Lyric Possibility in Jericho Brown’s Please
and Richard Siken’s Crush
Jericho Brown’s Please takes many of its cues from music, where intimacy and performance go hand in hand. The book is divided into sections titled “Repeat,” “Pause,” “Power,” “Stop,” and “Liner Notes,” and includes several poems labeled “Tracks.” The first of these, “Track 1: Lush Life,” begins the collection. In the book’s “Liner Notes,” the lyrical footnotes at the end of the book, we learn:
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) wrote “Lush Life” while still in his teens. For her comeback in the form of a jazz singing actress, hip hop artist Queen Latifah performed the song for her role in the 1998 movie Living Out Loud…. The poem is dedicated to the singer Mary Griffin… [who] performed regularly at The Bourbon Room in New Orleans before Hurrican Katrina and her subsequent move to Texas…. Griffin is also known for singing ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ (Holliday) from Dreamgirls in full voice flat on her back at the close of each show. (67)
Brown’s notes bring our attention to a few of the many voices this song has visited: Queen Latifah in comeback, Mary Griffin uprooted by hurricane. Each of these figures (including the songwriter who was just a teen when he wrote “Lush Life”) exudes both power and vulnerability. And through these multiple voices, the song—not just the experience of listening to it, but the experience of singing it—becomes an already shared thing, further shared with us, now, through the singular crafting of its most recent singer/speaker. Of course, you can read the poem without the background Brown provides, and the effect is similar, but bringing our attention to these voices feels like part of the book proper. In “Lush Life,” which sets the stage for the book as a whole, the voice we hear is both personal and communal, located in a club (public space) where “The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you, / To see you shake your head” (1-2), an intimate interaction, which quickly draws even closer, as “The mic may as well / Be a leather belt” (2-3). In addition to the relationship between public and personal selves, we are introduced to the book’s movement between pleasure and pain: “You drive to the center of town / To be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell / The difference between a leather belt and a lover’s / Tongue” (4-6).
Through most of “Track 1: Lush Life,” it is tempting to read the poem’s “you” as its speaker (rather than an address to the reader). So specific it is in its world, (“A lover’s tongue might call you bitch, / A term of endearment where you come from”), and its memories (“your father’s leather belt”), that we read the “you” almost as an “I.” Yet the pronoun shifts in the final lines of the poem, when the first person makes a surprising entrance: “She does not mean to entertain / You, and neither do I” (15-16). As Susannah Childress writes,
This line… does two things: readers are introduced to the speaker within or beyond the second-person point-of-view, which then allows us to recognize the perspective heretofore not as a “Gotcha!” but the complication of both holistic invitation and experiential impossibility, something of a “You think, reader, you can inhabit my world, and though you won’t, fully, ever, let’s go after it anyway—why not?”
Brown draws us closer to the speaker here even as we feel the moorings of the speaking voice ripple and change around us. Song and speaker: we begin with these bulwarks of the lyric project in a subtly complex poem. The song, we are warned (or promised), will bring us both pleasure and pain, and the speaker—the speaker is both the man in the audience and the woman with the microphone and, perhaps floating somewhere between, a part of all those other voices the song has visited.
In later poems labeled “Tracks,” Brown directs us to hear other familiar songs sung in specific voices. One notable instance is “Track 5: Summertime,” where the epigraph tells us to hear this poem/song “as performed by Janis Joplin”. While the “Liner Notes” for this poem are briefer than those for “Track 1: Lush Life,” most readers will be familiar with the song’s origin. Still, it’s worth pausing on the fact that “Summertime” was originally written by the white, male George Gershwin, to be sung by a black woman in the opera Porgy and Bess. Here, Brown reverses the standard’s original slalom between the identities of writer and singer, with the poem written by a black man but voiced, as the epigraph tells us, through a white woman, (re)crossing boundaries of race and gender to both blur and highlight the lines between us. The poem further highlights these connections when the speaker compares her voice to that of Willy Baker:
I get high and say one thing so many times Like Willy Baker who worked across the street— I saw some kids whip him with a belt while he Repeated, Please. School out, summertime And the living lashed, Mama said I should be Thankful, that the town’s worse to coloreds Than they are to me, that I’d grow out of my acne. God must love Willie Baker—all that leather and still A please that sounds like music. See. (18-26)
The mother’s comments are both ironic and instructive; the town is indeed worse to Willie Baker, yet it is Joplin’s voice Brown re-inhabits, reaching back to the book’s, and Willie’s, “please” through her.
Beyond the immediately “performed” nature of song in “Lush Life” and “Summertime,” their polyphony also plays with the notions of the performative nature of identity (including but not limited to gender identity). Discussing performativity, Judith Butler notes:
To say that gender is performative is a little different [than saying it is “performed”], because for something to be performative it means it produces a series of effects; we act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman. (“Your Behavior Creates Your Gender”)
The theory of performativity is sometimes interpreted as denying possibilities for agency in identity construction, but Butler goes on to say that “the question” (or, at least, one of the questions) is rather “what the best way to disrupt [norms] and overcome the police function is.” Brown’s poems achieve this disruption by drawing our attention to the ways voices inhabit and modulate one another, overlapping not as they conceal but rather as they create possibilities for more complex understandings of selfhood.
Please includes persona poems in the voices of Dorothy’s guides to Oz (Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion), as well as “Tracks” sung by other singers, but the book is not wholly character driven. Rather, the persona pieces weave between seemingly personal family portraits and encounters with lovers. The book’s final poem, “Because My Name is Jericho,” plays with and complicates our expectations of the confessional by partnering it with another sort of mask. Here, Brown draws attention to his name, a name he has chosen for himself (he was born Nelson Demery III). Brown discusses his name in an interview with Natasha Tretheway, explaining how his father, at his graduation ceremony, didn’t know whom this Jericho was when his name was read. The prerogative of self-naming has long been important to both feminist and queer activism. In this case, the act both conceals—providing distance from one’s past, perhaps even some safety from it—and provides the opportunity for revelation, as we see in the final poem of Please.
In “Because My Name is Jericho,” Brown compares the speaker’s experience with a lover to the biblical fall of the town of Jericho, which is captured (with much fanfare) not by direct force, but by music. Joshua is instructed by God:
You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days… On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat. (Joshua 6:3-5)
While I recalled this part of the story from early years in Sunday school as a sort of musical, non-violent confrontation, we must have glossed over what happens next. When the walls come down, “they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21). After burning the city, Joshua places a curse on anyone who would rebuild it. It begins with music, but it’s a bloody story.
While Brown is invoking this story, he is also rewriting it. The speaker declares, “I am not a city nor a saint,” and wonders if perhaps the man he meets (named Joshua) resents both his humanness and his beauty:
. . . . . . . . . . . .I was too beautiful To be such a sinner. He must have hated me For that. Maybe some of us are Better broken into — we mend Easy as a ripped shirt or A damaged wall. If ever asked about damage I will tell What I tell myself. I am overwhelming. He was overwhelmed. See. I am just as much a man As Joshua. I’ve got the silence to prove it. (15-25)
That silence gets the last word at the end of a book filled with song is an ironic and haunting reminder of language’s limits. It’s as sincerely ironic as it gets. Perhaps it also points us towards one of the many reasons for the cast of personae in this book. While the persona poems breathe new life into a host of fictional and famous characters, these characters also deepen and complicate our reading of Brown’s more autobiographical speaker. They tear down the walls, Joshua style, between the self and the personae while complicating our understanding of both. This splitting of the voice allows its pain and knowledge to refract through the book. Like the mirror that the beautiful one shatters in the book’s epigraph, it shatters the single story of the speaker without offering us any easy absolution in the process.