Lunch Poems – Jericho Brown


(soothing music) – Good afternoon everyone. I’m Noah Warren, the
coordinator of lunch poems. First, thank you all for being here today and thank you Jericho for joining us. Just a few notes before I hand it over to Geoffrey G. O’Brien, our director. If you’re interested please
sign up there’s an email list over by the desk and feel
free to take a poster. You can also, if you’re interested
in the rest of this years events go to lunchpoems.berkley.edu. And if you want to view this
reading or any past readings I invite you to go to YouTube, where we have a lunch poems channel. I’d like to thank the
university libraries and the Morrison library for
their generous support. And I’d like to thank
Owen and Noah from Mose for being here and selling
books, thanks guys. Before we begin I’d like
you to please silence your phones, and join us at our next event here on November 7th where
we’ll have the privilege of hearing Monica Youn. Later
in the year on December 5th we’ll hear Margaret Ross. And now please welcome our
director, Geoffrey G. O’Brien who will introduce
Jericho Brown. Thank you. (applause) – Thank you Noah, thank
you all for being here and welcome Jericho. I’d
love to talk for the next 40 minutes about what’s
going on inside this book but I’d rather hear about it from Jericho and from the book. So I will be brief. I wanted to talk briefly though about the fact that Jericho’s invented a form that actually is not a
gimmick. It’s a real live contemporary functional
form, called the duplex. Of course what invention
means in poetry is really the repurposing, the
recombination of extant forms from the tradition. Right,
which happens conveniently to be the name of the book.
So Jericho describes the duplex as being a kind of,
beautiful Frankenstein-ing of the sonnet, the ghazal,
and the blues tradition. That keeps sort of
mutating either a full line or half of a line, or
the end words of the line as it proceeds across
couplets of 9 to 11 syllables down to its 14th line. The reason why I want
to talk about the duplex as a kind of metonymy for what’s going on in the book in general
is precisely because it acknowledges that there
is no the tradition, there are only traditions. A tradition. That’s what the canon wars
of the 80’s were all about. The duplex is interesting
in Jericho’s hands even though it also
seems to me, especially in one of its most famous
ones, which is on the back. “I begin with love hoping
to end there which ends, “I grow green with hope
I’d like to end there.” Referencing to me, “East
Coker” by T.S. Eliot. “My end is my beginning and
my beginning is my end.” Because Jericho’s not
contending with the same history and contemporary moment of experience that T.S. Eliot was right.
There’s a way in which we can think of this sheer formal
innovation at work in the duplex, as also having incredibly
painful and beautiful pay-offs in terms of political fury,
an interest in justice, an interest in eros and other
kinds of collective love. To talk about beginnings and
endings, as an African American man, is to think about the
legacy of slavery still informing every moment of walking in
America. Thinking in America. Reading and singing in America.
There’s no way to avoid therefore political and social
ramifications, what otherwise might simply be poetic
structure or form. Except poetic structure or form is never
simply about itself. It’s always suffused with specific and
general histories, as this is. At the same time, it would
be a real coarsening and a real form of parsimony to
map what Jericho does with form only to political experience. We can say that that
experience helps drive poetic innovation, or
that poetic innovation once it happens collects
some of the other features of experience to it like
iron filings to a magnet. We don’t have to choose in the same way we don’t have to choose a tradition and make it the tradition. We get to hear all of that complication without resolving it. And
that’s what we are about to do. Welcome Jericho. (applause) – What a great introduction
did y’all hear all those nice things he said about me? (audience laughing) Y’all should try that. And
you should publish that. Thank you so much Noah, thank
you Geoffrey G. O’Brien, thank you Mose for being
here. And thank you to everyone for coming. “Prayer of the Backhanded.” Not the palm, not the pear tree switch. Not the broomstick, nor
the closest extension cord. Not his braided belt,
but God, bless the back of my daddy’s hand which holding
nothing tightly against me and not wrapped in
leather, eliminated the air between itself and my cheek. Make full this dimpled cheek,
unworthy of its unfisted print and forgive my forgetting
the love of a hand hungry for reflex. A
hand that took no thought of its target like hail from a blind sky. Involuntary, fast, but
brutal in its bruising. Father, I bear the bridge
of what might have been a broken nose, I lift to
you what was a busted lip. Bless the boy who believes his
best beatings lack intention. The mark of the beast. Bring back to life the son
who glories in the sin of immediacy, calling it love. God, save the man who’s arm like an angels invisible wing
may fly backward in fury. Whether or not his son stands near. Help me hold in place my
blazing jaw as I think to say, “Excuse me.” “As a Human Being.” There is the happiness you have and the happiness you deserve.
