By Kevin Young
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
The poems of Kevin Young’s new collection Brown take a hard but often affectionate look at the poet’s Midwestern roots, wrestling with his attachment to, and disassociation from, the land of his childhood. Icons from all corners of Black public life – blues singers, sports legends, advocates and activists — take a central place in the collection’s fractured, contradictory, rustic landscape.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because, for the most part, it is. Much of Brown is well-charted territory for Young, who serves as director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He’s no stranger to the ethnographer-poet mantle; in past collections like Most Way Home and For the Confederate Dead he dug into the bewildering, often terrifying strata of forgotten American voices. Oral histories, high and vernacular idioms, historical traumas and buried acts of heroism – these have been in Young’s possession from his very earliest work.
The “Brown” of the title recalls some of the touchstones of Black American history that populate the collection. There’s John Brown, with “dead / soldiers smoldering / at his feet” in a mural at the Kansas State Capitol; the much funkier James Brown, cooling the nerves of his Boston audience the night after MLK’s murder; and Oliver Brown, from the monumental Brown v. Board of Education.
For a collection in 2018 that “meditates on all things ‘brown,’” Brown can be surprisingly nostalgic. There’s a poem about last summer’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, and a “Triptych for Trayvon Martin” – which elegizes Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown – but these are exceptions. The bulk of the collection deals in images, landscapes, and a currency of names and places (and bands) that can feel miles removed from the gut-punch immediacy of recent work from, say, Morgan Parker.
But then, for a poet as well-weathered in lyricism as Young, a protracted stare into the past can yield revelations. Even at his most nostalgic, Young has an eye toward the afterlives of history’s lost calamities. “Yet how to kill / a ghost?” he asks in the penultimate “Money Road”; it may be Brown’s central question.
“Money Road,” the peak of the collection, chronicles Young’s journey to Bryant’s Grocery, the place where Emmett Till “last / whistled or smiled / or did nothing” at a white woman before his torture and murder by white locals: the place that made “a marred, / unspared, sightless stump” out of the boy “down / for only the summer.” The “did nothing” line, Young tells us in the Notes & Acknowledgments, was written before Carolyn Bryant – the white woman in question – confessed last year that she fabricated the story of Till’s romantic advancements. It’s an unusual instance of poetic prophecy one wishes was unnecessary.
At the height of his powers, Young can dodge cliché better than almost any other major poet working today. Violence abounds in Brown, its horrors (almost) always rescued from abstraction. The haunting, plainspoken “Thataway” that opens the collection describes the brutality that drove thousands of Black Americans northward at the turn of the twentieth century:
Let his body black-
en, the extremities
but skimmed off
so close it can be shaving
almost. An ear
in a pocket, on a shelf,
a warning, where a book
Nothing mars an elegy as badly as a poet’s floundering around in the lines surrounding the central tragedy, so Young’s faith in his readers’ emotional maturity here is refreshing. No space is wasted on half-adequate reconciliations or explanations; the violence is individual, and he gives it the space it needs.
Brown is undoubtedly a safe project for Young; its material has been plumbed for the span of his career. Where it is exoteric and political, it is usually agreeable even to conservative readers. As a treatment of blackness (or brownness), and of the inextricable violence at the center of its history, Brown can feel surprisingly reserved. The twenty-four page reminiscence on 90s college parties, “De La Soul Is Dead,” for instance, seems jarring against the heavier stuff that comes before and after it. But important things don’t lose their importance when a poet finishes one book, or two, on the subject. If Young tends toward the meditative over the clamorous, and toward familiar over unexplored territory, that may be a good thing. After all, the ghosts of collective memory, like the now-dilapidated Bryant’s Grocery, live on, and someone must tend to them:
There are things
that cannot be seen
but must be. Buried
barely, this place
No one can keep—
Isaac Randel is an MFA candidate at The New School. He lives in New York City.