The Only Way I Know God — A Review of Jericho Brown’s "The New Testament" by Danez Smith

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Purchase The New Testamnt

Purchase The New Testamnt

In its infancy, to love           
          was to be a man carrying another man,            
          while walking toward a woman.
The night limping toward them
like another drunk man, flesh colored across the sky

           — Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, “Origin of Prayer”


I had trouble writing this review, for no fault beyond how visible and bare I felt reading the poems crafted into this collection. I found my own story and stories of friends and lovers in our dimmest, quietest spaces retold with such muscular lyric and graceful construction that I shuttered away from articulating what I found.

On a surface level we can say The New Testament is about race, disease, family, love and how men share a multitude of intimacies with other men, be they brother or lover or self. I want to move outward and present this collection as a gospel of desire, worship, redemption and home-going. Speakers in these pages grapple with their many imprisonments — trapped by heritage, diagnosis, stigma and institutional design. Much like when reading Jericho’s first book, Please, I found myself asking these poems for mercy, with their unrelenting truth and elegant deconstruction of a man’s rawest terrain, be it the body, the soul, or the space between the speaker and what he desires — indeed, what he needs to survive.

In poems that are at times tender and at other times ruthless, Brown continues to build upon the musical verse that grabbed us and rattled us in Please. In the opening pages of his new testimony, he offers us a text that ascribes to its own ways of navigating faith. His language is able to that deliver salvation without shying away from sin, even embracing it as a necessary part of belief. The poet works us over with language like

    “I don’t remember how I hurt myself,
     The pain mine
     Long enough for me
     To lose the wound that invented it
     As none of us knows the beauty
     Of our own eyes
     Until a man tells you they are
     Why God made brown.”

           — from “Colosseum”

What a brave way to begin a collection named The New Testament, to place God and the belief in him squarely in some nameless man’s mouth. The speaker comes into this book the same way many join the church, with pain overflowing from a wound we cannot locate or might have even lost. I remember my own march as the doors of the church opened, something about the preachers words resonating with me and giving my sorrow and my worry a name, offering a way of knowing the make-up of the chaos swirling around me. Brown, in the opening poems of this collection, invites us into his new faith, into a way of knowing what has been done to us and how we will move on. He ends “Colosseum” with these lines

     … I cannot locate the origin
     Of slaughter, but I know
     How my own feels, that I live with it
     And sometimes use it
     To get the living done,
     Because I am what gladiators call
     A man in love — love
     Being any reminder we survived.

These lines  warn us to brace ourselves for what is to come. We are entering this book having already weathered so much and if I am worth my salt, if I learned anything in church, I know there is another storm on its way. But the persistence of love, “love/ Being any remember we survived” is what announces this book as a grand testament, if to testify means to make it through some darkness well enough to tell someone about it.

//

Sometimes, in the midst of reading this book, I had to look over my shoulder, make sure no one was watching me. Rarely do we get to watch a poet say what we meant to say, write what we had no words for. Is this the duty of the poet? To live and catalogue “I, too, have lived, but never had the words to say ‘how’.”

//

Brown’s poems fight to make a space where safety and bliss is possible, giving us a heart-breaking but also joy filled personal history of what’s left and what has been lost. The miracles don’t consist of water or wine or fish, but miracles of the body, of medication. love and blood.  In one of the four poems titled “Another Elegy,” the speaker offers us this:

     “I live

              With a disease instead
     Of a lover. We take turns

              Doing bad things
     To my body, share a house

     But do not speak.”

Brown gives weight and a strange sense of honor that tests, and at times ruins, his speakers. He speaks of “the disease” as we speak of Noah’s flood or the trials of David. Brown reminds us to give just due to what we survive, to respect it even as we attempt to overcome. He also reminds us we have to, in the style of Job, battle so much. In “Homeland,” the speaker deals with the many ways the world fears him: his skin (re: black) his blood (re: HIV), but Brown sums up the sentiment of the poem perfectly with the line “Nobody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still the reason why.” Acknowledging the dual “danger” of the speaker, Brown leaves this speaker split open, vulnerable, feared by others for what he must also fear in himself.

Through these poems we witness the many violences enacted upon the body, sometimes at the hands of a more distant and disconnected hand, but often at the hand of the lover or of the self. While “Homeland” points at that more distant enemy of the nation, “Another Elegy” points to a violence enacted by the self, but both come from a same source, this pain of disease, so long removed from the point where there was still a wound of which to speak.

