Kevin Young updates the Harlem Renaissance for the hip-hop generation.


Five years ago an enterprising poet named Kevin Young edited an anthology called Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, which he packed with impressive work by writers such as Hilton Als, Edwidge Danticat and Joe Wood. Young wanted to update The New Negro anthology, that touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance, for the hip-hop generation, and he undertook the project in a spirit of reverence. “I see it as the writer’s job, especially the African-American writer’s job, not to ‘kill the literary father’ but rather to celebrate our ancestry,” he explained in the book’s introduction. It’s understandable that Young would not want to look back to the past in anger since, for African-American writers, killing the literary father has often meant getting tangled up in fights over the proper way to “represent the race” (think of James Baldwin’s attacks on Richard Wright in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone”). Young’s decision to avoid the zero-sum game of patricide, then, is as much political as aesthetic. In a “post-soul society,” Young explains in Giant Steps, “the essentialist and often easy answers to questions of race–which have never been easy; just ask Bert Williams or Paul Robeson or Josephine Baker or Muhammad (Ali, that is)–are as complicated as ever. In recognizing the diversity of ‘the black experience,’ the poets here ask: Where do Shaft and Langston Hughes meet?”

That’s a good question, and it raises another: Can Shaft and Langston Hughes be made to meet? In other words, how can Young talk about celebrating one’s entire ancestry–let alone knowing it–without resorting to empty provocation? That’s not an unreasonable question, especially since Young knows better. His first book of poems, Most Way Home, is an unsentimental portrait of postwar life in the Deep South. A key poem is “The Preserving,” and while it concerns the seasonal ritual of canning, it also delicately evokes the complex chemistry involved in any act of preservation:

One Thanksgiving, while saying grace
we heard what sounded like a gunshot
ran to the back porch to see
peach glass everywhere. Reckon
someone didn’t give the jar enough
room to breathe.

Young’s work as a preservationist has garnered much critical acclaim. In 1993 Most Way Home was selected by Lucille Clifton for publication as part of the National Poetry Series. To Repel Ghosts, a manic epic about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, appeared in 2001 and was named a finalist for the James McLaughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Two years later Young published Jelly Roll, a blues-tinged breakup book that was a finalist for the National Book Award–and his first book with a big trade press. It also landed Young on the cover of Poets & Writers, which published a profile of him by Colson Whitehead, a contributor to Giant Steps.

Young’s new book, Black Maria, tells another breakup story in verse, this time by reverentially drawing on the wiseguy tones and bleak settings of film noir. But Young’s homage to film noir doesn’t translate into good poetry. Black Maria is a bland mannerist exercise–a remade ready-made. Reading the book, one can’t help but wonder if Young’s preservationist impulse has spoiled his poetry, and whether the only way for him to reinvigorate his art would be to pack his jars so they explode.

Young’s first two books revealed a poet of talent and ambition, though not in the same proportion. Most Way Home, which Young wrote when he was an undergraduate, is a short, sturdy collection of lyric poems loosely based on stories passed along by Young’s Louisiana relatives. First books by young poets can be dreary, especially if they focus on deceased kin. Usually the poet zeroes in on a fetish object (such as Grandpa’s photo album), swaddling it in layers of ambivalent nostalgia and relinquishing it after experiencing a tiny epiphany. Young mostly avoided this trap by writing a personal history that is not explicitly autobiographical. Inspired by Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems Thomas and Beulah (1986), in which Dove uses the lives of her grandparents to dramatize the midcentury northern migration of American blacks, Young uses family anecdotes to flesh out a history of deprivation and endurance in the Jim Crow South. Like Dove, Young focuses on the underside of history, the dramas of everyday people circumscribed by big events. The subjects of Most Way Home are generic–the seasons, sickness, death–and Young kindles them to life by using the elliptical resources of lyric poetry to score the clipped rhythms of vernacular speech:

Broke as we were, we didn’t need
fixing. But that autumn the men
weighed down our porch, sweating
in their suits, hats-in-hand,
we answered.

