Jericho Brown is the hottest poet working in the United States right now. His most recent book, The Tradition, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, and his poem “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” was one of the first iconic works of art to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, so much so that the incomparable Alfre Woodard recorded a recitation of it on Instagram. He also makes for a great interview – he is charming, with a rich Louisiana accent and a quick wit, a generous dollop of self-deprecation, and a genuine appreciation for other poets. Here’s one example if you want to hear his voice.
I’m not usually in the habit of writing HPM essays on someone whose accolades have piled up as dramatically as Brown’s have. But I’m aware that some readers of this blog may not have encountered him yet, and that’s a problem I can help fix, in my small way. Also, there’s a poem from The Tradition that hasn’t gotten as much attention as others, and which I want to spend a bit of time with. Brown’s interview persona is so winning, and “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” is warm and open, but that is far from the only note the Brown hits in his work, and I want to focus on a poem with a darker tone. Not to be a downer in the new year, but to show you the complexity and depth of Brown’s artistry.
A Young Man
We stand together on our block, me and my son,
Neighbors saying our face is the same, but I know
He’s better than me: when other children move
Toward my daughter, he lurches like a brother
Meant to put them down. He is a bodyguard
On the playground. He won’t turn apart from her,
Empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy, me
Confounded. I never fought for so much—
I calmed my daughter when I could cradle
My daughter; my son swaggers about her.
He won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free.
They are so small. And I, still, am a young man.
In him lives my black anger made red.
They play. He is not yet incarcerated.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that a Black American man has a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in his life. This compared to around 1 in 17 for white men. See these links if you want the data, from government and other reputable sources. The number is startling. But for those of us who are not Black, statistics like these aren’t sufficient to communicate its impact, the ambient fear and precarity that are a constant part of living inside a Black man’s skin. This poem, for me, is a step in remedying the gap between what I know and what I can feel. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
The poem begins with a father and his children at a playground, with neighbors around who comment on how much the speaker’s son resembles him. I’ve heard some version of “[y]our face is the same” dozens of times myself at playgrounds. And so we begin with the very familiar, followed by the common fatherly sentiment that his son is “better than me.”
I want to stop here for a second, with the stanza break. I haven’t written a lot on this blog about stanza breaks, but here’s an example of a poet using it to give us a bit of an extra gap between one half of a thought and another. The slight pause we read into the sentence, despite the fact that it continues uninterrupted by punctuation, hints at a sort of turn in the attentions of the poem, now that the scene is set. In that momentary pause, I have a sense that the poem could go in any number of different directions.
Because at this point, we don’t know what it is about the son that makes the father think he’s “better.” The gap between “when other children move…” and the rest of the sentence could lead us to any number of places – about the son’s physical grace, or his athleticism – the sentence could continue, “when other children move / my son dances” or “when other children move / away from his wheelchair, he doesn’t cry.” We are trying to find out what makes the son – in his father’s eyes – “better.” And the extra pause the stanza break causes allows us to invent an answer – temporarily, provisionally – on our own.
For this father, though, the trait his son exhibits that makes him “better” is how protective he is of his little sister. When other children approach, he “lurches like a brother / meant to put them down.” Already there’s a hint of something troubling – why does the girl need such attention? The first verb that refers to the son’s actions, “lurches,” is not one we usually associate with a child. When does a boy “lurch”? It strikes me as almost humorous, the way a boy sometimes tries to imitate a man’s gestures without being able to carry them off, or to fully understand their implications. The boy takes his role as a big brother seriously, perhaps even too seriously. What is he afraid of? The seed is planted in our minds that the world this family inhabits is pretty dangerous if an older sibling has to be so vigilant. We aren’t told how old the children are, so it’s hard to know if he’s protecting her from schoolgirl cruelty or more advanced (sexual?) dangers. But either way, his determination feels a bit extreme.
Still, we might at first find this hyper-vigilance endearing in the child, or even be proud of the fact that he “empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy,” especially because this is an action that the “confounded” father cannot do himself. But by the time we understand that “[h]e won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free,” I’m concerned. The boy sounds less like a protector now and more like a jailer. Where will this lead? He can’t protect her forever, of that we can be certain. Not to mention that she’s going to have her own opinions about his behaviour soon enough.
(There’s the presence in the poem, then, of a gender dynamic of protection, possession, and threat that there isn’t space to cover fully here. Suffice it to say that the girl’s situation is no less fraught than her big brother’s. Brown deals more explicitly with this subject in other poems as well.)
The speaker is conscious of the differences between himself and his son. He might be a nurturing parent who “calmed my daughter when I could cradle // my daughter,” but he’s aware that the more drastic protective measures his son is capable of are beyond his capacity. And if his daughter is now too big to “cradle,” I imagine he’s not sure of his role. Immediately after the troubling “a girl he won’t let free” remark, he takes a step back: “They are so small.” The tone is almost wistful, and he recognizes that he, too, is a young father, still figuring things out.
One other brief note about form: you may have noticed that the poem has 14 lines, and I’d suggest that any 14 line poem has to contend with the legacy of the sonnet. I’ve written elsewhere about sonnets and how the form has been adapted in contemporary poems (See my essay on Don Patterson’s “Mercies” in the book or this one on the blog). This poem doesn’t strictly follow traditional rhyming or metrical patterns, but it absolutely has a volta, the “turn” in thinking that is the sonnet’s most lasting legacy.
The first turn is to the metaphorical. What does the speaker mean by “my black anger made red”? What is “black anger” in the first place? Is it just the “anger of being Black”? That doesn’t seem sufficient, although the connotations are certainly there. Are we to read “black anger” the way we’d metaphorically read “black mood,” as despairing and depressed, in contrast to the son’s anger which is “red” with passion or action? The history of those colour associations has its own problems. But before I can fully get my head around the implications of that penultimate sentence, the poem punches me in the gut with the last line.
Because while this loving father may not be sure (who is?!) about how to properly raise, care for, protect, and encourage his children, he does know one thing about his son: if he is the type of boy who puts himself at risk for the sake of those he loves; if he is the type of young man who is conscious of every slight; if he “won’t turn apart” from those in his charge; if the best tool at his disposal for dealing with threats is his own body, if his anger is “made red” – if all of these things are aspects of the son’s character, and if he is Black, then he is likely to have unpleasant encounters with law enforcement before too long. Our speaker knows this because as a young, Black man, the threat is real for him too.
This is what makes that “not yet” in the last sentence so devastating. The idea that a father could look at his son, at the ways in which his son is better than he is, and know that the very (imperfect) traits that make him “better” are the same things that are going to land him in trouble, that may destroy his life – that idea is terrifying for me as the father of three sons.
Let’s be honest: if my oldest son exhibited the same traits that are attributed to the son in this poem, if he were overly protective of his siblings, or even got into a fight with some school bully – I’d worry, of course, but would my first thought be that he is on a path to prison? Probably not. No, “He is not yet incarcerated” makes the poem about race, and police violence, and about a kind of despair. It is the worry of a father in a specific socio-political context. It’s a line that reminds me that while many of this father’s worries and doubts and affections are the same as my own, he has other worries that I am protected from. And it changes my way of looking at a familiar neighborhood scene that makes me more aware, more empathetic, and more troubled.