Helen Charman examines the ethics of two collections grounded in Christian scripture
The New Testament
Toby Martinez de las Rivas
Jericho Brown’s The New Testament and Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s Black Sun are two of the key publications of the British poetry year: Brown’s second collection, which was first published in America in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press, was a long-awaited UK acquisition by Picador, while Black Sun, also a second collection, was nominated for the 2018 Forward prize for Best Collection. Both books engage textually and thematically with Christian scripture and its hermeneutic traditions; both investigate masculinity, sexuality and community. Read together, they offer wildly different directions for contemporary lyric. Brown’s rigorous, empathetic poetics constructs a recuperative voice that articulates harm, locates it within tradition – both literary and cultural – and tentatively offers the possibility of redemption. Martinez de las Rivas, on the other hand, turns his personal metrical and theological inheritance into poetry that feels bitterly, dangerously anti-communal.
It’s necessary to pause here and address the piece published by Dave Coates on the eve of the Forward Prizes announcement in September, which offered a reading of Black Sun as a collection ‘pushing a nakedly fascist ideology’. The essay critiques the poetry community’s ‘collective willingness to overlook the exclusionary politics and destructive behaviours of poetry’s leading lights’; it, alongside Jack Belloli’s response, should be read widely alongside any discussion of this work. No text exists in a vacuum, and Black Sun’s political framework should be treated seriously, and reviews that do so are certainly in the minority: the whiteness of this lauded, platformed collection requires deconstruction. The black sun is, as has been pointed out, a symbol used by Nazis of both the old and neo kind; it is also the title of Julia Kristeva’s study of melancholia; it is also a figure in Martinez de las Rivas’s own personal mythology. To acknowledge the ambiguity in a symbol is important, but it does not mean it can be deployed without consequences.
Both collections establish their own structures of faith. Brown’s text situates biblical notions of sacrifice, violence and care within lived violence and oppression, refracting devotion through the lyric first person and a commitment to human relationships. Martinez de las Rivas’s eschatology of holy wrath creates a narrow and unforgiving focus on the singular self, in opposition to society. Mary Jean Chan has noted how, in ‘Romans 12:1’, Brown ‘refashions the scriptural passage to reveal his experiences of living as a gay black man in the deeply religious and socially conservative southern states’, stressing the first part of the biblical imperative to offer the body as a ‘living sacrifice’: ‘I will begin with the body’. Precisely what ‘body’ is being referred to is – productively – difficult to tell. ‘The Interrogation’, a poem in seven sections, by turns locates the lyric subject and dissolves it, as ‘In that world, I was a black man’ becomes, a few sections later, ‘Will black men still love me / If white ones stop wanting me / Dead?’ In ‘IV. Redirect’, the voice splits into two, performing the interrogation of the title and ending on a pun that half-lands, as the thwarted imperative of ‘call away’ leads to laughter:
And what about race? What you call a color I call A way.
White violence is located in the machinery of the state – ‘When the police come / They come in steel boots’ – and in the close association between desire and harm: ‘I cannot say / They love me. But don’t they seek me out / As a lover would’.
Sin, in Brown’s lyric theology, is never symbolic, and the culpability of the speaker is acknowledged, as in the uneasy counterintuitive enjambment of ‘Colosseum’:
I cannot locate the origin Of slaughter, but I know How my own feels, that I live with it And sometimes use it To get the living done […]
His rewriting of ‘Psalm 150’ (which in the King James Bible ends ‘let everything that have breath praise the lord’) relocates the breath of praise within a communal breathing rooted in physical intimacy: ‘my man and I hold our breaths’; ‘as for praise / And worship, I prefer the latter.’ The poem that follows ‘Psalm 150’, ‘A Living’, relates the daily reality of poverty to New Testament Christian charity: ‘Everyone loves Jesus. He saves’. This moves to the painfully quick rhymes of:
I cannot pay an electric bill, mine or his, One of us sick, the other sicker, neither Knowing how to sew or salve a wound, only How precise the sound of him punctured.
‘Punctured’, coming as it does immediately after the worshipful transformation of breath, reiterates the ‘living sacrifice’ that constitutes both a striving for a Christian life and processes of intellectual and emotional survival in the face of oppression.
Brown’s apocalyptic visions are never misanthropic, though their anger is directed towards destructive human behaviour. Martinez de las Rivas’s fascination with annihilation, on the other hand, is so relentlessly bleak – and near-obsessive in its desire for the ‘purity’ of the end times, in its repetitive imagery of snow and whiteness – that redemption feels impossible. The formal dexterity and the often individually moving incorporation of internal rhymes and italicised apostrophes to ‘my love’ are overpowered by a death-drive that subsumes the personal and becomes an aggressive lament for the ‘state’ as a no-longer possible image of ‘the body inviolate’ (‘England’).
