New books — From the February 2016 issue

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What have you done with your life since 1995? Kevin Young has published two thousand pages of poetry, plus a book of criticism. BLUE LAWS: SELECTED & UNCOLLECTED POEMS, 1995–2015 (Knopf, $30) gives a sense of his range and evolution. Its epigraph comes from Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Playing the blues in the old days was like being black twice.” Read as a whole, the book tells a story about how history has been written on African-American bodies, and imagines the voices that have spoken back. Language forms like new skin, tender and tough. One of the earliest poems, “Atlas,” begins with an awed description of a tattooed man. Later, the speaker’s grandmother takes off her shirt and shows the children “that long ladder / of scars” from a whipping she suffered while pregnant. Another poem from that period, “The Escape Artist,” tells of a carnival performer whose trick goes wrong. He drowns in his tank, and is buried outside town:

at home we still hear
his ghost nights guess he got free
from under the red earth but what
no one ever asked is why
would anyone want to

Natural History Museum, a collage by Eugenia Loli

Natural History Museum, a collage by Eugenia Loli

There are dozens of blues here, as well as psalms, an epithalamium, and poems named for traditional music, such as “Saeta” and “Ragtime.” Some speak straight to the reader; some tolerate the reader’s eavesdropping. Young is a relaxed lyricist, precise without being precious, and he expresses enormous feeling with great economy. He’s a natural storyteller, and death is his natural subject. The book is positively crowded with ghosts — dedications and quotations and memorials to departed relatives, friends, mentors, and historical figures, from his series on Basquiat and Jack Johnson to Homage to Phillis Wheatley and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. Deserving of special notice is “African Elegy [Much Things to Say],” a fierce cycle of works about the funeral of Young’s friend Philippe Wamba, a writer who was killed in a car accident in Kenya. From “Redemption Song”:

Grief might be easy
if there wasn’t still
such beauty—would be
far simpler if the silver

maple didn’t thrust
its leaves into flame,
trusting that spring
will find it again

And later in the same poem:

what’s worse, the forgetting
or the thing

you can’t forget.

There’s joy too, more and more as you get closer to the present day.

Young uses enjambment to drive home an irony or an image, as in the gorgeous lines “the sun set / like a broken bone,” or the plea, to a cheating lover, “Please quit lying / to someone else.” He loves wordplay and isn’t above an eye-roller. “I drink a lot / about my thinking problem” is his idea of a joke; or, “America, tell the maples / to quit all this leaving.” His twists of cleverness can become especially grating in Black Maria, which narrates a hard-boiled detective story. But that book also has its treats, including “The Payback.” It begins as a riot of verbs:

Stripped, de-

cowed, found
out, frisked,

confessed, pled,

tired, treed,
left for dead

& for good, forgot—

It goes on like this until the turn, when the speaker confronts the absence of the girl who got away:

She was permanent yet
faded, a prison

tattoo—I once thought
like that serum

she’d be true

but I know now
I was wrong as a sweater

on a sheepdog.

That “sheepdog” is good, and Young knows it. Who wouldn’t?

In 2004, Young’s father died in a hunting accident at the age of sixty-one. Blue Laws contains two sets of poems about his death. The newest come from Book of Hours, published in 2014. They echo what Young mourned when Wamba died: that the hardest thing about grief is how it fades. In the selections from Dear Darkness, Young’s earlier poems about his father’s death, the funeral gives way to a banquet that ushers in a slew of memories and a sensory explosion: a dozen odes to the table; to pork, wild game, and chicken; to gumbo, sweet-potato pie, and hot sauce. These are silly, sweet, and sad testimonies to body and soul. “Like ribs you are better / the day after,” he writes in praise of greens, “when all / is forgiven.” There’s no better way to commemorate love than with a feast. From “Victuals”:

He is dead. Bury

our faces in food
to forget, in vain, the rain
falling, fallen, water standing
like he never again.

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