//

I’ve been sitting around thinking about who I will loan this book to. It’s too much to keep. It’s gotta be shared. Maybe this is how history happens. Folks keep passing each other things, those close to us with news and gifts saying “Look! This is us! This is so us!”

//

Although the collection moves away from the hurt, mapping the journey away from, or at times back into, the wound, Brown does not leave us mapless. Including “Homeland,” there are many poems that survey and name the land in which this gospel is sung. Where the afore mentioned poem reminds us these poems are distinctly American in their histories, blues and terrors, other poems go further to locate us in southern cities, in the physical landscape or closer to that original wound, its emotional terrain, like the poem “ ‘N’em”

     They said to say goodnight
     And not goodbye, unplugged
     The TV when it rained. They hid
     Money in mattresses
     So to sleep on decisions.
     Some of their children
     Were not their children. Some
     of the parents had no birthdates.
     They could sweat a cold out
     Of you. They’d wake without
     An alarm telling them to.
     Even short ones reached
     Certain shelves. Even the skinny
     Cooked animals too quick
     To catch. And I don’t care
     How ugly one of them arrived,
     That one got married
     To somebody fine. They fed
     Families with change and wiped
     Their kitchens clean.
     Then another century came.
     People like me forgot their names.

I read this poem and mourn my grandfather, his sisters and brothers, all of those who made the present state of blackness possible through their spirit and grit to get the living done. I also holler and slap my thigh, placed so squarely in so many Black Elders’ kitchens, which are often portals to the south. The title alone, announces that we are going to be set in a certain place, but even more so amongst a people. Brown is a child of his environment. He effortlessly shows us the pride and particulars of black southern life while mourning it. Those last two lines “Then another century came. / People like me forgot their names.” launch us into a new, undefined American South and a growing record to being black in whatever we’ll call this time period. Brown does the double duty of honoring what has come, but acknowledging a community in the midst of a new era, once again necessitating the new testimony in his names for “People like me” will never be “n’em,” — only their witnesses.

Continuing to survey, the poem “Motherland” does the physical work of placing us in Louisiana through street names and context, but more so, does the emotional landscaping of one of the book’s major wounds: the death of a brother at the hands of a love — love often for Brown having no promise but wrath. In a tour-de-force series, the poet takes us into family homes, the Garden of Eden, his own subconscious, but the tenderest moments for me happen in the car between the two brothers. Here is the last section of the poem, the speaker in the car alone

                    That wasn’t the day she killed him. They fought
     and called the police on each other for years. Nobody
     paid any mind.

                    But if I turn too quick on line with the worst
     music, I can hear him again, explaining the satisfac-
     tion of hurting a woman who’s still there the next
     morning. I think that’s why he loved Angel, ugly or
     fine. What man wouldn’t love a woman like that?
     And why can’t I?

I feel intrusive on this moment. I don’t know if we are supposed to know these sorts of things about each other. The danger of that last question “And why can’t I?” makes me what to run from it, knowing it will be wherever I go. In a poem filled with so much love and concern for a brother, that mirroring — or failure to — sits, unrelenting in its weight. Is Brown asking about his inability to love unconditionally, dangerously, deep? Is he searching his own hands for the violence of his brother’s? Brown is doing a poet’s masterwork, presenting himself and his reader with questions too gruesome and honest to answer, the question itself answer enough.

//

One night, I stared at this poem until it wasn’t night:

     Nativity

     I was Mary once.
     Somebody big as a beginning
     Gave me trouble
     I was too young to carry, so I ran
     Off with a man who claimed
     Not to care. Each year,
     Come trouble’s birthday,
     I think of every gift people get
     They don’t use. Oh, and I
     Pray. Lord, let even me
     And what those saints say is sin within
     My Blood, which certainly shall see
     Death — see to it I mean —
     Let that sting
     Last and be transfigured

What was I to do so suddenly aware of myself? What was I to think having heard what I know out of someone else’s mouth? “Nativity” wrecked me, yet something was born as well. “Nativity” promised me the pain of crucifixion, but also the glory of resurrection. Maybe it just promised me a boy’s passing one day, but what Brown has written in this collection is proof that even in death, the boy can be risen, lifted and praised. And bless Brown for being brave enough to offer us a book of poems that so boldly says “This is where I’ve been. This is what happened to me, what I’ve seen done. It’s the only way I know God.”


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Danez Smith is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, & VONA. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (forthcoming, YesYes Books). His writing has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Narrative Magazine & elsewhere. Danez is a founding member of the multi-genre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective. In 2014, he was the Festival Director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. He holds a BA from UW-Madison where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. He was born in St. Paul, MN.