The Tradition

reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“I am not a narrative / Form, but dammit if I don’t tell a story.” The story that occupies Jericho Brown’s third collection—one largely unstapled from narrative, as promised, but engaged nonetheless with the act of telling—is both ancient and urgently contemporary. The unchanging and intensifying realities that contribute to the story of black, queer masculinity in America live at the heart of this volume’s anger and ache. Notions of the traditional writ large—from the Bible to Greek mythology to racist ideology and its systemic execution—ground Brown’s exploration of the violent colonizing impulse present in American history, exposing in particular tradition’s role in propagating troubling ideas about ownership: “We do not know the history / Of this nation in ourselves. We / Do not know the history of our- / Selves on this planet because / We do not have to know what / We believe we own.” Equally important to Brown’s investigation are the smaller arenas—familial and domestic, romantic and erotic—in which we act out larger traditional patterns of acquisition: “She never knew one of us from another, so my brothers and I grew up fighting / Over our mother’s mind / Like sun-colored suitors in a Greek myth.” When faced with the challenge of being at once rooted in the world and struggling to accept its ignorance and cruelty, “[t]he way anger dwells in a man / Who studies the history of his nation,” Brown looks, as many traditionally have done, to poetry: “A poem is a gesture toward home. / It makes dark demands I call my own.”

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2019.