“The New Testament” (Copper Canyon Press, 2014) is packed with emotion. It explores various forms of isolation, including the search for racial and sexual identity. From the first poem in the collection, the reader cannot deny Jericho Brown’s knack for weaving socially dire ideas into his poetry in a way that is beautiful and impactful, yet not heavy-handed.
As I read “The New Testament,” I got some questioning looks from passersby. From the outside, the book looks like a religious text—its gloomy exterior features a painting of two black men who appear to be in pain, along with the book’s title in auspicious green letters. Nothing on the cover of Jericho Brown’s second release identifies itself as a book of poetry—and I can’t help but think that these religious parallels may be intentional.
In “The New Testament,” Jericho Brown demands change by exploiting the hypocrisy of social injustice—he quite literally declares a new testament in a way that is far more powerful than the typical collection of poems. In “Heartland,” one of the book’s opening poems, Brown writes, “I do anything other than the human thing,” effectively introducing a central idea of the book. “The New Testament” is anthemic for people who don’t completely fit in, or are made to feel less than human.
Jericho Brown’s command of language is incredibly heartbreaking. The sequences of events and images in his poems are logical, yet they still manage to be surprise the reader. One of the most striking poems in the book is “The Interrogation,” which is divided into seven parts. In “II. Cross-Examination” and “IV. Redirect,” Brown narrates an imagined conversation between himself and an interrogator. To defend his heritage, Brown says “What you call a color I call/A way.” The interrogator responds, “Forgive us. We don’t mean to laugh/It’s just that black is,/After all, the absence of color.” The exchanges between these two voices are haunting and memorable. In “VI. Multiple Choice,” Brown says, “Show me/A man who tells his children/The police will protect them/And I’ll show you the son of a man/Who taught his children where/To dig.” These lines capture the unjust reality of racial relations in America today—conflicts like that of Ferguson come to mind, giving the poem even more urgency. To end the first of the book’s three sections, Brown writes, “Then another century came./People like me forgot their names,” evoking thoughts of isolation and the lack of an identity. Jericho Brown’s commentary on race is deeply vivid, clearly coming from a lifetime of introspection.
As the book progresses, the focus shifts from race to religion. The titles of Brown’s poems frequently make reference to biblical passages (“Romans 12:1,” “1 Corinthians 13:11,” “Psalm 150,” etc.), which feature sweeping statements like, “To believe in God is to love/What no one can see.” Though “The New Testament” is complex enough that there is no singular way to interpret its themes, I find that the intermingled emphases on race, religion, and sexuality are a plea for social change and freedom from oppression.
The most prominent feelings that “The New Testament” inspires are ones of awe, whether it’s awe of the necessity of Jericho Brown’s poems, or awe of their linguistic prowess.
The New Testament
by Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press, September 2014
$17.00 paperback, ISBN: 1556594577
Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Best American Poetry, and Nikki Giovanni’s 100 Best African American Poems. Brown holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and a BA from Dillard University. His first book, Please, won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament, was published by Copper Canyon Press. He is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta.