Friday, April 10, 2020
I've always enjoyed Kevin Young's work whenever I've come across it, but after reading his 2018 collection Brown, I feel as if I've witnessed a monumental experience. For a poetry book, it has an epic scale, ranging across history, largely in tight, jam-packed tercets. Young writes some very lovely poems for black sports stars like Hank Aaron and Arthur Ashe ("You swing / in my head like Count Basie / only there's no / royalty, no music anymore / like yours"). Young effectively intertwines these sports poems with personal experience of Kansas boyhood ("For years I've wanted to write / how exactly I felt / with you hovering / on my wall, framed mid- / air, about to strike") including the awkwardness of P.E. The title poem is made of graceful fragments that reflect upon the speaker's mother. The most enjoyable section is "Field Recordings," which harbors tributes to James Brown and black punk like Fishbone and 80s and 90s rap, rock and dance music in the cycle "De La Soul is Dead." The lyrics and imagery and narrative fire away in compact clips ("What was sleep even for? / The year before, a freshman, I threw / a Price party, re-screwed / the lights red & blue-- / the room all purple, people / dancing everywhere--clicked / PLAY on the cassette till / we slow-sweated to Erotic / City, or Do Me Baby"). That these poems are in form is even more impressive in that they never feel artifical nor uptight. The elegy "Ode to Ol Dirty Bastard" is fantastic too, getting to the vibe and sound of his music, his look, and his singular voice. There's a slow-down in the final act, where some of the poems get more terse, like the stacatto notes in "[Death's Dictionary]" and "[A Glossary of Uppity]." The poems reference historical figures and already recent historic moments like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the white supremacy march in Charlottesville. The book ends on the beautiful "Hive," which Young has said of: "...life hums here, in this boy remembered or imagined, the poem offering a kind of winged benediction—a song that summons suffering, but does not succumb, I hope.” I am certainly just skimming the surface of this moving--both emotionally and musically (the book literally moves along with its jazz train anthems as markers)--broad, and rich collection.