Jericho Brown’s The New Testament engages in the same personal/mythic set of shifts that his first book, Please, did – except this time, instead of speaking in the voices of famous singers like Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, he’s setting up that shift between himself and God. It’s a fairly bold move but one that works well in this instance, with a nuanced touch that allows him to address race, religion, sexuality, family, authority figures such as doctors and policemen, love, and punishment, all in a tremendously ambitious and frequently successful package.
The New Testament also addresses the problem of mortality – of soul and body – and the grief of a broken relationship between brothers, which could be seen reflected in the cover art by Leon Bonnat – which seems to be a pair of male figures, one standing figure attending to another, seated. The tenderness of the two characters is juxtaposed with the incredible strength and tension of the bodies highlighted in the painting, and the ambiguous expression (asleep, relaxed, in pain, grateful or resentful?) of the receptor of the other’s ministrations. The beauty of many of these poems is that the spiritual is mingled with the grounding of the sensual and earthly, so they (as might be a danger with the subject matter) never become merely abstract or merely personal.
The New Testament is broken into three sections, and the first introduces you to the problems the book will address – how Brown address his racial identity, his trepidation about his own mortality, and his relationship to the world and those around him. His multi-part poem “The Interrogation” addresses the chillingly relevant question of racial profiling, of crime, slavery, and the relationship between an unseen authority figure – the questioner – and the speaker answering the question, which seem to revolve around the death of a brother. The guilt that characterizes the speaker’s attitude in this poem is pervasive in the poems, also, the speaker allowing his “sins” in “The Ten Commandments” and the poems’ frequent referral to the relation between punishment and love, even calling himself a “vampire” in “Homeland.” In the Bible, there is reference to brotherly love, but also to brothers rising up against brothers, and that fraught relationship – even in how the word “Brother” as used (or not used) between friends, family and neighbors in the poems – is a reminder of the perilous relations between men.
The echo of the language of the Bible throughout the book serves as a lyrical base for Brown’s touching and intimate scenes – himself with a lover, himself with a doctor, himself as a character from the New Testament. I could see that Brown was someone who had interrogated the Bible looking for answers, about justice, healing, peace, love, and death; anyone who has done the same will feel a surge of connection to these poems.
His work that addresses his personal life feels just as moving, just as sure of its quest for justice and love. For instance, in the poem “To Be Seen,” Brown’s speaker is on a visit to the doctor, often a figure described as having ‘a God complex.’ Brown tries to communicate with the doctor in some frustration, using the language, again, of faith:
“…Of course, he cannot be trusted/ Nor can any man/ Who promises you life for looking his way…” Brown goes on to describe himself as:
Chosen. I only have a point like anyone
Paid to bring bad news: a preacher, a soldier, The doctor. We talk about God…Here
I am dying while He makes a battle of my body—anything to be seen…”
This struggle to make himself understood and recognized is repeated in other poems – for instance, though the book is full of the narrative of an abusive, difficult brother and his girlfriend, the speaker says in the third-section poem “Make-Believe:” “The next day/ To my students I say No, I don’t have a brother…Myth is not make-believe.” Which poems in the book, then, are in persona? Brown means us to be unsure. The deeper truth Brown may be trying to reach with his “brother narrative” is a lack of connection between people, a lack of love, a brokenness. In a poem towards the end of the book, “Heart Condition,” Brown’s speaker states what might be the thesis of the book:
My name is Slow and Stumbling. I come from planet
Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable.”
Brown’s first book, Please, was by no means a “light” book – though I loved his humorous and touching “diva” poems, there were also poems about familial abuse and prejudice that were difficult and complex – but The New Testament is the writer’s attempt to grasp at even deeper truths – personal, spiritual, and social. This grappling with more problematic subject matter means that even with Brown’s confident, lyrical style, this book may be challenging to some of his fans. However, it’s a book worth delving into not just for its style, but its substance – in the end, like the book it’s named for, it’s a mournful reaching for connection, for love, for redemption.