More than just a compilation of the poet’s greatest or most beloved work, it is a testament to the complications of life in America.
Creating a retrospective of a poet can never be an easy job, and it certainly can’t be any easier when that poet is as prolific, generous, and important as Kevin Young. For the past 20 years Young has been working in subverting narratives and codifying loss, history and the African-American experience in America. Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995-2015 is more than just a compilation of the poet’s greatest or most beloved work, it is a testament to the complications of life in America, a reckoning with history and a solemn, soulful song crooned out to the soul of the American psyche.
At the core of Young’s work is a tension between control and freedom—both lyrically and philosophically. The poems stack down the pages, often in slim, contoured lines. Rarely do lines extend more than several words, and the heavy enjambment performs a kind of stop-and-start musicality that surprises as much as it devastates. At the core of Young’s work is music and rhythm. Being a musician himself, this isn’t very surprising and it isn’t surprising that it seeps its way into both his prosody and his subject matter. Young’s poetry is sensitive to both the rhetorical power of short, punchy end-stopped lines and the joyous overflow of when thoughts snake down the pages of the book.
This collection pulls together over 20 years of Young’s work, and as such, it is tough, in the space of this review, to really examine the ins-and-outs of the 13 books contained in Blue Laws. However, each book exists both alone and together but what unifies them is Young’s calm, thoughtful and calculated voice. His work spans the radical gambit of material and emotions, but he is not Whitman in his verbosity and waterfall-like cataloging, but O’Hara in his concern to just say everything. As well, Young’s lyrical intensity leads to lines that are arresting in their thoughtfulness and beauty. Take these lines from the poem “Ditty”:
You, rare as Georgia
spell that catches
us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,
tricked, gardenias blown about,
But along with Young’s handsome turns and sing-song cadence, there is a serious scholar and a poet looking to give a new voice to the often marginalized and forgotten victims of early America. One such narrative that Young addresses is that of Phillis Wheatley who was brought from Africa in 1761. She learned English on her own and became the first African-American female poet. As well, Young takes up and gives new life to the famous Amistad rebellion in his book Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. But all over Blue Laws, and therefore Young’s work as a whole, is the careful examination of the African experience in America and African-American experience thereafter.
Sometimes there is a book that makes itself a necessary read through its power and insight. Often this situation aligns itself with radical political change. Right now, Blue Laws feels like a book that everyone should read and absorb. We need, more than anything, a book that is both aesthetically flawless and socially reflective. John F. Kennedy famously said: “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” This sentiment feels more germane to our current politics, and Kevin Young’s work is an obligatory place to begin.