Lately I’ve found less time to contribute to this blog, and this is especially frustrating during the too-short black history month. So to make up for it, I will continue to, if possible, add posts about Poets of color. But I’ve meant to feature in particular Jericho Brown, whose poetry is both unique and powerful. And he has much to say, as a poet, an African-American, a gay man, a compassionate human being. It’s worth reading an interview with him, of which this is one sample.
I’m including this ghazal because I love ghazals, and because he managed to write one that ends in prison — emblematic of so much.
BY JERICHO BROWN
They lie like stones and dare not shift. Even asleep, everyone hears in prison.
Dwayne Betts deserves more than this dry ink for his teenage years in prison.
In the film we keep watching, Nina takes Darius to a steppers ball.
Lovers hustle, slide, and dip as if none of them has a brother in prison.
I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.
A book full of white characters examines insanity—but never in prison.
His whole family made a barricade of their bodies at the door to room 403.
He died without the man he wanted. What use is love at home or in prison?
We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe.
A brother meets members of his family as he passes the mirrors in prison.
Sundays, I washed and dried her clothes after he threw them into the yard.
In the novel I love, Brownfield kills his wife, gets only seven years in prison.
I don’t want to point my own sinful finger, so let’s use your clean one instead.
Some bright citizen reading this never considered a son’s short hair in prison.
In our house lived three men with one name, and all three fought or ran.
I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison.
Jericho Brown, “Hustle” from The New Testament. Copyright © 2014 by Jericho Brown.
And if you haven’t read this poem, the poetic equivalent of a thunderstorm, you may never know that poetic lightning can strike, and it strikes twice.
Prayer of the Backhanded
By Jericho Brown
Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closet 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 whose arm
Like an angel’s 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.