What can a poet teach us about using music to discover new approaches to popular culture, family, racial and sexual identity? Jericho Brown’s debut volume, Please, explores musical themes, variations, and contemporary musicians, including personas such as Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, and Marvin Gaye. Many poems are explicitly about music—the persona poems, certainly, and also a series of poems with titles such as “Track 4: Reflections,” “Track 8: Song for You,” and “Track 1: Lush Life.” Brown contextualizes music in a surprising way, bringing new insights to why we sing, hum, or whistle.
“Track 5: Summertime,” is a complex poem about Janis Joplin (it also happens to be the fifth song on her “Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968” album). Brown tells the tragic story of Joplin’s short life in a poem that could be a VH1 “Behind the Music” biopic from her troubled teen-years in Port Arthur, TX to her musical stardom and death from a heroin overdose. Brown manages to tap into her identity with lines like “I get high and moan like a lawn mower / so nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.” Watching a video of Joplin performing, one hears a powerful voice, sees her writhing around on stage, but Brown adds a back story to her public image:
I get high and say one thing so many times
Like Willie Baker who worked across the street—
I saw some kids whip him with a belt while he
Repeated, Please. …
God must love Willie Baker—all that leather and still
A please that sounds like music.
Brown shows how a man being beaten can make music—the sound of the leather striking flesh and the soft refrain of “please.” Brown often intertwines the themes of music and violence, either caused by others or self-inflicted.
In “Prayer of the Backhanded,” Brown withholds the word “please,” but implies it as his speaker prays to God for his “Daddy’s backhand.” The phrase thank you, sir, may I have another is called to mind by lines like “God, / bless the back of my daddy’s hand,” and “God, save the man whose arm / like an angel’s invisible wing / may fly back in fury.” There is almost a whisper of Willie Baker throughout this poem; his “please” could be the back-up vocals. Brown’s “prayer” becomes a hymn with the lyric rhythm of the poem, and the sound of a backhand like a drummer hitting the hi-hat.
Often music comes out of misery and oppression. Without pain as a source of creativity, we wouldn’t have the blues or spirituals. Brown explores the different interpretations of music: context matters, not just people’s perceptions. In “Pause,” humming and whistling aren’t always forms of music used to express joy.
I who hate for people to comment
That I must be happy
Just because they hear me hum.
I want to ask
If they ever heard of slavery,
The work song—the best music
Is made of subtraction
Brown relates his humming to a slave song, not made out of happiness, but out of a need to fill an absence. The “subtraction” is the lack of love in this act between two men. His lover’s whistle seems to remove any pretense of love, making sex an act of degradation and power.
Us splayed as if for punishment
At every corner of the carpet. Then
Pause for the condom,
Elastic ache against death
Heavy in his hand
The “pause” for the condom is like the pause of a tape player mid-song; everything stops where it is, frozen in that moment until play is pushed again.
Brown’s book explores many themes: race, homosexuality, abuse, sex, love and deals with them in an unsentimental way, showing why it won the 2009 American Book Award. Brown reminds us that the most beautiful songs are born from pain; even so, we can’t help but hum along.
More Jericho Brown: