A review of Jericho Brown’s Please
Published by New Issues Poetry and Prose/ Western Michigan University, 2008
As books of poems go, Please, Jericho Brown’s first book, is especially unconcerned with subtlety. This is the book’s biggest weakness, though also perhaps its saving grace. There is a lot to admire about the improvisatory boldness of Brown’s lyricism; I use the words “improvisatory” and “lyricism” as much for their musical associations as their poetic ones. Please is infused with music, both in the style and the content of the poems, but this music is almost drowned out by the aggressive structural conceit.
The book’s four sections are titled after function buttons on a CD player: “Repeat,” “Pause,” “Power,” and “Stop.” There are obvious pitfalls in making the structure so apparent. By nature, such an insistent conceit runs the risk of being overbearing. Unless it seems absolutely organic to the work, this decision might be called a gimmick. And there is also the practical fact that the more obvious a structural conceit, the more likely the reader will notice and interrogate any departures; departures from an insistent structure invite even more scrutiny. For example, when I couldn’t discern why some poems had “track numbers” in their titles, and others did not, I spent too much time trying to puzzle it out.
That said, Brown’s more subtle sequencing decisions are quite effective. Some of the book’s recurring concerns are laid out early in the first section, where poems set up images and themes that are picked up again in the middle section. This happens in a poem like “Crickets,” in which Brown pulls music related images from previous poems into the middle of the book, and this imbeds a subtler internal “soundtrack” into the sequence of the book.
I would rather be living in the pleasurably unsubtle language of many of Brown’s poems than thinking about the book’s section titles. But there is no way for Please’s structure to fade like an overheard song — to become a part of the background. The organizing principle becomes didactic, which limits the amount of discovery and surprise I find as a reader.
K. Goodkin, editor