Books

Heavy as Heaven: The Apocryphal Gospel of Jericho Brown

One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions.

James Baldwin

In his second poetry collection, The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press), Jericho Brown enlarges the three archetypal figures presented in the book’s epigraph—the lover, the brother, and the enemy—to include everything and everyone, in heaven and on earth. (Baldwin may have been slighting our capacity to respond to each other in love, fraternity, or hatred; our glares and gestures, good and ugly, can always appear divine in the right light.) For Brown it’s by degrees of desire that these three distinctions are affirmed or sundered. By both sharpening and dissolving the edges between these figures, he is able not only to translate bible myths; he’s able to create additions to the sacred text—stories that have been relegated from the final draft until now.

The key archetypal lover in the book is Angel, the narrator’s brother’s lover. We get our first glimpse of Angel in the first of four poems that all bear the title “Another Elegy.” In this poem the associations between death and desire, brothers and lovers are both magnified and erased. It begins with “Expect death. In very line, / Death is a metaphor that stands / For nothing, represents itself, / No goods for sale.” Clearly this poem will be a lyric meditation on mortality, but Brown subtly introduces the narrative situation of Angel calling on the phone to warn him that she is finally, actually, going to kill his brother:

You are clean, you arrive late
Because you don’t believe her
When, sobbing as usual, she
Calls to say if you don’t stop
Your brother, she will kill him
This time. Why rush?  By now,
You think she likes it, his hands
Slapping her seven shades of red.

Brown is a master of reserving and withholding narrative elements, creating a tension that grips the nape like a cube of ice. At this point, we don’t know who this poem will elegize, the brother or the abused Angel, but Brown, who is also a master of closing, finishes with the image of the narrator standing “for nothing / Over his [brother’s] body, witness / Or reporter, murderer or kin.” This closure brings back the concept of death signifying nothing, suggesting a hard finality, a full stop at the horror of a dead brother, the dead weight of desire.

The poem “Motherland,” featured in the book’s second of three sections (an apt trinity), picks up the story of Angel and the brother and expands the dramatis personae with a unique formal structure to include the narrator’s mother, ’70s soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, Lucifer as the Serpent, and Eve. The poem is divided into six unnumbered sections with three prose refrains in which the narrator is driving the brother to work. The first section follows the title and recounts the mother’s disapproval of Angel’s body: “She’s too bottom-heavy for her clothes. Even in a housedress, / She looks like a whore fit for music videos.” Before this Angel is described as wide-nosed, gap-toothed; now, as a thick-hipped and whorish. It’s decent imagery, but what torques the poem is the narrator’s concern that Angel “outdrinks / Our dad at Thanksgiving,” and that he, obeying his mother’s wishes, never brings home anyone so ugly, probably because he can’t bring home anyone at all.

After this comes the refrain set in prose between brother and narrator in the car, searching the airwaves for bad rap, “something repetitive, explicit.” No magic yet. But then the poem leaps in an expert digression to Teddy Pendergrass, formally switching to the single column stanza that Brown uses so deftly in this collection. Why Pendergrass? The answer is simple: the consequences of desire unchecked. Brown describes the concert where a “woman got shot / Fighting over that sweat-soaked / Headscarf Teddy Pendergrass threw / Into the crowd.” This association contextualizes the abuse between Angel and the brother and also returns to the wound with which the book began, the ache the narrator feels at his own sexuality:

I thought I’d be bored with men
And music by now, voices tender
As the wound Pendergrass could feel
When he heard what caused gunfire
Was a trick he rehearsed. Love,
Quick and murderous, bleeding
Proof of talent.

Love is the ultimate nostalgia, the one that creates the mythos that Brown is rendering within The New Testament. The line between lover and enemy is vaporized in the muzzle-flash of desire: “Someone who desires any / Worn piece of man must be / Willing to shoot or be shot.” Ah, the narrator seems to reflect, the things we will do (I will do) for love.

Refrain: In the car the brother brags about the degrading names he calls Angel and admits that “It feels good to have a woman fine as she is so mad at you.

Now the masterstroke of the poem, the vignette that shovels so much depth from a single tale of violent love. Brown traces this story to Christian mythology’s origin of desire: the Serpent tempting Eve into self-knowledge. Here, in an undulating saw-tooth margin, Brown personifies the Serpent as a man, upright, drunk with lust for Eve’s body. This is the male-gaze enacted, Lucifer in open admiration of Eve’s lazy movements, “her ease at being // Described, entered.”

And we all know how the story ends. We know what she has to eat in order for Angel and Brother to exist, but Brown still makes it revelatory by implicating the reader in the thrill and fear of being watched: “He needed to confront / Her with what he knew, needed her stuffed // On a sweet that made her see herself, see him / And every beast in the young world watching.” Brown makes us voyeurs along with the Serpent, and just as guilty. This pathetic gaze feels pitch-perfect, tuned to our culture of celebrity worship, and our media-driven obsession with all that is tan, taut, and easy.

And with that transfiguration—Brother to Serpent, Angel to Eve—Brown has created the biblical context for his narrator’s personal experience. But for this poem to truly work, he has to make it his own. This isn’t a story about Angel and Brother; it’s a story about a narrator who resembles Jericho Brown. It’s about this man’s astonishment at hearing his brother expound “the satisfaction of hurting a woman who’s still there the next morning.” Yet, the speaker reserves the harshest judgment for himself: “What man wouldn’t love a woman like that? And why can’t I?” So yes, this is about an abiding sense of shame and inadequacy—Why can’t I love women?—but it’s made so much more by the oscillating masks of the brother, the lover, and the enemy—and how easy it is to slip each on and play the part.