To Repel Ghosts seems like an entirely different kind of book. More than 300 pages long and comprising five sections organized as “album sides,” it left behind the shotgun houses and mason jars of the postwar Louisiana countryside for the grubby lofts and cocaine-fueled parties of the New York City art world of the 1980s. The inspiration of To Repel Ghosts is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a protean figure of that era’s downtown punk and art scenes. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother and dubbed “The Radiant Child” by Rene Ricard in Artforum in 1981, Basquiat painted huge, color-drenched canvases that, at their best, blended contradictory styles and elements–primitive and urbane, image and text–to generate an insouciant pop energy. That energy continues to mesmerize young artists, especially black ones. In his profile of Young, Colson Whitehead recalls lifting some text from a Basquiat painting–PAY FOR SOUP/BUILD A FORT/SET THAT ON FIRE.–and putting it in his first attempt at a novel “as some graffiti on a wall, but it was so much better than anything else in the book that I had to take it out.” Young and Whitehead share more than admiration for Basquiat. Like John Henry, the nineteenth-century steel driver whose legend is the center of Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days, Basquiat functions not as a character as much as a medium, one through which Young draws the lives of other African-American artists (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Robert Johnson) into a shattered mural of twentieth-century American life.

Yet for all its narrative sprawl, To Repel Ghosts closely follows the plot of Most Way Home, telling the story of fugitives trying to wrest a sense of place and dignity from a hostile world. The up-from-Jim-Crow story told in Most Way Home is framed by the lyric “Reward,” a description of two runaway slaves. In the opening pages of To Repel Ghosts, we find Jean-Michel Basquiat moving out of his parents’ Brooklyn apartment, wallpapering lower Manhattan with graffiti and painting in a dingy basement, which, as Young writes in the book’s first poem, Andy Warhol called “a nigger’s loft–/not The Factory.” Elsewhere Young lambastes art-world glitterati for romanticizing Basquiat as a black primitive: “Intro’d/from the dark/continent–African//Killer B–deadly–” begins “The Pictures,” an attack on Julian Schnabel’s biopic Basquiat.

Young, however, has no qualms about romanticizing Basquiat himself. The second “album side” features a profile of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world and one of several famous black athletes painted by Basquiat. Young uses the Johnson profile to suggest that the painter admired the boxer because he too was a black man who fought epic battles on canvas. Curiously, while Young portrays Johnson with a series of vivid monologues that convey the boxer’s wit, tenderness and pride, none of the poems that focus on Basquiat are monologues; they are all third-person affairs. This could be construed as a commentary on Basquiat’s elusiveness, but Young’s representation of the painter suggests otherwise. As To Repel Ghosts wears on, Basquiat is depicted as a victim of menacing forces (the white, decadent art world) and toxic habits (heroin), and in their grip his life becomes a slow-motion death. Young’s Basquiat has no inner demons, let alone interiority, which allows Young to install Basquiat in a romantic pantheon of doped-up hipster superheroes. With Young’s reverence of Basquiat comes a lack of curiosity that sometimes reduces the painter to a cliché of degradation.

Still, Young has a keen appreciation of Basquiat’s chatty, wry and even cynically neo-primitivist style. Young abandons the colloquial rhythms of Most Way Home for tercets made from very short, unrhymed lines that gain an elastic power from being heavily enjambed. Each tercet is a cluster of syncopated phrases that snap past the reader, and as the sounds and images of the tercets tumble together and fly apart, it’s as though Young had become locked in a battle royal with Basquiat’s busy paintings. From “Defacement (1983)”:

Basquiat scrawls
& scribbles, clotsv paint across

the back
wall of Keith Haring’s
Cable Building studio–

two cops, keystoned,
pounding a beat,

a black face–scape
goat, sarcophagus–

with sticks

Young’s tercets aren’t consistently lively. Some of his poems have monotonous rhythms, while others are overstuffed with details of Basquiat’s life. More debilitating are Young’s strained attempts to be witty: “Put out/to pasteur–/Quart cartons//of lost children.” This is the sound of a poet growing too pleased with his own words.

