Muscular and Vulnerable
– A Review of The Last Visit by Chad Abushanab and The Tradition by Jericho Brown
– By G.M. Palmer –
Muscular and vulnerable, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, and Chad Abushanab’s The Last Visit were two of the best books from 2019, with The Tradition having the Pulitzer to prove it. Both books deal with despair and family and death and love. Reading them together is instructive and rewarding.
In The Last Visit, the men in the poems push toward toxic masculinity and sometimes far past it, so far that many of the poems serve as warning beacons to the reader. “Men with bloody lungs” live like “shadows” in a “postindustrial town” in “The Factory,” while “Plastic Men” stand in for the speaker’s abusive, alcoholic father. The father himself, like “a document of jagged marks” is omnipresent in Abushanab’s poems and the book’s exploration of masculinity.
Masculinity is more variegated in Brown’s poetry than fathers and sons. Certainly men in The Tradition can be as dangerous as in The Last Visit, especially in “The Layover.” But danger can also be projected, when in “As a Human Being” and “The Microscopes” onlookers recoil in fear of a male black body. Far more often, however Brown finds masculinity celebratory and joyful, beginning with “Flower”, as a “Black boy / Keeps singing” through his “Tiny life.” Although some of this celebration is due to Brown’s exploration of love and sex as a gay man, especially in the final section of The Tradition, much of it comes from Brown’s ability to create compelling personae whose strong first person poems cloud the truth that very few of them are autobiographical. The Tradition’s grand mythmaking stands in contrast to the sparse and self-reflective characters of The Last Visit.
The books share a connection greater than themes, however. The Last Visit was chosen as the winner of the 2018 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, administered as a part of the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Awards and tied to the West Chester Poetry Conference. The judge for the 2018 Donald Justice Poetry Prize was Jericho Brown. Having read both books, it’s impossible to think Brown, who calls a poem “a gesture toward home”, could have picked another text. Each book is filled with poems that do just that. And when Brown says of The Last Visit’s poems that “form is not an opportunity to flex but, instead, a consequence of Abushanab’s need to set things right”, it’s true of The Tradition as well, and “setting things right” is a need that informs both texts.
Much of this need comes from the violence that flows through each book—violence that the characters and speakers were taught was love, was family. In “Layover,” Brown unmasks violence he was told was love when he says clearly “I was raped / Though no one / Would call it / That”. Abushanab acknowledges in “Rubaiyat for My Father” not just how “the cycle starts” but how the “taste of suffering” became “a casual routine.” In neither book, though, is violence only enacted on the speakers. Frequently it is a fact of the past to be reckoned with, as in “The Long Way,” where Brown’s speaker schools his listener about the listener’s own familial legacy of racism and violence.
But the violence behind the poems is not always explored and exposed. In Abushanab’s wonderfully creepy “Love Poem with Five Lines Stolen from VHS Boxes,” the speaker is transformed into a ravenous beast by love, hidden away only to terrorize the “neighbor kids.” In “Shovel,” Brown’s speaker has become comfortable with the violence that surrounds him, never “wondering what rots beneath our feet.” Similiarly, in “Ganymede” the speaker tries to dismiss sexual violence as just the way “we look at myth.”
For both Abushanab and Brown, violence begins, and each book literally ends, with the father. In “Ganymede,” the father “trades his son for horses.” Though Brown’s speaker tries to explain this away as mythology and a love affair, in the end he must admit that tradition too often leads to violence, here enabled by the belief that Black people “can’t be hurt” because they “can be bought.” The Tradition’s final poem, “Duplex: Cento” ends with a conflation of the father and the lover who was “tall as my father.” The Duplex structure allows Brown to transform this further, saying “Steadfast and awful, my tall father / Was my first love.” After haunting and harrowing so many of Abushanab’s poems, in “The Last Visit,” the book’s title and final poem, the father’s last act of violence is to erase himself and his responsibilities as he invites his son to drink. The son asks “as father and son?” Unmoved, the father replies, coldly “as men.”
