The New Testament

Jericho Brown’s second book fulfills the promise of its audacious title, offering updated gospel dealing with race and sexuality in contemporary America, where “[e]very last word is contagious.” This is a collection of precise language and startling emotional clarity, yet its narratives—of dead brothers and dead lovers, of crime, disease, and passion—resist singular readings; here, roles are always shifting, the boundary between the real and the metaphoric is as blurry as in the Biblical stories to which Brown looks for inspiration. “The woman who raised me referred to Jesus / As ‘our elder brother,’” Brown writes in an early poem, and later, addressing a classroom: “Tomorrow, I will explain the word brother // Is how we once knew black as someone // Frowns, raising his freckled hand: So, you don’t / Have a brother?...I’ll say, No, I don’t have a brother // In the world. 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.” In these poems suffused with loss, sex, and anger, Brown moves between an irrefutable, sometimes winking authority (“Everybody / Who eats loves an athlete / Naked and newly showered”) and a lack of agency (“The painter did the damnedest / Job pulling your lips close to mine”). The people in Brown’s poems, like his heavily enjambed lines, are exquisitely broken, but redeemed by “love—love / Being any reminder we survived.”

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2014.