Memory and Violence in Jericho Brown's "Duplex", Part 2

The sum of Brown’s formal choices is a poetic form to confront the violence which has become normalized in America.


Tomás Miriti Pacheco, He/His


Duplex



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.




Brian Cornelius

In using the blues stanza to process the violence in “Duplex,” Brown engages the genre’s own history with sorrows, memory, and individuality. The duplex takes metrical cues and arranges its lines with cues from the ghazal, but Brown’s manipulation of the blues stanza defines its content. Though Brown rearranges and blends together the form’s AAaBBb… line endings to suit the pattern of the sonnet crown, the back and forth between repetition and variation that is the duplex form’s heartbeat is native to the blues stanza and not the sonnet. Like all the poem’s rhythms, it is disturbed by the climactic violence of his father. After the shock of the previous couplet, in what would be the volta of a Petrarchan sonnet, “Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark” is an unusually distant echo of its predecessor. Since it is followed by the poem’s only other instance of enjambment, then the explanatory “Like the sound of a mother weeping again”, the difference between the two epistrophe-linked lines seems to model the broken relationship between the speaker’s parents. Brown’s divergence from the blues stanza is a foreboding echo of the ghazal’s broken end stops. At the end of the line, the form threatens to unravel, hinting at even higher stakes. In “Duplex,” this shows the effect of violence on his memory of past relationships, but Brown’s use of the form also complicates the subject.


Like all the poem’s rhythms, it is disturbed by the climactic violence of his father.

“Blues...is, it seems, the deepest expression of memory. Experience re/feeling. It is the racial memory,” summarizes Amiri Baraka, whose work, Black Music and Blues People: Negro Music in White America, are thorough studies on the impact of race on Black creatives. In Renegade Poetics, Shockley draws on his and Angela Davis’ work to elaborate on the nature of this relationship. She notes “one of the things that made the blues such a versatile and transportable art was the fact that the I speaking in a stanza of blues lyrics would often articulate ‘intensely personal’ (and typically private) woes, but because those woes were widespread among African-Americans and were figured in broad, metaphorical terms...nearly anyone in the community could speak that I.” Of all the forms “Duplex” references, the blues is modified the least. By using this poetic form to describe the relationship between the speaker’s parents, Brown calls into question whether the poem is intended to address solely the concerns of an individual, be it the poem’s speaker or Brown himself, or if he intends to present the poem’s events as collective issues. If so, in a book “expansive enough to include the violence of both American history and the foundational myths of Western culture, as well the very history of lyric poetry,”14 is Brown exclusively testifying to the Black family? How do we understand ‘the beaten’ which he refers to in the poem’s closing? Is it an umbrella term for the bodies at risk which Philips lists, or is it explicitly tied to the domestic abuse described in the poem? Brown’s poetics align with those of artists struggling with Blackness, but this does not exclude other identities and experiences from his decision-making.


At its end, Brown’s reckoning shows concern for not only his own safety, but the health and shared memory of a community.

Regardless, the sum of Brown’s formal choices is a poetic form to confront the violence which has become normalized in America. His crown of sonnets is blurred in its subject, racialized and beaten. At its end, Brown’s reckoning shows concern for not only his own safety, but the health and shared memory of a community. There is no payoff to the poem’s resolution beyond awe of his technique. However, in the invention of the duplex form, Brown leaves behind a device for marginalized poets to share in this confrontation of the violence they face — true to its name he makes twin rooms of the sonnet, with space for sorrow and recognition if not reconciliation. What more can I offer, Brown seems to ask of himself, than a point in the right direction, a “gesture toward home?”