on February 28, 2011
I am a huge fan of Kevin Young, and what I like best about his work is his deft is his fresh approach to each subject. He has a distinct voices in his poetry, yes, but his approach to subject matter changes a great deal. His work can be, in turns, infused by the blues, by the news, by lyrics, by words scrawled on paintings, by snippets from interviews, by everyday vernacular, by cookbooks, by family, by friends, and even by strangers who say interesting things and then disappear into the ether.
Even so, I was unprepared for "Ardency," Young's latest book, which explores true American story of the Amistad (a slave ship which experienced mutiny led by the enslaved Africians, who were later brought to trial in the US). Young was studying and writing about this story long before Steven Spielberg's movie by the same name, and the collection which has been nutured over this long period of time is a triumph.
Please know that you do not need an intimate knowledge of the Amistad to enjoy the book. Young begins the collection with a summary of events, and then explains how this book is broken down into three parts: "Buzzard" in the voice of James Covey, the Africian interpreteter for the imprisoned Africans; "Correspondence," which consists of letters from speeches from jail; and "Witness," a `libretto spoken/sung' by the leader of the Amistad rebellion which takes up the majority of the book.
There is a tendency with historical writers to (sometimes unconsciously) infused their writing with foreshadowing, with a sense of knowledge of what's to come. What's so interesting about Young's choice is that he presents the poems almost in "real time," as if events are really unfolding, with know idea of how things are going to work out. It makes from a compelling and sometimes tense read, and makes the heartbreak and frustration feel fresh, authentic.
And being familiar with Young's work, I know that he is experimenting quite a bit with his approach here, keeping the style and tone close to the period. And the Correspondence section is eye-opening, showing the poetry of every day language, how subtle choices can vibrate with intent if shown in the right light. And then the last section, "Witness," is just stagger in its rawness, its passion. It reprises the story we've heard in the last two sections, but this time with rush of blood, with an unflinching pair of human eyes.
And I would be remiss if I didn't say there is some really lovely work here. For instance, in one of my favorite poems, "Maroon," (which explores Covey hatred for the abused Cabin boy who testified in favor of his captors, before disappearing) Young writes, "No body / watched you unhook yourself, sail quietly off. How / I envy the manner you turned up missing, a tooth / darkening, then fallen away. How our tongues / change, exposed, explore that space you've made."
I could really go on and on. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, for poetry fans and history buffs alike. It startles, it shimmers and it resurrect. It will stick with you for a long time.