The two books are filled with the presence of inherited doom. Not in the sense of disaster, but of fate, a familial inevitability that runs through their pages. In The Last Visit, it’s the father’s rampant alcoholism and machismo that the son both embraces and rejects, going so far in “Halloween” to turn his “face into a mask of bruise” in order to “be a man the way [his] father said.” In The Tradition, however, Brown’s poems weave not just through familial legacies, expectations, and rituals, but also rituals unique to the Black American experience, from the cultural touchstones of “The Card Tables” to combating racist lies in “Foreday in the Morning”.
Brown’s poems are able to find hope in tradition whereas Abushanab finds despair, because in The Last Visit, the poems are part of a broader processing. Their speaker is caught “deep / into the maze” of “Necessary Rituals”, the poems “a family of tallies” and proof against the father’s curse that that speaker “will never leave the desert.” This processing is already in the past in The Tradition, where the speaker who “has lived enough not to believe in heaven”, still holds on to enough hope to in “Crossing” be “the one who leaps”, recalling the youthful joy found earlier in “After Another Country.” Hope and joy allow the poems to address the inherent nostalgia of the book itself. This comes mostly in the book’s many Duplexes, starting with the first, on page 18, where “Memory makes demands darker than my own”.
In the end, The Tradition is satisfied with its own nostalgia, having met and managed it. In The Last Visit, however, nostalgia is a force as destructive as the father’s alcoholism and just as pervasive. Wrapped in violence and abuse, the speaker in “Boys” will “carry on this way for years.” Even as the “sudden, violent fits” of the father in “Custody Denied” result in his children being “cared for by the state of Tennessee,” his sons, as the refrain says, “still want for” his love. Abushanab’s characters aren’t only trapped by nostalgia for their fathers, however. In “Desert Elegy,” the speaker “drink[s] to giving in” to “the end” that took his friend Mike, who “die[d] with his hand on the bottle.” This resignation is the most harrowing part of The Last Visit, starkly revealed in “Hometown Knowledge,” where a victim of suicide “was bound to go that way” because “Her daddy and little brother went that way.”
The way the books approach nostalgia shows where they diverge. The Last Visit is ultimately a record of pathos, suffering, defeat:
you hear it in each hesitation, in every
sick quiet banging on the line.
So when she says she’s “feeling better, very,”
it sends the worry ringing up your spine.
After the dial tone dies away,
you stand in the sunlight of your own kitchen.
You know she’s dying, that she’ll never say.
You know you will never be forgiven.
It is this knowledge of failure that drives The Last Visit and makes it such a singular experience. It is not a book that comforts you like a warm blanket but rather travels with you. You pull it “from the bag. It sings.”
Filled with its own songs, The Tradition is a book of triumph. This doesn’t mean the book is free of loss and tragedy. Triumph doesn’t exist without tragedy and loss. But Brown’s speakers have grown with their pain into themselves. Through laughter, slaughter, tears, and tears they stand on their own:
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black. I thought then
Of holding you
As a political act. I
May as well have
Held myself. We didn’t
Stand for one thought,
Didn’t do a damn thing,
And though you left
Me, I’m glad we didn’t.
Where Abushanab’s poems find despair and drink it down, Brown’s poems find joy and bring it up, let it grow, and “leave things green.”
G.M. Palmer lives with his wife and daughters on a poodle farm in North Florida. If he’s not writing, he’s swimming, teaching, cooking, playing on the farm, or performing with Girl Scout Fight Club. Called the Lester Bangs of poetry criticism, his poetry and prose can be found at Trop, Tahoma Literary Review, Rats Ass Review, Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, Raintown Review, eVerse Radio, Gravitas, Goliad, #InternationalPoetryCircle and elsewhere. His book With Rough Gods is available from Jagged Door Press. His most recent poetry book is an epic in three parts, Olyver Currant, out from Art City Books. Follow him on Twitter @gm_palmer