A pair of sonnets on facing pages, ‘Avenging & Bright’ and ‘To a Metropolitan Poet’, begin with ‘a song of annihilation’ that depicts a grim fantasy of a city that, ‘numb with pleasure’, ‘eradicates the stars’ with ‘her perpetual false day’ (emphasis mine; it is clear that the corruption of the sterile, masculine state is gendered female in Black Sun). Although ‘Avenging & Bright’ acknowledges the speaker’s complicity – the ‘deserved’ annihilation is ‘not only’ the fault of an external people, but rather ‘if the people / then, my love, you & I among them’ – ‘To a Metropolitan Poet’ refuses any kind of communality. A comparison of the ‘metropolitan’ and its ‘ostentatious tolerance’ with the imagery of the rural that runs throughout the collection certainly feels racially coded, and flush with the xenophobia of the later poem ‘Diptych: At Matfen/Address to My Daughter’. Here, nothing ‘will rescue’ the ‘Faded kingdom’ of swallows and rain ‘from the city— / they come so arch, my generation, / so French with irony, mwah, mwah, mwah, / up for the weekend with endless profile / updates’. This performative hatred of social media does not interrogate the productive anxieties of new forms of communication, but merely castigates them, just as the vilification of ‘the slaughterhouse of capital’ at the end of the second part of the diptych offers no real thinking about the violence of capitalism and instead situates the blame back with ‘the salon leftists’ and their implied failure to offer an alternative. Martinez de las Rivas never entertains the possibility that ‘ostentatious tolerance’ might instead be an attempt to transform genuine feeling – Christian care – into action, however ineffectual that attempt might be.
Unlike the dialogue Brown stages between the public and the private body, in Black Sun the desire for the ‘coherence’ of the body of the state and the body of the individual is expressed through a distrust of and implicit disgust with sexual desire. ‘Culture/Apocalypse’ is the poem in which this is most troublingly present. Quoting in Greek from Romans 8:6, which translates as ‘the mind bent upon the flesh’, the poem takes another swipe at technology, and the ‘suave faces fixed in the rapturous / cold light of screens tweeting into the hole’. As should be obvious from this love poem that laments the ‘sweeping away’ of the old ‘courtesies’ and ‘hierarchies’ and then quotes from work on original sin – the beginning of the KJV verse, as the notes remind us, reads ‘to be carnally minded is death’ – the gendering of corruption is female. The figure of the child, however, and specifically the speaker’s own children, recurs throughout Black Sun, often pre-emptively nostalgic and almost always in a rural setting: in ‘Hunting Kestrel, Danebury’, ‘the ghost of a child I once knew’ is ‘still playing among the withering harebells / & the gorgeous moue of the fairy flax’. ‘Winter Parable/The Others’ ends with a scene of damaged or defective infancy, as ‘the early lambs cry like wolves in the fold’, and the next poem, ‘At Lullington Church/Idumoea’, asks ‘What remains of this when all else is gone— / you, the rain, yr daughter & yr sons?’ Here, the specific offspring – ‘yr daughter & yr sons’ – can be read as an answer to the question posed by the title of the poem on the opposite page: who are The Others, and what are they threatening? Black Sun – like some of the ecopoetry currently being published in Britain today, and the xenophobic environmental nationalism of Paul Kingsnorth – sees human reproduction as problematic and seeks a process of population reduction that prioritises only a specific kind of innocence. Like an image of a fair-haired child in a snowy landscape, the links between this anti-humanism and eugenics are not difficult to find.
The female body is mostly absent from The New Testament, but reproduction more broadly is a key concern of the collection. The influential theorist Donna Haraway, in her controversial Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), argued against having children, urging the creation of queer kinship, not babies. This, as many critics have noted, advocates population reduction while ignoring the classist, racist history of that idea. In The New Testament, Brown’s use of reproductive imagery offers a different vision of radical kinship that, finally, is profoundly hopeful. The final poem in the collection is called ‘Nativity’, and begins ‘I was Mary once’, before offering a redemptive embodiment that allows both ‘sin within my blood’ and the ‘sting’ of death to ‘Last and be transfigured’: legacy is not placed in opposition to change. The internalisation of sin into the very physical matter of the body echoes ‘Romans 12:1’, ‘I let a man touch me until I bled, / Until my blood met his hunger / And so was changed’. Here, at the beginning of the collection, this bond is refused and frustrated, as ‘my people’, ‘hurt’ by homosexual desire, ‘will not call me / Brother’. ‘Brother’ stands throughout The New Testament as metonymic of the problems of lyric identification: the simultaneous fear of being, and the desire to be, known. Crucially, however, this notion of linguistic kinship incorporates, too, a warning against the potential for depoliticisation that comes with the orthodox ‘lyric I’. In ‘Make Believe’, the word ‘brother’ reappears as a reminder of the importance of context: ‘Brother is how you get to me if you are black’.
Helen Charman’s critical writing can be found in The White Review, the LRB blog and the Baffler. Her pamphlet Support, support (Offord Road Books, 2018) is reviewed in this issue.
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