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: