Jericho Brown reads “The Card Tables”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of October 22nd, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Jericho Brown has two poems in the October issue and we’re gonna listen to one of them, it’s called “The Card Tables.” Brown told us that he comes from a card-playing family and that it was important to his parents that he learn how to play.
Jericho Brown: People seemed to have card tables in all sorts of hidden little slots of their homes and suddenly, when a card table appeared, there was less space everywhere you looked.
Lindsay Garbutt: The loss of space and the feeling of being cramped is something Brown wanted to explore in this poem. He told us that as a Black gay man living in the South, he questions what it’s like to live in the United States today.
Jericho Brown: What does it mean to be a citizen of a country that continues to deny the fact of your citizenship, right, what does it mean to be a brother or a son in a family that would rather you not be a part of the family.
Don Share: Let’s listen to Jericho Brown read “The Card Tables.”
Jericho Brown: The Card Tables
Stop playing. You do remember the card tables,
Slick stick figures like men with low-cut fades,
Short but standing straight
Because we bent them into weak display.
What didn’t we want? What wouldn’t we claim?
How perfectly each surface was made
For throwing or dropping or slamming a necessary
Portion of our pay.
And how could any of us get by
With one in the way?
Didn’t that bare square ask to be played
On, beaten in the head, then folded, then put away,
All so we could call ourselves safe
Now that there was more room, a little more space?
Christina Pugh: This poem is really accessible in its language and the way that it moves, and yet it’s amazingly complex in the way that it’s working with the card tables, what it’s doing with them. The decision to focus on the card tables, we might say, metonymically, right, rather than sort of the people at the card tables is really interesting. And then they become metaphors for the people, they become personified in a certain way, and it’s also working with the form of a sonnet here. It’s not a strict sonnet, but it’s working with that fourteen-line sonnet form, always working with that long a sound at the end of lines in really subtle ways, which I loved. And I just think there’s so much going on in this poem that’s really striking.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I love that the poem starts with “Stop playing.”
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: That it’s both a pun on no longer playing a card game, but also, we’re not joking here, like, this is serious. And the poem seems to have an almost conversational tone because of these questions that it asks throughout, but it’s actually… they’re actually kind of biting questions. They’re setting you up to respond a certain way and implicating the reader in how they might respond.
Jericho Brown: Didn’t that bare square ask to be played / On, beaten in the head, then folded, then put away
Lindsay Garbutt: And setting you up to say, oh, well … (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: This is suddenly much more violent than I was expecting.
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm.
Don Share: Well, I don’t know if people remember the kinds of card tables that… the legs would snap on you while you were trying to fold ’em up … (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: Right.
Don Share: … and you could, like, lose a finger or something. You know, it’s a really wonderful poem because it does describe on the face of it that intergenerational sense of family or family and friends seated at the card table. And so all the moving parts of the family are around the table which has moving parts as well. But there is also a sense of, you know, when you’re playing a hand of something, there’s a part of it that you sort of keep close to your chest there. And the way that you have to look at people when you’re seated at a card table. And his point is made so vividly that if you’re at odds with somebody, it disrupts the game. You know, it’s like you’re not part of the game anymore. You know, there’s always somebody at a card table who gets frustrated, let’s say. Cause it’s so revealing of who holds the cards in a family.
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm.
Don Share: And that’s sort of built into every word and sound in the poem. But it’s remarkable because it sort of brings to light a kind of thing that otherwise we would just leave sort of… in the attic. You know, a card table or memories of people playing cards together is something you might not put in a poem, it’s something you might not highlight in this way. So to me, it was quite remarkable and … and actually, you know, sort of gives one a different sense of how to perceive your family when you’re looking at family people as kind of players.
Christina Pugh: I think that’s really encapsulated in the opening that you were talking about, Lindsay, as well.
Jericho Brown: Stop playing. You do remember the card tables, / Slick stick figures like men with low-cut fades ...
Christina Pugh: I really felt like it was almost in the middle of an argument or a kind of conflict of “stop playing,” or you do remember. You know, when somebody’s claiming that he or she or they doesn’t remember these card tables. And that sense of almost being led in on a … one part of a dialogue I really liked here. It’s a question of, you know, how do you open a poem. How do you make it feel urgent? And I feel like this is one way to do that. And it actually … it makes me think of a poet a long time ago, George Herbert, who could do this very well, where you could sort of open a poem when you feel like he’s starting to gainsay or to reply to someone who’s challenging him. And I thought of that with this really interesting opening.
Don Share: What I think we’re left in in the end is that question raised in the introduction about what it means to be a citizen of a country, a member of a family where they don’t take you in. It sort of recognizes and subverts Frost’s, you know, possibly ironic idea about home being a place where they have to take you in, that’s kind of all gone now. I think in our … many ways our family lives respectively, but certainly in terms of citizenship in this country and in other countries too right now, that question is, you know: what if home is a place that won’t take you in? “beaten in the head, then folded, then put away.”
Jericho Brown: All so we could call ourselves safe / Now that there was more room, a little more space?
Don Share: It calls into question the margins that we choose to live on in society. If somebody wants to make us safe by putting people away, you know, sort of violently folding them up and pushing them aside, then the question is, what is left in that space and who occupies it.
Don Share: You can read “The Card Tables” by Jericho Brown in the October 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all October episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from The Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.