The Best Music is Made of Subtraction

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please_coverLike the Jazz, Blues, and R&B music Brown references, these poems are born of heartbreak, explorations of love and violence, connections and disconnections, the vast complications of body and heart.

In his debut collection, Please, Jericho Brown returns poetry to its roots in song. Organized in sections entitled REPEAT, PAUSE, POWER, and STOP, Please uses the modern music album as its structuring trope, with poem titles like “Track 1: Lush Life,” “Track 8: Song for You,” and “Idea for an Album: Vandross, the Duets.” He even calls his final notes section, “Liner Notes.” This playfulness, however, doesn’t extend much past its surface conceit. Like the Jazz, Blues, and R&B music Brown references, these poems are born of heartbreak, explorations of love and violence, connections and disconnections, the vast complications of body and heart.

As you might expect, in Please, everyone sings: Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Dorothy’s companions from The Wizard of Oz. A series of persona poems provide a chorus against which the book’s more personal poems resonate. Wisely, Brown doesn’t segregate these personas from the rest, choosing to let the different threads rub against and complicate each other, public and private voices joining together in one great choir, the family poems informing the love poems informing the Tin Man’s broken speech. When Janis Joplin says, “My voice, I mean,/ Ain’t sweet. Nothing nice about it. It won’t fly” [“Track 5: Summertime”], she prefigures the silence described in “Herman Finley Is Dead,” which comes just two pages later: “The birds know a day/ Made for defeat./ Not one of them sings.” The elegy speaks for both the private death of Herman Finley as well as the more public death of Joplin. It’s an important union, equalizing human suffering regardless of social sphere.

It’s in the more personal poems, however, that Brown’s subject matter truly comes to life. In “Again,” the speaker moves back and forth in time to recount a dispute between his father and mother. It’s a complex poem, weaving together the poet’s writing of the poem with his family’s past and present. The father is a source of potential violence, the mother leaving with her young son, the poet, only to return moments later. As Brown writes, “My mother loves her husband/ And his hands/ Even if laid heavy against her.” Significantly, the hand that strikes the mother is on the same arm that “landed/ In the same place around her/ Most of thirty years.” This seeming contradiction is the poem’s true starting point, the irritant the poet worries into a poem. The poem, however, doesn’t indulge in cheap sentiment or pat psychologizing, allowing the poem’s refrain, “Give a man a minute,” to interrupt and enact the poem’s tensions. It’s a refrain that simultaneously refers to the mother’s patience with the father as well as the poet’s management of time in his retelling of the scene. The past informs the present, which in turn redefines the past. In the end, the poem is as much about the shifting nature of memory as it is about the paradoxes of human love.

These same paradoxes reveal themselves in new ways as the familial gives way to the erotic, the father to the lover. Significantly, these are love poems between men. The dangers embodied by the father’s hand in the family poems become the dangers of disease in the love poems. As he writes in “Pause”:

jerichoPause for the condom,
Elastic ache against death
Heavy in his hand,
And something our fingernails couldn’t reach
Itching out a song…

Ironically, the flesh is both the means of connection here, as well as the source of separation. “Pause” finds the lovers’ song is simultaneously a song of imprisonment and liberation:

I want to ask
if they ever heard of slavery,
The work song—the best music
is made of subtraction,
The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body
And opens his mouth.

Here, as in the other poems, music is part of the subject, the lovers’ song threaded through the language itself. As the poem concludes:

Poor Willie, whistling around my last name,
Wrapping his gift in safety. Poor me, thinking,
If the man moves inside me
I must be empty, if I hide
Inside the man I must be cold.

It’s partly the ending’s subdued music that gives the poem its punch, the use of repeated conjunctions to emphasize supposition (“if….if”) paired with faint internal rhymes and strategic line breaks to create intensity and suspense. Brown’s restrained use of these effects allows him to sustain the poem’s intimate address even as they quietly embody its subject.

If the poems falter occasionally, it’s because they fail to maintain this musicality or do so unconvincingly. At times, the language flattens out, most noticeably in the poems that employ longer lines—“Detailing the Nape” and “Track 5: Summertime”—perhaps because Brown is most skilled using the shorter line to create interruption, hesitation and suspense, working the relationship between line and sentence to deftly play off the reader’s expectations. Regardless, these slack moments are brief skips in the record. In the end, Brown is more than at home with the musicians he honors. While the tensions explored are not new, what makes Please impressive is Brown’s ability to marry intimate revelation with subtle musicality, the voice direct, even simple, but always nuanced and startling. He riffs and sings with the best of them. And it’s a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy the show.

Read “Elegy,” a new poem by Jericho Brown, in Rumpus Original Poems.

Art by Amy Letter

Bruce Snider is the author of The Year We Studied Women, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in poetry. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, his poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, and PN Review. More from this author →