet” uncovers this sense of acquiescence:
I have to believe in your body Plant a tower on your back Turn the blue light and the red light On and in separate directions I have to open think fault
As a poem in the collection that tries to free, break open into space, Brown’s form looks to also free his content. The caesuras help to break open ideas, and the longing to believe in the body—the same body that can also confine pain—can be as simple as a thought, a shift in perspective, a relativity. This movement in the collection exhibits shifts in voice that can be distinctly heard between the earlier and later poems. What was “bricklike, muddy dirt” in “Detailing the Nape” becomes “I love / My own mass its interruptions” in “Dark Side of the Planet.” There is a sense of letting go, a freeing of space. Brown’s beauty, his craft, lives in his subtlety. He traverses subjects of abuse and isolation in the same way he addresses homosexuality. There is an honesty to the speaker and the spaces he enters. There is a sensuality to his lyric—a belief in the body, a breaking open of space—even if they are harrowing places to enter. But what feels like pain soon seems more an act of praise:
Body if ever I am to lose mine You can’t breathe a thing I envy you your lack of air I have to take most the night
To worship the falling body is to claim space, to “loose / the body” is to make it pro-action. The hyperbolic language in taking the night is a linguistic liberation, a freeing of space. We can forget the race, and the tangibilities of our lives, we could choose to breathe the night on the “Dark Side of the Planet.”
Brown’s poems slowly advance into metaphysical space, where control becomes merely an illusion of the mind. “Why I Cannot Leave You” is a surreal poem filled with metaphors—“I’m your hungry man / Captive damsel dragged by her hair”—that relinquish control. The speaker’s identity even if unrealized—half “hungry man,” half “captive damsel”—relishes in the ambiguity, in illusion. These distances narrow in “Like Father,” as we sense a speaker’s voice full of wisdom, a voice of a person claiming identity: “…a father’s embrace is tighter / Now that he knows / He is not the only man in my life.” Brown’s subtleties in the narrative create great irony, feel refined. We are led to believe the renewed expression of the speaker’s homosexuality is something his father could never truly understand. Brown gives us a space for all emotional selves to come together and embrace commonality of experience.
As the collection closes, as spaces and distances open beyond their literal vessels, beyond tangible enclosures, there is a movement outside the body, a movement to name the body, so that the speaker’s sense of identity now claims its own space. The final poem of the book, “Because My Name Is Jericho,” is a poem of resolution and perseverance. The speaker states, “He knew where my body had been. // I named each place.” Like in Brown’s collection, he has already showed us the places his body has been—some fearful, some intriguing, some necessary. Acceptance is a space: “Each eye, my entire body, struck // Open, dry / As it was that night.” The harmony of “eye” and “dry” reflects unity, acceptance, and in that process our bodies are flung open, like a night, and even in the dark, there is space for the body.