Poetry Madness

San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, November 5th, 2008
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Dear Darkness

by Kevin Young

Dear Darkness Poems

A review by Troy Jollimore

Per page, per ounce, per dollar -- whatever your preferred unit of measurement, Kevin Young must surely be one of the best entertainment values in today's poetry world. His books seethe with energy and ambition, frequently casting expansionist glances toward other genres, as if they are not quite content with being poetry books and want to assimilate nearby (or not-so-nearby) modes of culture as well.

Thus we get 2005's Black Maria, Young's attempt at a film noir in verse, or 2003's "Jelly Roll," not a book about the blues, but a book of blues -- or, as Young's subtitle has it, simply "A Blues." These books not only reject the schoolmarmish idea that poems must be High Literature and Serious Business, that poetry and pleasure are mutually exclusive, they are positively offended by it.

Young's new book, Dear Darkness, resembles these antecedents in certain ways: It bristles with life, nerve and, best of all, wit. Who can resist a poem like "Black Cat Blues," which starts with the lines "I showed up for jury duty - / turns out the one on trial was me," and concludes:

I chose the firing squad instead.
Wouldn't you know it -
Plenty of volunteers
to take the first shot
But no one wanted to spring
for the bullets.
Governor commuted my term to life
in a cell more comfortable
Than this here skin
I been living in.
The book abounds with jokes, retooled cliches and delicious puns. (My favorite: the speaker of "Last Ditch Blues" who "tried/ drinking strychnine," only to discover that it "was only strych-eight.") But "Dear Darkness" adds something else to the mix, a melancholic streak a mile wide that sits alongside the humor in poems such as "Black Cat Blues" and comes to the fore in the book's latter half, whose poems are dominated by grief, remembrances of the dead and the author's attempts to grapple with, and ultimately accept, mortality and loss.

The choice of such somber subject matter may at first seem to risk deflating the pleasure of this poet's ebullient and sensual language. But this does not happen. Rather, Young's subject ultimately proves itself capable of working in tandem with his spirited language in ways that enrich and deepen the reader's experience. For a book that takes death as its central subject, "Dear Darkness" is remarkably lively and buoyant.

The trick -- rather, the achievement -- is that the buoyancy does not come at the expense of deep feeling. Instead, the two reinforce each other. Young manages this, in part, by dealing with death not as an abstraction but as a concrete reality, so that coming to terms with it becomes an occasion for remembering, and celebrating, the lives of the dead.

Young's remembrance of his lost relatives and friends focuses almost obsessively on food - in particular, the Cajun soul food of the Southern black culture in which he was brought up. (The poems have titles like "Ode to Crawfish," "Ode to Chitlins," "Elegy for Maque Choux" and "Song of Cracklin," and the concluding sequence is titled "Young and Sons' B-B-Q Heaven.")

His poems play on the deep links between food and identity, not only culturally but on the individual level: Each person's maque choux, brisket or gumbo is an expression of his own individuality and so entirely different from another's:

From "Elegy for Maque Choux":
I sure
couldn't make maque choux.
Still, no one can do
it like my grandmother
could - sweet and spiced
at the same time,
From "Ode to Chitlins"
[...] I place
my hands upon you, old
family friend, & pray
you're well the way
my blood-uncle phoned
to pray with me after
my father died, when all
I wanted was his best
brisket, smoked slow.
"I do not want/ to get good/ at grief-," Young writes in "Elegy for Maque Choux." Yet the repeated losses recounted in "Dear Darkness" make it clear that the poet has indeed had the chance to get very good at grief -- and very good at writing about it as well, in language whose occasional straightforward sentimentality somehow avoids undermining its emotional impact:
From "Ode to Gumbo":
Save all the songs.
I know none,
even this, that will
bring a father
back to his son.
Blood is thicker
than water under
any bridge
& Gumbo thicker
than that. It was
my father's mother
who taught mine how
to stir its dark mirror -
now it is me
who wishes to plumb
its secret
depths. [...]
My favorite moments in this moving, intimate book are the small ones, the ones that remind us that the rituals of grief, like the rituals of cooking, are the true bearers of culture. Or else the ones that simply thrust a spear of longing and regret through the body of an everyday event. As when the speaker of "I Dream a Highway" who, glancing through the typical graffiti that adorns a men's room wall ("Don't/ Look Down," "Thank God/ For Drunk Girls"), comes across a fragment that speaks to him in a very different voice, "someone's scrawled song/ that could be ours":
JD is still
dead & we
are still sad.
Troy Jollimore's book Tom Thomson in Purgatory won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. E-mail him at books@sfchronicle.com.

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