The New Testament
by Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press, 2014
Here to Love You Uncomfortable
By LynleyShimat Lys
About LynleyShimat Lys
LynleyShimat Lys, who is on the poetry track of the Queens College MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation, comes from Berkeley, California, and returns to New York after five years in the Middle East studying and working in Jerusalem. Lynley has a B.A. in Comparative Literature (Hebrew, Russian, English) from UC Berkeley and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies (Palestinian Poetry) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lynley's current interests include contemporary African-American women poets, intersections between Israeli and Palestinian poems of place, and plays in verse.
I write the poem
“The Blue Langston” which begins:
“O Blood of the River songs, O songs of the River of Blood,”
and ends: “There was nothing I could do about Race.”
- Terrance Hayes, “A Small Novel”
Revolutionary and ground-breaking as its namesake, Jericho Brown’s “The New Testament,” envisions elegies of the body, the blues and Langston Hughes as myths of origin, and the salve and discomfort of lovers and lost brothers. In the penultimate poem, “Heart Condition,” the speaker says, “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,” and this collection of poems arrives to do just that – to contain and reveal in its glorious language all the unease and prayer of the body and the messy ties between lovers and between brothers.
“The New Testament” speaks to the Bible, daily life, race, queerness, and love between men, and it does so in a series of compelling and necessary voices. The poem “Make-Believe” schools us in poetics and the difference between myth and fiction. The speaker says, in “the margins where I write, // Metaphor = tenor + vehicle, for children who beg // To touch my hair and ask if I play basketball. / Tomorrow, I will explain the word brother / Is how we once knew black, ... Myth is not make-believe. ... This, / My brother, is a metaphor. I am the tenor. // Brother is how you get to me if you are black // And you leave Louisiana and you lose what little / Tender you thought you had to spend, broke.” The poem draws an indelible line between brother and black, metaphor and myth, and faces a white audience which may require a Black speaker to play basketball or allow his hair to be on display for touching.
The poem “Reality Show” ventures further into self-reflexive discourse on required performances of blackness. The epigraph to the poem states, “An editor ... wrote back that she liked the “Negro” poems best… requested that Gwendolyn [Brooks] approach Knopf again when she had more of these,” and the first section, “News,” continues, “It is like a love for men, this / Love of language, and we are / Men at war, says the news. / No matter how long we speak / English, English means not / To count us or to count us / Darkly, but I know what / I want and so does channel 4.” The poem and its speaker play with the idea of blackness, and the love of men for other men as an ongoing reality show, and one in which even English is only allowed “darkly” or in the form of “Negro poems,” when it comes from a Black speaker. The poem shows self-awareness in its mocking of the reality “show” while it conveys its difficult realities and fictions.
The speaker(s) in the poem series “The Interrogation” also question ideas of color and brotherhood. In section I, “Where,” the speaker begins, “In that world, I was a black man. / Now, the bridge burns and I / Am as absent as what fire / Leaves behind,” and the speaker of section IV, “Redirect,” in a dialogue with unnamed speakers in italic type, notes, “The women who raised me referred to Jesus / As “our elder brother.” // And what about race? / What you call a color I call // A way. / Forgive us. We don’t mean to laugh. // It’s just that black is, / After all, the absence of color.” This series brings up ideas of both the term brother and the term black as words with multiple meanings and myths attached to them.
The Bible and the concept of brotherhood reappear in “Hebrews 13,” a poem in dialogue with the Biblical chapter. The speaker recalls, “Once, long ago, in a land I cannot name, / My lover and my brother both knocked / At my door like wind in an early winter. / I turned the heat high and poured coffee / Blacker than their hands which shivered / As we sat in silence so thin I had to hum.” He describes the brother and lover as “two bitter friends who only / Wished to be warm again like two worn/Copies of a holy book bound by words to keep / Watch over my life in the cold and never ever sleep” – the poem ends without a period, emphasizing the Herculean task involved in this watching.
While all the poems in the collection strike a carefully crafted balance between beauty and pain, awkwardness and redemption, the poem “Langston’s Blues” stands out for the sheer musicality of its lines, combining the lyric forms of Brown’s first collection, “Please,” with the themes of “The New Testament,” responding to Langston Hughes and the Terrance Hayes poem “A Small Novel.” While Hayes writes a poem which is a small novel, Brown writes the poem envisioned by the end of Hayes’ poem. The voices of Hughes and Hayes sing out from the page, “O weary drinkers // Drinking from the bloody river, / Why go to heaven with Harlem / So close? Why sing of rivers // With fathers of our own to miss?...Dear singing river full / of my blood, are we as loud under- / Water? Is it blood that binds // Brothers? Or the Mississippi / Running through the fattest vein // Of America?” The poem voice of Hughes lingers in the margins of Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to take us deeper into rivers, “When I say Congo, I mean / Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.”, and he continues, “And my mother’s sobs / Are the songs of Bessie Smith // Who wears more feathers than / Death. O the death my people refuse / To die.” The poem ends when Hughes narrates, “When I was 18, I wrote down // The river though I couldn’t win / A race, climbed a tree that winter, then / Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line // After line, I read all the time, / But “there was nothing I could do / About Race.”” The voice of Hughes in this poem tackles challenging concepts of race, history, and nationality in the forms of writing, oratory, and song. Metaphors shift and bridge between blood and rivers, heaven and Harlem, as if to belie Hughes’ claim that there was nothing he could do about race. And while “The New Testament” presents gorgeous, intelligent, and multifaceted verse, it also holds the power to speak to the concepts of lovers and brothers and refashion them for the reader.