There are so many strong poems about the Lover in this book, I can’t sate my appetite to rewrite them into your understanding. Call me sentimental, but it’s more than that (not that it has to be). Take “Psalm 150” for instance, a poem that defines the difference between praise and worship while obfuscating the lines between agape and eros, belief and knowledge:

Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time.

Dear God. What’s faith in the face of the one you love, transfixed by “hopeless touching” and by the surety that this will not pass, that “I could die like this.” Psalm 150 is a bible verse that uses the anaphora of “Praise,” which I’ve often thought synonymous with worship. Brown however, suggests that praise is self-involved (“doing it to each other”) whereas worship is selfless (“for each other”). He goes on to clarify his stance, which becomes evident throughout the course of the collection: “As for praise / And worship, I prefer the latter.” Brown appropriates the language of divine worship for exaltation of the lover. This is an obliterating, searing love that has its origins in Sufi poetry. Consider these lines from Rumi’s “The Music Master,” which compare the experience of being with God to being with a lover:

When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.

Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.

I believe this is what Brown is doing in the book and why this is not simply love poetry, but poetry of what it means to live. Always closing, he ends “Psalm 150” with a prayer: “Dear Lord, / Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head // And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived. / Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.” Not only does Brown perform the longing of awaiting the beloved (one who many never arrive), he bears in mind the enemy that is his own diseased, dying body.

Anyone has the potential to be your brother or your lover, but  your body can be neither, and there’s something tragic about that. To this end Brown talks about his own body, which fails himself and society for two reasons: sexuality and disease. Case in point, “Romans 12:1”:

I will begin with the body
In the year of our Lord,
Porous and wet, love-wracked
And willing: in my 23rd year,
A certain obsession overtook
My body, or I should say,
I let a man touch me until I bled.

Brown’s high rhetoric here mimics the overwrought intensity of lust. After all, we are both drawn to and repelled by our own burning flesh. Beginning with the body, Brown goes on to show how his sexuality makes him an enemy to his “people / Who are several and whole, holy / And acceptable.” These people, who might recoil at the blasphemy of rewriting The New Testament, reject the speaker for some gut-sense hatred of anyone beyond their prescribed, repressed sexuality:

Hurt by me, they will not call me
Brother. Hear me coming,
And they cross their legs. As men
Are wont to hate women,
As women are taught to hate
Themselves, they hate a woman
They smell in me, every muscle
Of her body clenched
In fits beneath men
Heavy as heaven—my body,
Dear dying sacrifice, desirous
As I will be, black as I am.

Brown’s ability to inhabit multiple bodies is stunning, not to mention his grasp of each line standing as its own poem (“Heavy as heaven—my body”). He’s able to capture a long-standing American aversion to femininity in the male body, especially in the body of a black man, and make a sacrifice of these lines, borne of his bones.

But the body is not only made the enemy through sexual preference—it’s also the one who kills you. In the narrator’s case, it’s disease. This disease remains unnamed throughout the text, but it’s always there, between the lines, the third point in the love triangle: “I live // With a disease instead / Of a lover. We take turns // Doing bad things / To my body.” These lines from “Another Elegy” conflate disease with desire. The poem is set in a classroom, where students are buzzing with lust in the April afternoon, stretching their thighs like stems for sunlight. The poet has forfeited daydream romance for the fact of his own mortality. He has no illusions about the finite quantity that is his body: “I was born. That was long ago.” There must be an ending, and that ending is coming.

In “To Be Seen” Brown is more blunt with comparisons for his condition: “We talk about God // Because we want to speak / In metaphors. My doctor clings to the metaphor // of war.” Again, we don’t know the name of the sickness, but the embodiment of the enemy is made clear, and the sense of impending death makes Brown’s poems more urgent. The unknown virus represents the power struggle between our minds and matter, the brother and the lover, God and his living flesh:

I am dying while
He makes a battle of my body—anything to be seen

When all he really means is to grab me by the chin
And, like God the Father, say through clenched teeth,

Look at me when I’m talking to you.
Your healing is not in my hands, though

I touch as if to make you whole.

In this “book of three / Diseases” every act has a biblical echo. Here the doctor is the arbiter of divinity; the patient can only hope for miracles.

The New Testament is a book operating within the most popular mythology in the world, yet it remains intensely personal and purposeful. In the poem “Make-Believe,” Brown says that “Metaphor = tenor + vehicle.” In the collection, his body’s the tenor and the good book’s the vehicle that conveys his condition. This book is dead-serious, but retains lightness through its sonic verve and the rich blues of the poet’s voice.

Brown has fashioned a cohesive mythology that works through the triangulation of the Brother, the Lover and the Enemy. He seems to say that we exist in a simultaneity of these figures and we suffer because of it. This is the multi-myth this book inhabits. Feel its weight like a live oak breaking upon your shoulders.

I have not begun to scratch the surface of The New Testament, having passed up many of the strong political poems in favor of the work that feels most in keeping with his project of adding his own gospel. Brown has a soul that aches and a mind that dances. If he was gently weeping through his first collection, Please, here he’s hardened his sobs into a croon, and he’s tapping his feet to the beat of desire, and whether or not there’s any salvation in poetry, he’s making his suffering work for him, he’s writing “what [he] can’t / resist.”

Greg Emilio is a Southern California native who writes poetry and book reviews. His work has appeared in Foothill, Miramar, Pleiades, and World Literature Today. He teaches English at Chaffey College and tends bar at The Press Restaurant in Claremont.