[Brown’s] formal choices reflect not only the abuse recounted in the poem, but also the everyday violence of living as a Black gay man in contemporary America.
Tomás Miriti Pacheco, He/His
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0.
Jericho Brown’s poem “Duplex” introduces the namesake form—an unraveling of the sonnet that also takes cues from blues poetry and the ghazal—to his book “The Tradition.” The form appears multiple times throughout the full text, but the authoritative, almost didactic language Brown uses in this first instance offers an explanation of its intriguing structure and the forces that shaped it. The poem opens with the declaration, “A poem is a gesture toward home./It makes dark demands I call my own.” These “dark demands” foreshadow the memories of violence which build throughout the poem, haunting it's bluesy repetitions. This connection is explicit in the poem’s conclusion: “None of the beaten end up how we began./A poem is a gesture toward home.” Though the speaker can call its unique structure ‘my own,’ the poem’s structure remains intact, the first line unaltered at its conclusion, while the speaker is irrevocably changed.
The uncomfortable disconnect between the resolution of its form and the lack thereof in its content is central to the poem’s meaning, the Shakespearean couplet which delivers its message, and Brown develops it carefully. Though only half the poem’s lines end in a unique word, there are no repetitions within a single couplet—a rift between the blues and ghazal forms that Brown leans into for the alienating effect it creates. Compared to the subtle nods between the first two lines of a blues stanza, “It makes dark demands I call my own//Memory makes demands darker than my own,” which he divides with a stanza break, the space between the couplet’s lines is broader and more uncertain, and it is there that Brown cultivates the poem’s tension . Within “Duplex,” Brown’s use of lineation defines his recollection of violence in the home. These formal choices reflect not only the abuse recounted in the poem, but also the everyday violence of living as a Black gay man in contemporary America.
Within “Duplex,” Brown’s use of lineation defines his recollection of violence in the home. These formal choices reflect not only the abuse recounted in the poem, but also the everyday violence of living as a Black gay man in contemporary America.
“Duplex” was featured as Poem of the Week in The Telegraph, who noted, “the form was inspired… by imaging a crown - a sonnet cycle in which each poem starts by repeating the last line of the previous one - but with every sonnet cut down to just two lines.” That Brown imagines the whole argument of a sonnet between each of the couplet’s lines suits the disjointedness that builds through both the poem’s content and structure—in The Telegraph article, he escalates this presumed argument, describing the duplex as a form “with something murdered between each line.” If not easily provable, his comment points to a striking relationship between the poem’s events and the couplets’ arrangement: the line breaks are stressed and shaped by the violence between them. For the first three couplets, consistent end stops bottle a sense of apprehension, as Brown’s warnings give way to shifting, haunting memories. In the fourth couplet, it overflows: “Steadfast and awful, my tall father/Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.” The poem’s first enjambed lines and its hardest caesura are structural cues for the impact of these beatings. Just as a rhythm sets into the form’s foreboding call-and-response, the enjambment brings a suddenness to the couplet’s violence. The period is like a moment of shock, during which Brown pulls away his metaphorical imagery to reveal real wounds. Here, it is difficult to consider what twelve lines may have fallen in between the two; the tension within the couplet doesn’t reach for context, it is concerned with survival.
Brown’s poetics are centrally concerned with these mortal stakes. In “Duplex,” the speaker’s memory of his father brings them to the forefront, but The Tradition is a thorough investigation of the concept. Through his poems, he confronts the spaces where these life-or-death moments take place, but in doing so he acknowledges that his writing does not detach or protect him from his fear. Reviewing The Tradition for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Richie Hofmann writes:
Through his poems, he confronts the spaces where these life-or-death moments take place, but in doing so he acknowledges that his writing does not detach or protect him from his fear.
“[It] contains love poems and elegies, poems that bring into thrilling contact the tropes of “traditional” lyric — lilies, Greco-Roman landscapes, museum paintings — with an urgency borne of threat.” Brown’s rush to conclude the sonnet, the crown of sonnets, shows this same urgency, and it is perpetuated in the poem’s structure. The vacant sonnets of each couplet haunt the form in the hollow echoing between the last and first lines of each couplet. In “Duplex,” the progression of the poem’s events reads darkly as a struggle to recall a memory free of violence, but the structure testifies to Brown’s struggle as a Black gay man trying to find resolution through poetry in a world of continuing violence against his communities. “In Brown’s poems, the body at risk — the infected body, the abused body, the black body, the body in eros — is most vulnerable to the cruelty of the world,” writes Maya Phillips for the New York Times coverage of Tradition. The article’s title, “A Poetic Body of Work Grapples With the Physical Body at Risk,” aptly summarizes this relationship.
While the content of “Duplex” directly addresses only one or two of these states, Brown’s formal choices in the poem reflect consideration of how his identities bring him into this risky space. Evie Shockley’s Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics And Formal Innovation In African American Poetry provides a useful lens for understanding these choices. “What evidence is there in the text, if any, of the African American writer’s wrangling with competing expectations of desires for whether and how race will function in her work?” she writes in the book’s introduction. “Renegade Poetics is interested in those instances when such race-related wrangling has led the poet beyond what experience has shown will do the job and into a space of formal risk-taking and experimentation.” Brown’s innovative compression of the crown of sonnets in response to the racial, sexual, domestic violence which his book centers around represents both a confrontation with race’s function in the classical form of the sonnet crown and a great experiment in its inclusion of blues poetry to do so.