Jericho Brown delivered the following talk at AWP’s “The Revival of Aphrodite’s Daughter: Rhetoric in Contemporary Poetry” panel on Thursday, March 8, 2018.
It is difficult to speak of any impulse toward the spiritual in literature. Readers and writers are—and should be—skeptical of any framework that purports a clear divide between good and evil. We are compelled, exhorted, and trained to discover and to create worlds that are as complex as the lives we live.
And it is particularly difficult to think for too long about our souls in a nation where religion is still used as an excuse for committing violent evils and for the normalization of these evils. Just last week, for example, a Pennsylvania church held a blessing ceremony for the AR-15 rifles owned by parishioners. (Even Octavia Butler couldn’t make this shit up!) Named the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, this very Christian church is thought of as a cult by some people. Yet, I can only think that if this and other current Christian movements in this nation are examples of the radical right, then I have every reason to fear our country’s so-called moderates.
Such proof seems enough to shore up the hope for literature made by hands that are not religiously entangled. Still, it is hard for me to imagine what we do without thinking of prayer. We must be isolated and unbothered. We must have time to ourselves, time enough to see beyond the reality of the rooms in which we work, time enough for a kind of focus that yields excitement coupled with contentment. How is that so different from what we think monks, priests, and pastors do? Poets like me catch themselves chanting their lines as these lines materialize. Novelists notice themselves in dark attics and basements with low ceilings staring into a light. We all find ourselves putting words on paper that seem to come to us as if we were overhearing them…as if there were another voice or some other voices in the room. If a good writing day is one where we most intently listen, then who do we think is talking?
And why do we do this? I guess to be closer to God, or at least to be more Godlike since all we make are entire worlds that, as far as we are concerned when making them, are as real as the ones we physically inhabit.
Though we may be ashamed of it, I am not so sure that poets are not a spiritual people. If we have shame, it is because we have been foolish enough to believe what the culture continues to tell us about ourselves: that writers should be ashamed, that poets don’t have real jobs, that novelists are liars, that memoirists have no right to their own past, their own memories involving other humans. Also, if we are ashamed, it is because we don’t want the perception of our spirituality in any way mixed up with the devotion of the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary. I want to believe that the difference between our brand of religion and any religion that encourages a person to blow up a clinic is this poem by A. E. Housman:
Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough
Alternating in rhymed tetrameter and trimeter, these two quintets are also only two sentences. This very short poem is also a very full one. The secret of its saturation is polysyndeton, the repetition of conjunctions. I should let you know that I realized this morning I had seen and known the word “polysyndeton” for a very long time but had to consult youtube earlier today for any idea of how it’s pronounced. I’ll probably be saying it today with a different pronunciation every time I say it. You will also be pleased to hear that spellcheck has no idea that it’s a word. Spellcheck also cannot spell trimeter.
I want to call Housman’s poem a religious one and not just because its music is hypnotic in its consistent rhythm and rhyme. The poem believes in a God who is omnipotent and omniscient. It wants to fill its well-formed space with as many ideas and as much material as possible. And it wants us to know it is larger than it looks. It uses “and” because it is a poem about joining the provincial to the worldly. And it uses “and” because it is a poem about life and death. And it uses “and” because it is a homoerotic poem about how a man can find space for the affection of another man where masculinity only allows for shepherding and soldiering. In other words, every “and” in the poem mounts and mounts until they join things that seem opposite.
The poem does what Whitman also means to do with his long lists: invent a nation within a poem that is like the nation in which we live; it leaves nothing out. His polysyndeton, his chain of “and” after “and,” predicts the possibility for power in beings he can only fetishize:
I think the “and” in Whitman and in Housman allows for an individual capable of many moods. The “and” also allows for an individual even the poet may not be able to identify. If these poets use “and” as if it is a series of question marks, then they set themselves up for individuals they do not expect to ask or answer further questions. I mean that queer poets like Whitman and Housman did not expect my black ass to be reading and admiring and questioning their poems even though their poems knew I was on the way. Prophecy!
I should say here that, though we like to think of Whitman as abolitionist-minded, he was also afraid that freed slaves would take away jobs that only white people should have. Both he and Housman as human beings saw that the humane treatment of black people could make for serious tears in the fabric of their countries, and I’m so glad they were right, and I hope my own poems make them righter. The queer life in the 21st century, then, is a life in which each individual sees and is seen through the one-ness made through a polysyndeton of several facets of one self. In other words, we say “they” to a single person understanding that the same language that frees some of us oppresses others of us.
Today, from the so-called moderate to the completely radical right, men and women believe in a God who says things must be only one way. People must be only one way and look only one way. The real trouble the religious right have with queer people is comprehending a person whose sex acts and/or whose gender defy the easy identifications of the mid-19th century that so many of us don’t want to leave. And anything or anyone that looks or acts outside of one way must be either exterminated or at least bordered in areas where the Godly will not come in meaningful contact with them.
The God Housman worships, though, is not a God of extermination and death. It is a God of possibility and life. What I love most about this poem is that it complicates what we take for granted as the proper masculine relationship to nationhood. In its first stanza the lover asks his lad why work and the work of conquering is more valuable than the work he calls his own. What imperialism convinces us that its work is more important than love-making?
The second stanza asks what imperialism convinces men that giving their lives for their violent countries is preferable to “company and mirth/And daylight and the air.” Masculinity may be most toxic when it supposes that men cannot be “good and brave” while also being alive. It seems that the idea of lovemaking in the first stanza is in direct opposition to empire in the second stanza. We end with the half rhyme of “air” and “were” because there is something amiss in our assumptions (especially if men are to ever fall in love):
Let me say this more plainly. If your God would have you go to war rather than touch the people you love, then you are worshiping the wrong God. It may be possible for us writers to become more open about our devotion, our spiritual practices. We may be able to take more public pride in what we do if we ever can think that God includes us, that if she is everywhere, then where she is we must be. I mean that we must be more like the work we do. We must begin to feel in the open world what we know when we go in those rooms to write and worship. And what we know then and there is that we belong.
Track 4: Reflections
as performed by Diana Ross
Your Body Made Heavy with Gin
I can relax. I smell liquor on your breath.
Soon your arms will be too heavy to lift,
And I’ll watch the weight of you
Shiver while you sleep. But first
I want to see that stagger—
Like a boy sent off to battle, shot,
Then sent back. I kept one once.
He’d never get a good doze. Only quake
And dream of hands aimed at his throat.
He’d cough and gag. I’d shake him awake.
He was as you are. He could have died
In my bed. He could have never stopped
Dreaming. He’d take me
For the enemy. We’d fight.
But you and I won’t fight tonight.
I’ll remember some limping lover and talk
All I want about war. Or maybe
I won’t. Maybe I don’t care
Who survives—I only need to watch your body
Made heavy with gin as I hold you up
From your fall at the threshold
Because I love you and I love you best
With liquor on your breath
When I can get a good look at you
Just the way I found you, reeking
And too drunk to go after the roaches
With the heel of your hand. And too drunk
To take me for one of the roaches.
“Track 4: Reflections” and “Your Body Made Heavy with Gin” by Jericho Brown, from Please (New Issues), copyright ©2008. Reprinted by permission of Jericho Brown.
Jericho Brown is a recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. His poems have appeared in Fence, Jubilat, The New Criterion, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME, and The Best American Poetry anthologies. He is poetry editor at The Believer, and his latest book, The Tradition, will be out from Copper Canyon in April of 2019.