At the Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue launch reading on June 2nd, Derrick Weston Brown blew me away with his reading of his poem “Bruuuuuh or When Brothers Debate Black Panther in a Safeway Parking Lot: A Found (Overheard) Poem.” It’s a poem that feels as if it wants to be performed but a work that also offers the pleasures of a close reading on the printed page.
Virtue #1: authenticity, the ultimate literary value for me. It’s the writer’s ability to make me believe in his story, his setting, his tropes, his you-name-it. Call it the art of the real. To my ancient white guy’s ear, this poem pulses with authenticity. Brown creates this effect primarily through an old reliable technique, putting the vernacular—or, as some might say, the language of the street—to use for some serious fun.
Start with the title. I get that the strung-out “Bruuuuuh “is connected to bro is connected to brother is connected to collegial African-American slang (and there’s a suggestion in the poem that the two speakers are literally brothers), but this Bruuuuuh sent me to the Urban Dictionary for the nuances of the word. Top definition there: “It’s what you say when you react to funny freakin’ comedy.” Example: “I got an f for my grade. Bruuh.”
There are few things I like better than learning a new word. Here’s another from Brown’s poem: “cos-play.” How did I not know that refers to costume-play—the widespread tendency in certain cultures to dress up as fantasy characters? Guess I need to get out more.
And that brings me to virtue #2: this poem makes me stretch. The poem’s themes are not obscure or arcane, but neither is its meaning laid out for the reader like a patient etherized upon a table. As a listener and reader, I have to work some. In the connotations of the words Brown has chosen, the poem taps my intuitions, the first-response, emotional level of my brain as well as the rational, analytical part.
Virtue #3: did I say this is a very funny poem? It consists of a riff/rant by Bruh #1 against the commercialism of the movie Black Panther and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. Bruh #1’s case against the film rests precisely upon its lack of authenticity—that is, the absence of a real connection to the lives of the kids buying the costumes. “Bougie asses out here shopping to dress up for a movie….They ain’t been to Africa & ain’t going.”
Bruh #2 responds with a defense of the human impulse to dress up and identify with a power greater than oneself, citing the treasured Kirk Cousins Redskins jersey of Bruh #1 and nailing down his point with, ”Damn man let the people have fun./Ol’ Grinch ass!”
Virtue #4: Brown refers to this as a found poem, and I’m a sucker for bits of the universe borrowed for purposes of art, whether it be a stuffed goat plunked into a Robert Rauschenberg collage or the government statistics adorning William Carlos Williams’s epic poem “Paterson.” In his introductory remarks Brown talked about teaching his poetry students the art of what he called “ear hustling,” what some might term eavesdropping. This is a vital skill for writers who aspire to authenticity. It’s not clear how much Brown lifted verbatim from that overheard conversation in a Hyattsville parking lot and how much he cut, added, or moved the pieces around, but it doesn’t matter.
What matters: this short poem in its humor, its vernacular riffing, its deeper themes, and, yes, its authenticity evokes some of the great narrators in literature—Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago teens hanging out at the Golden Shovel pool hall in “We Real Cool,” and Anthony Burgess’s Little Alex of A Clockwork Orange. “Bruuuuuh” is the real thing.