April is National Poetry Month. With one day left, there is still time to get in a final fix, and one need look no further than Kevin Young’s new collection Brown: Poems. From poems about Brown V. Board of Education to James Brown and John Brown, to the multitude of shades of brown skin, this volume fully illustrates Young’s special kind of genius.
Divided into two sections, “Home Recordings” focuses on a childhood spent in Topeka, while “Field Recordings” looks at life outside of Kansas.
Home Recordings, includes a tryptic “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” In the first section, “Western Meadowlark,” we get the landscape. One stanza reads:
“Land of silos,
missile & otherwise.
Land of squinting eyes,
milo and wheat,”
“Strode tall John Brown.
in one hand a bible,
the other a rifle,
face more scowl than frown.
In the second section, “American Bison,” Young describes a school field trip to the State Capitol, seeing the fiery mural of John Brown, while in section three, “Sunflower,” Young reunites with childhood friends as they recall deceased parents while watching their own children.
The long title poem “Brown” is for Young’s mother, who took Kevin to church every Sunday. The minister, Rev. Brown, is the same one, as Young writes:
Into that principal’s office
in Topeka to ask
Why can’t my daughter
school here, just
steps from our house—“
Young’s gift is his careful scrutiny into how personal experience shapes culture, and how cultural forces become very personal.
— Sarah Bagby
James Brown. John Brown's raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prize-winning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things "brown" in this powerful new collection.
Divided into "Home Recordings" and "Field Recordings," Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times. From "History"--a song of Kansas high-school fixture Mr. W., who gave his students "the Sixties / minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a march on Washington"--to "Money Road," a sobering pilgrimage to the site of Emmett Till's lynching, the poems engage place and the past and their intertwined power. These thirty-two taut poems and poetic sequences, including an oratorio based on Mississippi "barkeep, activist, waiter" Booker Wright that was performed at Carnegie Hall and the vibrant sonnet cycle "De La Soul Is Dead," about the days when hip-hop was growing up ("we were black then, not yet / African American"), remind us that blackness and brownness tell an ongoing story. A testament to Young's own--and our collective--experience, Brown offers beautiful, sustained harmonies from a poet whose wisdom deepens with time.
About the Author
KEVIN YOUNG is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, including Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995-2015, longlisted for the National Book Award; and Book of Hours, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Young's book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, a New York Times Notable Book, was longlisted for the National Book Award and appeared on many "best of" lists for 2017. His collection Jelly Roll: A Blues was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. His nonfiction book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He is the editor of eight other collections and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.
“Necessary . . . Young’s book releases a universal shout—political in the best, most visceral way, critical, angry, squinting hard at this culture—while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal. Love soars over every section, especially the most painful ones.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, The New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious . . . . [Young] effortlessly blends memories of his own experiences — his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels — with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have impacted American life . . . . Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.” —Elizabeth Lund, Washington Post
“Vital and sophisticated . . . sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed . . . Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Not only beautiful but essential . . . A survey of American history through the ‘intimate eye’ that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
“Feels effortless . . . Each poem is tight to its subject, spare and musical in its language, and specific but resonates with significance in social, political, or historical realms.” —American Microreviews & Interviews, Edward A. Dougherty
“This new collection continues and deepens the poet’s lyrical exploration of the African American cultural influences who shaped his—and the nation’s—identity. Through short, spare lines that dance, chime, laugh, lament, and assert, Young creates a consciousness-in-motion, a weaving of personal and national histories that not only reanimates the past but moves forcefully into the present.” —Fred Muratori, Library Journal
“Thrillingly quick-footed, Young’s poems are also formally intricate and fully loaded with history, protest, and emotion.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Young is writing through moments of the exemplary and mundane—‘we breathe,/ we grieve, we drink / our tidy drinks’—for himself and his community alike . . . Personal, historic, and contemporary confrontations with white supremacy, such as ‘Triptych for Trayvon Martin,’ feature prominently.” —Publishers Weekly