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Tall tales and hymns

For the Confederate Dead Poems Kevin Young Alfred A. Knopf: 162 pp., $24.95

January 21, 2007|Laurel Maury | Laurel Maury writes reviews and articles for a variety of publications.

"FOR the Confederate Dead" is a lively and excellent collection. Even when they're sad, as they often are, Kevin Young's poems make you want to tap your feet. Young's language dances and he has a wry humor that matches the sweet jazz beat of his voice. This is his fifth collection, but it has the daring and energy of a first book. The poems are narrative, often linked, and many deal with African American life before the civil-rights era, as in the series "The Ballad of Jim Crow," whose title character is presented as a sort of folklore antihero. In the poem "Tabernacle," Young writes:

Since they shared the same

monogram, Jim

Crow & Jesus

often found themselves

getting the other's dress shirts

back from the wash.

Some of his poems have the feel of tall tales, exaggerated stories meant to be spoken. Some are definitely songs. His is not the romantic notion of poetry as the musings of a mental traveler -- always there's a sense of speaker and audience. So it's odd when a Lucy reminiscent of Wordsworth's appears in the "Nicodemus" poems. But instead of being an ethereal sprite, she's a broken woman: a former slave, a mother and a lover whose spiritual health is linked to her freedom: "& my Lucy began / to hum -- what I hadn't heard / since she found our son, fetched / me quiet to cut his body down."

Later in the book, Young draws a link between the persecution of black people and the suffering of others elsewhere. In "Guernica," he writes of violence in Spain, "Nearby they are burying / the boy beaten / by the gang -- nobody / knows him, everyone / calls the killers by name." It feels as though he's defining the responsibility of people who've known pain to bear witness. Though this is a remarkable book, some of the poems don't quite work. A few of the early narrative poems aren't as tightly written as they could be, and his long experimental poem, "Booker T. Abroad," feels like preaching that is unrelieved by lyricism:

Negroes in South

outter edges of

cities. No

light. Little government.

No parks, little

to make life

attractive. Less

crime if surroundings

were more

sanitary. Drink

in these improved

places reduced 50%

Yet for people who think poetry is difficult, obtuse or only for strange eggheads, Young is a good antidote. His language is transparent and his poems talk to each other, building on each other's wisdom, like friends going through life together. In "Hotel Purgatorio," he writes, "We are what we leave." Later, in a tribute to self-taught folk artist James Hampton, Young writes, "No one sees scraps are what saves.... What we gather, we are." Together, these poems hint that life is lived in the forgotten bric-a-brac no one sees. His poems are lovely to read because on the surface the meaning is easy to understand, like campfire stories or prayers, and yet there is also much more. When, in the title poem, he writes, "We prepare / for wars no longer / there," the phrase resonates both inside and outside the poem.

The book, despite having many sections, seems to have two parts: The first gives the sense and rhythm of what life was like for African Americans before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second is a set of elegiac poems for the poet's friend Philippe Wamba, author of "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America." Scattered among descriptions of traveling on the African continent, these poems are songs to friendship and grief that resemble hymns:

After the angels

After the arguments

over death and what's

after, after the water

has returned as rain

I will wander

till I am the water

washing me clean

That poem, "Hymn [Satisfy My Soul]," ends with the words, "After even heaven / What will we have then / After the after / I will still call you friend."

Young's title echoes Robert Lowell's book "For the Union Dead," but the two are very different. Lowell sought to yank a definition of his nation from a mix of aging Puritanism and middle-aged desperation. Young is also on a nation-defining mission, but it's as though he believes that the South and blackness were left out of Lowell's equation.

Lowell is the greater poet, but Young is fun, full of unself-conscious music and isn't a sucker for middle-aged sorrow. His poems are often sad, but they never dote on their sadness, such as when he writes in "Redemption Song" that grief "would be far / simpler if the silver / maple didn't thrust / its leaves into flame / trusting that spring / will find it again." Young's poems always give a sense of an outer world of people, beauty, family, a place where mourners gather after a funeral and sing Bob Marley songs. (As a poet, he owes more to Marley than to Lowell.) "For the Confederate Dead" gives an open-eyed vision of a complete world. *

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