Duplex by Jericho Brown explores physical and mental abuse, looking at how memory can impact a person. The inescapability of memory is displayed through the repeating structure of Duplex. Brown suggests that those who survive through abuse are plagued by reoccurring memories. Both in reliving the past, and having similar experiences of the past in the present, Brown cannot escape his abuse. He concludes that abuse changes a person.
Summary of Duplex
Brown struggles with the place of memory in his life, it brought him back to moments in which he was abused. This repeats throughout his life, strange connections being drawn between his father, first lover, and last lover. Abuse seems to be a constant in Brown’s life, occurring over and over again. Brown suggests that poetry is a form of processing emotion, one that can lead you away from these negative memories.
You can read the full poem Duplex here.
Jericho Brown structures Duplex into seven stanzas. Each of these stanzas has two lines, the poem measuring a total of fourteen lines. The consistency of structure could reflect the reoccurring moments in Brown’s life. Indeed, having different partners with similar attributes creates a strange consistency in his life. Right from his ‘tall father’, to his ‘first love’, abuse reoccurs in his life. The repeating structure engenders the inescapability of abuse in Brown’s life, things happening over and over again.
This can be further seen in the repeating words across each stanza. The last word of a stanza becomes the last word on the first line of the next. For example, ‘He’d leave marks./ Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark’, the repetition of ‘mark’ demonstrating the repeated abuse Brown suffers. This continues throughout the whole poem, with the first and last lines also being mirrored. This cyclic narrative suggests inescapability, Brown not believing he can really escape abuse in his life.
Themes in Duplex
Brown explores abuse within Duplex. Throughout his life, there has always been a figure that abuses him. Starting with his ‘father’ who ‘leave marks’, and continuing through his ‘first love’, someone has abused him. This abuse is central to the message of Duplex, with Brown suggesting that it changed him, ‘none of the beaten end up how we began’. The poem is pessimistic and deeply melancholic, Brown seeing no escape from his abusers.
Another theme that Brown explores within Duplex is memory. Memory is the central force that connects the present experiences of abuse with Brown’s past memories. The link between these temporal sites creates an ongoing conflict. To Brown, abuse is inescapable because he cannot take refuge in the present or past. The relationship with memory is corrupted, memory-making ‘dark demands’ of the poet.
The most important technique that Brown uses when constructing the poem is repetition. Both within the general structure and linguistically, there is a constant repetition. This reflects the repeating occurrence of abuse in Brown’s life, it constantly resurfacing. The repeating structure further echoes the memories that plague Brown, unable to distance himself from the past.
More techniques that Brown employs in Duplex are caesura and endstop. These devices work together to fracture the meter of a line. Both create a slight metrical pause, which allows words or phrases to stand out. This can be seen in the first case of abuse, ‘hailstorm. He’d leave marks.’, both caesura and end-stop placing metrical emphasis on the short, but shocking, revelation of abuse. Metrical pacing is incredibly important in a poem, Brown using this to place emphasis.
Stanzas One + Two
A poem is a gesture toward home.(…)My last love drove a burgundy car.
Duplex begins with an ambiguous statement, Brown writing that a poem ‘is a gesture towards home’. Two words stand out in this line for me, the first being ‘gesture’, the second being ‘home’. The syntax of the line places metrical emphasis on ‘home’, this frequently being a symbol of safety and support. If Brown suggests that poetry connects him with ‘home’, this could be reflecting the safety and emotional support that poetry gives him. Yet, ‘a poem’ is only a ‘gesture’ home, the lack of follow-through with the verb ‘gesture’ suggesting it only gives him the experience of ‘home’, not actually bringing him home. Perhaps Brown is suggesting that he cannot fully return ‘home’, but poetry still partially provides him with the support it normally provides.
Brown continues, personifying ‘A poem’ as something that makes ‘dark demands’. The use of ‘dark’ implies a certain negativity, an unsettling hint that mentally Brown is not okay. Even in something he loves, ‘A poem’, the use of personification implies a controlling relationship. It seems that Brown classifies everything in his life in abusive terms. The consonance of ‘d’ across the phrase suggests a bluntness, the cutting /d/ perhaps foreshadowing the abuse Brown has/will suffer.
Yet, worse than poetry is ‘memory’, further holding ideas of abuse. Brown cannot escape the feeling of being abused because he cannot take refuge in the past, he must suffer through its ‘darker’ ‘demands’. This begins with his ‘last love’, who it seems was also abusive to him.
Stanzas Three + Four
My first love drove a burgundy car.(…)Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Brown explores his experiences with abuse in these stanzas. First relating to his ‘first love’ who was ‘fast and awful’, it is then revealed that his father was, too, ‘steadfast and awful… He’d leave marks’. The connection drawn across these two figures in Brown’s life could suggest that they are both abusers. The abrasive ‘hard as a hailstorm’ shows the lengths of the physical abuse, the beatings being linked to the power of nature. The caesura after ‘hailstorm’ is emboldened when considering the preceding enjambment of the previous line, the poem coming sharply to a halt. This both emphasizes the horror of the abuse, both the power and the ‘marks’ left.
Stanzas Five + Six
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark(…)No sound beating ends where it began.
In the fifth stanza of Duplex, Brown points to the impact of emotional abuse. Use the same water semantics as the ‘hailstorm’ of abuse, Brown explores a differing form of abuse. ‘Light rain’, representing little moments of emotional abuse, still also ‘leaves its own mark’. Brown argues that emotional abuse has impacted him in a similar, but more subtle, way than the psychical.
The fall of rain is reminiscent of the sound of ‘my mother weeping’, the abuse permeating deep into Brown’s family.
None of the beaten end up how we began.A poem is a gesture toward home.
The final stanza withdraws into Brown’s mind, the poet reflecting on how the abuse has impacted him. Brown suggests that it has changed him, ‘none of the beaten end up how we began’. Although a deeply melancholic message, there is a certain light implied in the communal pronoun ‘we’. Although these experiences are hard to cope with, the pluralization suggests that people, as a community, can relate and support each other.
The poem closes by repeating the first line. This echoes the repeating structure of the poem, demonstrating that Brown still has not escaped the impacts of abuse. Although, poetry and community are two forces that he can focus on, giving him slight relief from the past and present.
Similar Poetry to Duplex
I Don’t Miss It by Tracy K. Smith also explores the emotional impact relationships can have. Yet, the distance between the moment she leaves the relationship and the present allows Smith to see the negative side of their relationship. Brown, on the other hand, still
Fixates on the past – unable to escape his abusive memories.
Another poem that similarly explores memory is Carol Ann Duffy’s North-West. However, while Brown is unsettled by his past, Duffy misses hers. Duffy explores a deep nostalgia for her childhood, while Brown demonstrates ineffective attempts at escaping the past.