Saturday, January 5, 2013

Black and Blue: Noir, Blues, and Soulfood mourning in Kevin Young

Kevin Young is without a doubt one of my favorite English-language poets of the 21st century. With an economical use of words, he readily opens the unfinished wooden doors of his poems to his readers-- the seemingly simple words of his verses spread in your mind like a strong liquor, doubling and tripling in meaning as you work your way through his books and drink in the uniquely American spectacle of blues, jazz, hardboiled detectives, and soul food. 

Young has the ability to capture these manifestations of Americanness as beautiful, magical, sensual. Yet  he laces the very same lines that celebrate these traditions with a dose of the intense pain and longing which forged them. Through this integration of pain and beauty, Young creates moods and ambiences which bridge the personal and the universal through the sharing of food and drink, music and memory, mourning and loss.

He is a prolific poet, with 7 books of poetry published to date. Of these 7 books, so far I've read Jelly Roll (inspired by the blues), Black Maria (poems that tell a hardboiled detective story, complete with a femme fatale and thugs), Dear Darkness (odes to soul food and the poet's father), and For the Confederate Dead (poems about the painful legacy of American slavery and Jim Crow laws). 

Jelly Roll was his third book of poetry and the first one I read (I actually got to hear the poet read a selection of poems from this book!). Jelly Roll is a collection of verses that draw heavily on the prominent motifs of American blues. Without being derivative or forced, these poems become fully blues in their rhythm and voice-- a sexy and sorrowful melody that feels both past and present at once. 

For example, in his poem "Sorrow Song," Young expresses that traveling lovesickness that causes concern over one's very soul. Young marks the poem with dashes and parenthesis and line breaks that seem to become the breaths and moans in the songs that inspired these verses:

Photo source
"Saying goodbye to the body
her body, to what

we knew or growed
used to--

on the subway
home, her mouth still

on my mouth 
like the gospel

(thick as a cough
or its syrup) hummed

by a woman on the loud
orange seat beside me.

What else besides us
is this? working

down a bone, a bright
hymn--asking, asking."   

Le sigh. See what I mean?! Brilliant. I love this guy. 

In so few words, there is already an atmosphere and a mood established; the fresh memory of love is burdened by a goodbye and the uncertainties of the path one is (not?) taking. The rhythm of the poem holds true to an old blues song, but the subway is such a contemporary image of progress-- here we have cause to sing the blues once more, for even as the world progresses, heartache and doubt can still trouble a man's mind. And the poem provides this sad moan-- the woman beside him humming "thick as a cough/ or its syrup" accompanies his lonely journey home. 

Of the four books of Young's poetry that I have read so far, my favorite is Dear Darkness. This is the first book of poetry that Young wrote after dealing with his father's untimely death. Many of the poems in this book combine descriptions of soul food dishes with the process of remembering and mourning a family member. 

The juxtaposition of these two activities--eating, a life affirming activity, and mourning, an activity directly tied to death--unveils an inherent and lovely strangeness of human experience in which, a meal that lasts only the 10 minutes it takes to be eaten, can contain the continuity of a family's history.  

I am utterly in love with "Ode to Kitchen Grease" and "Ode to Pork"in which Young addresses, in second person, the kitchen grease like a family member ("... Grey/ grandfather, once clear/ your grew cloudy/ with age so we put you/ in a home, & out/ of ours. ...") and pork like a lover ("Your heaven is the only one/ worth wanting--/ you keep me up all night/ cursing your four-/ letter name, the next/ begging for you again.") 

In many of the other odes in this book, Young slips in details about his father or mother or cousin or auntie-- details that link the sensory experiences to very specific people and events and remind the reader that, in spite of the humor Young manages to write into all these poems, they also contain hurt and sadness. 


I cannot recommend Young's poetry enough, and I discovered that last year (2012), he published a non-fiction book of essays called The Grey Album: on the Blackness of Blackness, a book that takes on cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, 'jazzing,'" according to his website. I also would really like to get a hold of his other books of poetry that I'm missing, including To Repel Ghosts, a collection inspired by the visual artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

...In the meantime, the Band of Wild Petticoats gallops towards new literature...and new poets. Until next time!


  1. This is cool -- it's been a long while since I read "Jelly Roll" but now I want to look at his other poems. Thanks!

  2. Will have to check him out. sounds great.

  3. I know you will like his stuff, Shirah! ...and just in time for National Poetry Month, too! :)