They sit apart from each other the way you and your
mother sat on opposite ends of the sofa after
an ambulance came to take your father away. Some good
doctor will stitch him up and soon an aunt will
arrive to drive your mother to the hospital, where she
will settle next to him forever as promised. She holds the arm
of her seat as if she could fall, as if it is the only sturdy thing. And it is. Since you’ve done what
you’ve always wanted, you fought your father
and won. Marred him. He’ll have a scar he can
see all because of you. And your mother, the only
woman you ever cried for, must tend to it as a
bride tends to her vows. Forsaking all others, no
matter how sore the injury. No matter how sore the
injury has left you, you sit understanding yourself as
a human being, finally free now that nobody’s got to love you. Much of my work makes
use of words and phrases that I heard when I was a kid. I grew up in Shreveport,
Louisiana and I moved from there to New Orleans, Louisiana. And I moved from there to
Houston, Texas. So I spent most of my adult life in the American
South. I lived in Atlanta, I live in Atlanta, Georgia now. When I left Houston, Texas
though and before Atlanta, I lived in San Diego, California.
Which is where I found out I have an accent. So one of those, one of
those words or phrases that I heard when I
was a kid, that I found out in San Diego is not actually
a word, is the word ‘n’em. And that word means that
person and everyone you would associate with that person.
In a sentence, or in context, if you see someone that you
haven’t seen in a very long time but when you did see them
before you knew them and you knew their family. If you
see them again you might say something like, “Hey how you doing?” “How’s your Mother, ‘n’em.” So that’s how that word works, and that’s the title of this next 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 their parents had no birth dates. They could sweat a cold out of you. They’d wake without an
alarm telling them to. Even the 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. “Bullet Points.” I will not shoot myself in the head, and I will not shoot myself in the back. And I will not hang
myself with a trash bag. And if I do, I promise you, I will not do it in a
police car while handcuffed. Or in the jail cell of a
town I only know the name of, because I have to drive
through it to get home. Yes, I may be at risk. But I promise you, I trust the maggots who
live beneath the floorboards of my house to do what
they must to any carcass more than I trust an officer
of the law, of the land, to shut my eyes like a man of God might. Or to cover me with a sheet
so clean my mother could have used it to tuck me in. When I kill me, I will do it the same way most Americans do. I promise you. Cigarette smoke or a piece
of meat on which I choke. Or so broke I freeze
in one of these winters we keep calling worst.
I promise if you hear of me dead anywhere near a cop, then that cop killed
me. He took me from us and left my body which
is, no matter what we’ve been taught, greater than
the settlement a city can pay a mother to stop crying.
And more beautiful than the new bullet fished
from the folds of my brain. From the King James version of the Bible, “I beseech you therefore brethren, “by the mercies of God.
That ye present your bodies “a living sacrifice.
Holy, acceptable unto God. “Which is your reasonable service.” “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. Until my blood met his
hunger, and so was changed, was given a new name. As is
the practice among my people. Who are several and whole.
Holy, and acceptable on the whole 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. “Ganymede.” A man trades his son for horses, that’s the version I prefer. I like the safety of it, No one at fault. Everyone rewarded, God gets the boy, the boy becomes immortal,
his father rides until grief sounds as good as the gallop of an animal, born to carry those who
patrol our inherited kingdom. When we look at myth this way, nobody bothers saying, “Rape.” I mean, don’t you want God to want you? Don’t you dream of someone
with wings taking you up? And when the master comes for our children he smells like the men who
owned stables in heaven. That far to reign between
promise and apology. No one has to convince us,
the people of my country believe we can’t be hurt
if we can be bought. “Riddle.” We do not recognize the
body of Emmett Till, We do not know the boys name, Nor the sound of his mother wailing. We have never heard a mother wailing. We do not know the history
of this nation in ourselves, We do not know the history
of ourselves on this planet because we do not have
to know what we believe we own. We believe we own your bodies but have no use for your tears. We destroy the body that refuses use. We use maps we did not draw. We use a sea, we see a sea, so cross it. We see a moon, so land there. We love land so long as we can take it. Shh, we can’t take that sound. What is a mother wailing? We do not recognize music
until we can sell it. We sell what can not be bought. We buy silence, let us help
you, how much does it cost, to hold your breathe underwater? Wait, wait, what are we? What, what on Earth are we? What? “Crossing.” The water is one thing,
and one thing for miles, The water is one thing making this bridge built over the water another. Walk it early, walk it
back when the day goes dim. Everyone rising just to find
a way toward rest again. We work, start on one side of the day like a planets only sun. Our eyes straight until the flame sinks, the flame sinks, thank God. I’m different. I figured, and counted. I’m not crossing to cross back.
