As a child, poet Jericho Brown went to church on Wednesdays and Sundays and “every day in between if we could.” He grew up in an evangelical, fundamentalist family and often sang with the church choir.
“My mother and father were very interested in their children being ‘churched’ children. That was a phrase that they would use,” Brown told Art Beat. “Being ‘churched’ people in that way meant that I came away with an understanding of the Bible and of scripture.”
It’s through that lens that the poet approaches his new book, “The New Testament,” which hit shelves in September.
Brown, who won the American Book Award for his first collection “Please,” which was set against the backdrop of his passion for music, uses his new collection to question the scriptures he learned during his childhood.
“As I got older, I started thinking about, well if there is a god, then what? How do I fill in that blank when I have to start thinking these things for myself? Do I completely disavow the existence of that god when I look at what’s going on in this world, what do I understand about the soul? What do I understand about the divine?” said Brown. “Part of what the book is doing is trying to search out those questions and in some cases trying to figure out answers to those questions.”
He does that with “a lot of testifying” and “a lot of rewriting of biblical scriptures.” One way he draws on the Bible is through familial relationships. In the book, the speaker has a brother and their sibling rivalry mirrors that of biblical siblings, Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, and Rachel and Leah to name a few.
“These were relationships between brothers or relationships between sisters where all is not well and I really wanted to create an allegory that followed those Bible stories.”
Listen to Jericho Brown read “Heart Condition” from his new collection, “The New Testament.”
I don’t want to hurt a man, but I like to hear one beg.
Two people touch twice a month in ten hotels, and
We call it long distance. He holds down one coast.
I wander the other like any African American, Africa
With its condition and America with its condition
And black folk born in this nation content to carry
Half of each. I shoulder my share. My man flies
To touch me. Sky on our side. Sky above his world
I wish to write. Which is where I go wrong. Words
Are a sense of sound. I get smart. My mother shakes
Her head. My grandmother sighs: He ain’t got no
Sense. My grandmother is dead. She lives with me.
I hear my mother shake her head over the phone.
Somebody cut the cord. We have a long distance
Relationship. I lost half of her to a stroke. God gives
To each a body. God gives every body its pains.
When pain mounts in my body, I try thinking
Of my white forefathers who hurt their black bastards
Quite legally. I hate to say it, but one pain can ease
Another. Doctors rather I take pills. My man wants me
To see a doctor. What are you when you leave your man
Wanting? What am I now that I think so fondly
Of airplanes? What’s my name, whose is it, while we
Make love. My lover leaves me with words I wish
To write. Flies from one side of a nation to the outside
Of our world. I don’t want the world. I only want
African sense of American sound. Him. Touching.
This body. Aware of its pains. Greetings, Earthlings.
My name is Slow And Stumbling. I come from planet
Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable.
Brown remembers when he first read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes.
“It was as if I could hear someone speaking to me. Nobody else was in the room, but I could hear the words.”
It’s with that in mind that Brown sits down to write his own work.
“One way you know you’re in the middle of reading a really good poem is that the sounds of the poem almost come off the page as if someone is reading the poem to you or you find that when you read a poem, your lips are moving. You can’t help but want to hear what it sounds like,” said Brown. “I want readers of my poems to be hearers of my poems even if they do not ever hear the poems aloud.”
He equates it to the way we think about rhyming poetry and form. Even if no one is reading it out loud, you know there is a rhyme or it follows a certain structure. For Brown, it doesn’t matter if the poem doesn’t have those elements, “it still has to do that same kind of work” and that tone and rhythm can give voice to a new deeper meaning.
“The music of language actually makes all the points we need to make and the music of language can indeed be much more accurate than any fact. The music of language brings us toward a kind of truth that is much more accurate than any fact could ever be.”
“Heart Condition” from “The New Testament” by Jericho Brown. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission from Copper Canyon Press.