“There’s always something a little funny in all our disasters,” James Baldwin once said, “if one can face the disaster.” In To Repel Ghosts, Young’s romanticization of Basquiat short-circuits a serious reckoning with the wreckage of the painter’s life. The kind of lackluster wordplay that mars parts of To Repel Ghosts is very prominent in Jelly Roll, and instead of focusing on the face of disaster, this sloppy language obscures it. The book is filled with lukewarm puns–“Hottentot to trot//you are not”–and clunky metaphors: “You burn me/at both ends, send//the geese bumping/within my skin.”

Even when Young is not trying to be cunning, his language is often careless. “Intermezzo” begins: “Lately I head down/to the river//& watch what washes/past: garbage//boats, tugs, occasional/sail.” To say that boats and tugs wash by is not an impossible usage, but in “Intermezzo” it is not apt. The image of garbage washing past makes sense, but how, in that context, can a boat wash past? It’s unclear whether this peculiar usage reflects the state of mind of the speaker, who is sorting through a breakup. If the word choice is a sign of the speaker’s emotional confusion, then why is the language in the rest of the poem unambiguous?

The blues aren’t existential in Jelly Roll. Instead of plumbing the tension between the sting of disaster and its solace, many poems in Jelly Roll play-vamp at the blues. Here’s “Cheer,” which appears just after the speaker has thrown himself into a passionate affair with a woman:

I am
a stadium!

your cheerleader
sans underwear

time lover

back door man
leave your

little porch light on

Like the poem’s speaker, Young’s language cries, Look at me, look at me.

Black Maria is an even more disappointing production than Jelly Roll. In five sections of lyric poems called “reels,” Young tells the noir-inflected saga of A.K.A. Jones, a private dick who drinks and smokes his way through the mazes of a city called Shadowtown in pursuit of an ingenue named Delilah Redbone, a country girl who has moved to the city to sing her way to fame and fortune. As Jones and Redbone elude, seduce and betray each other, they cross paths with a cast of noir types: the Killer, the Boss, the Snitch, the McGuffin.

It’s no surprise that Young has gravitated to noir, since the genre can accommodate his passion for pop culture and the blues story of romance and betrayal. But by choosing noir Young has also set himself a tough challenge. Whether they are pop songs or detective flicks, genre productions stand or fall on their style. Because its plot twists, situations and character types are terribly familiar, a genre piece is engrossing only if its style has pungency and vitality, evidence that the writer has temporarily transmuted a genre into his or her own way of thinking.

Young doesn’t meet that challenge, and one stumbling point is the plot of Black Maria. Filled with wild tangents and shifts in point of view, the narrative is fractured and confusing, a state of affairs meant to echo a bewildering noir story such as The Big Sleep. But unlike that film, Black Maria isn’t intriguing. Young tries to repair this problem by beginning each “reel” with an epigraph and voiceover that summarize the section’s plot, but that device only compounds the book’s fractures.

Another weakness is the book’s language. Jones’s and Redbone’s fast-talking monologues are derailed by the same kind of bad puns that fill Jelly Roll. “Slant hat, broad/back, my entrenched coat//of fog” is how Jones describes himself when Redbone first saunters into his office. Black Maria isn’t without a few cutting lines–at one point a jealous Jones mutters, “She made her bed/now everyone lies in it”–but such witty moments can’t carry the book.

As with Jelly Roll, the longueurs of Black Maria aren’t necessarily the result of carelessness. Rather, they signal that Young’s preoccupation with looking back in reverence has become paralyzing instead of fructifying. In a sense, each of Young’s four poetry collections has been a debut book, with the poet venerating a genre (family melodrama, the blues, film noir) or an iconic personality (Basquiat) steeped in cultural history. Basquiat himself painted tributes to jazz musicians and other black figures, but in those portraits he also treated his subjects ironically. He knew that the difference between reference and reverence amounts to more than one consonant, which is why his romps through various styles and genres were more antic than innocuous. Kevin Young grasped that lesson in To Repel Ghosts, even if he didn’t perfect it. The only mystery left unsolved in Black Maria is why he has forgotten it.

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