From Publishers Weekly
The story of the Amistad is widely known: enslaved Africans on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba in 1839 took over the schooner and sailed to the United States. Put in jail in New Haven, the Amistad rebels found assistance from American abolitionists when they faced trial: finally they were allowed to return to Sierra Leone. The prolific Young (Dear Darkness) has organized a big and varied book around that story. The strongest part, called a libretto, consists largely of short-lined, intense poems sung, spoken, or thought by the rebel leader Cinque, who muses often on Christian providence: "Our shroud a sail—/ heaven our home—// we compass/ our helpless bones." Stanzaic poems at the start and the end of the volume follow the Amistad Africans in America and after their return, giving voice to perhaps a dozen characters: "My calling is to vanish," says the free black translator James Covey, "finish/ the thoughts others don't know/ they own." The famous story becomes a microcosm of everything wrong with American, and Atlantic, history. As with Young's previous ambitious book-length projects (such as a verse life of Jean-Michel Basquiat), the book taken as a whole is more powerful than some of the individual poems. That whole is impressive indeed. (Feb.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Many elements converge in Young�s depthless and transporting poetic inquiry into the signal story of the Amistad rebels. Here is this much-celebrated poet�s passion for music, teasing wordplay, life-raft irony, and plunging insights into African American resistance to tyranny and oppression. In this tour de force, the fruit of 20 years of research and creative effort, Young looks to two helmsmen, Cinque, the leader of the slave-ship mutiny who tells his tale in a libretto titled �Witness,� and, in a ravishing cycle of extended sonnets, James Covey, a fellow North African who served as translator for the jailed rebels once abolitionists rallied to their cause. Young writes with electrifying insight and ringing concision about the spiritual conundrums the rebels faced when they converted to Christianity, and the determination they mustered as they learned English and fought for their freedom. In lancing poems in the form of letters, spirituals, a minstrel show, reading primers, scripture, sermons, and prayers, Young empathizes with the captured men and women longing for home, illuminates the cultural context in which their now-legendary drama unfolded and the clamorous exploitation of their struggle, and delves into the ways language conceals and coerces, reveals and liberates. Young�s oceanic choral work calls for, and rewards, the reader�s full and active involvement. --Donna Seaman