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Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 25, 2011
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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.)
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*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
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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.