- The New Testament by Jericho Brown
That Jericho Brown’s second collection of poems, The New Testament, takes its epigraph from James Baldwin is not surprising. After all, like almost everything Baldwin wrote, Brown’s poems turn an unflinching gaze on race, challenge readers to reconsider assumptions about sexuality, and use a formidable knowledge of the Bible to redefine the line between the sacred and the profane. Blackness, homosexuality, and Christianity: a trinity of topics that might understandably dominate a discussion of Baldwin or of Brown’s New Testament.
Consider the second poem in The New Testament, “Romans 12:1,” which presents a decidedly novel version of transubstantiation. The poem’s title refers to a Biblical passage about the body as a living sacrifice, and Brown’s speaker confesses, “I let a man touch me until I bled / Until my blood met his hunger / And so was changed.” This changed blood is given a “new name” by those the poem refers to as “my people,” but they do not accept the speaker: “they will not call me / Brother . . . Hear me coming, / And they cross their legs.”
Baldwin’s familiar iconography can be found throughout Brown’s book. The eponymous speaker of the poem “Cain” says of “God’s creatures” that “small / Men watched then bleed”; the speaker of Part VI of “The Interrogation” (entitled “Multiple-Choice”) reminds us that “A [End Page 138] chain” is “A chain . . . Even if it’s pretty. Even around / The neck”; the speaker of “To Be Seen” quotes his physician as saying, “Your healing is not in my hands, though / I touch as if to make you whole.” In these passages, we have the original Christian tale of fratricide, the instruments of chattel slavery, and a laying of one man’s hands on another man’s body for healing. These examples are from the first nine poems in Part I of Brown’s book, as is this, from “To Be Seen”: “Forgive me for taking the tone of a preacher.” Baldwin wrote much about hearing his father’s preacher voice in his own head and words, and about having himself been a preacher in his adolescence.
Brown, then, is a worthy successor to Baldwin as a thinker and as a provocateur, and shares with him some important biographical facts and socio-political concerns. But the precise Baldwin text that Brown takes as his epigraph deserves a closer look from a reader wanting to see and hear exactly what Brown is up to in The New Testament: “One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions.” Brotherhood and lovers and extraordinary reactions—aren’t these, again, what make up poems like “To Be Seen” and “Romans 12:1”? Well, yes, and no.
The passage from Baldwin is taken from his essay entitled “The Creative Process,” about the artistic life and the reasons for, uses of, and responsibilities of artistic expression—in particular, a writer’s ability and responsibility to look at that which a society does not wish to see. In Baldwin’s essay, the ultimate example of the un-seeable is the self. Baldwin points out that a lover (or brother or enemy) sees the face one wears only after, in the previous sentence, having reminded us that the face we ourselves can never see is our own. This is where the writer comes in. Brown (who obviously knows his Baldwin) has chosen as his epigraph not Baldwin specifically talking about race or sexual orientation or religion— these things do come up elsewhere in “The Creative Process,” and, had he wanted one, Brown could have looked there or in a hundred other places for such a quotation—but Baldwin penning a sort of ars poetica.
And that may be the most illuminating aspect of Brown’s opening his book with Baldwin’s words: The New Testament is in fact precisely that, a testament—or, more accurately, a set of testaments, a series of documents putting into words contracts or agreements of immeasurable importance...