I’m set on something vast. It reaches, long as the sea.
I’m more than a conqueror, bigger than bravery. I don’t march, I’m the one who leaps. “Trojan.” When a hurricane sends
winds far enough north to put our power out. We only
think of winning the war, bodies wage to prove the
border between them isn’t real. An act of God so sweet, no TV, no novel, no recreation but each other.
And neither of us willing to kill, I don’t care,
I don’t love my lover. Knowing where to stroke in little light, knowing what will happen
to me and how soon. These rank higher than
a clear view of the face I’d otherwise flay had I
some training in combat, a blade, a few matches. Candles are romantic because
we understand shadows. We recognize the shape of what once made us calm, so
we calm thinking of approach in ways that forego substance. I’m breathing, heaving now.
In my own skin, and I know it. Romance is an act, the
perimeter stays intact. We make out so little that
I can’t help but imagine my safety. I get to tell the truth about what kind of person lives and who dies. Barefoot survivors. Damned heroes. Each corpse lit on a pyre, Patroclus died because he could
not see what he really was inside his lovers armor. “The Ten Commandments.” But I could be covetous,
I could be a thief. Could want and work for,
could wire and deceive. I thought to fool the moon into a doubt, I did some doubting. Lord, forgive me. In New Orleans that winter I
waited for a woman to find me shirtless on her back porch. Why? She meant it rhetorically,
and hit me with open hands. How many times can a woman say why with her hands in the moonlight. I counted 10 like light,
breaking hard on my head, 10 rhetorical why’s and half a moon, Half nude, I let her light into me. I could be last on a list of
lovers Joe Adams would see and first to find his wife
slapping the spit out of me. I could be sick and sullen. I could sulk and sigh. I could be a novel
character by E. Lynn Harris. But even he’d allow me some dignity, he loved black people too
much to write about a wife whipping her rival on a night people in Louisiana call cold. He’d have Joe Adams run out
back and pull her off of me. He wouldn’t think I deserved it. “Track One: Lush Life.” The woman with the
microphone sings to hurt you. To see you shake your head. The mic may as well be a leather belt. You drive to the center of town to be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell the difference
between a leather belt and a lovers tongue. A lovers tongue might call you bitch, a term of endearment where you come from. A kind of compliment,
preceded by the word sing. In certain nightclubs, a
lush little tongue you have. You can yell, “Sing
bitch,” and, “I love you.” With a shot of Patron at
the end of each phrase from the same bar stool
every Saturday night. But you can’t remember
your father’s leather belt without shaking your head.
That’s what satisfies her. The woman with the
microphone, she does not mean to entertain you and neither do I. Speak to me in a lovers tongue. Call me your bitch, and I’ll
sing the whole night long. “Another Elegy.” This is what your dying looks like, you believe in the sun. I
believe I can’t love you. Always be closing, said
our favorite professor before he let the gun go off in his mouth. I turned 29 the way any
man turns in his sleep, unaware of the Earth moving beneath him. It’s plates in their places,
a dated disagreement. Let’s fight it out baby. You have only so long left.
A man turning in his sleep. So I take a picture, I
won’t look at it of course. It’s his bad side, his Mr. Hyde. The hole in a husbands head.
The O of his wife’s mouth. Every night I take a pill. Miss one, and I’m gone.
Miss two and we’re through. Hotels bore me unless
I get a mountain view, a room in which my cell won’t
work and there’s nothing to do but see the sun
go down into the ground that cradles us as any coffin can. “Duplex.” I begin with love, hoping to end there. I don’t want to leave a messy corpse. I don’t want to leave a messy
corpse full of medicines that turn in the sun. Some of
my medicines turn in the sun. Some of us don’t need hell to be good. Those who need most, need hell to be good. What are the symptoms of your sickness? Here is one symptom of my sickness, men who love me are men who miss me. When who leave me are men who miss me, in the dream where I am a island. In the dream where I am an
island I grow green with hope, I’d like to end there. Thank y’all so much. (applause) (upbeat music)

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