Longlisted for the National Book Award
A rich and lively gathering of highlights from the first twenty years of an extraordinary career, interspersed with “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from this prolific and widely acclaimed poet.
Blue Laws gathers poems written over the past two decades, drawing from all nine of Kevin Young’s previously published books of poetry and including a number of uncollected, often unpublished, poems. From his stunning lyric debut (Most Way Home, 1995) and the amazing “double album” life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2001, “remixed” for Knopf in 2005), through his brokenhearted Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003) and his recent forays into adult grief and the joys of birth in Dear Darkness (2008) and Book of Hours (2014), this collection provides a grand tour of a poet whose personal poems and political poems are equally riveting. Together with wonderful outtakes and previously unseen blues, the profoundly felt poems here of family, Southern food, and loss are of a piece with the depth of personal sensibility and humanity found in his Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels or bold sequences such as “The Ballad of Jim Crow” and a new “Homage to Phillis Wheatley.”
In this extensive and impressive selected volume that also includes a generous helping of unpublished poems, poet and critic Young, winner of the 2015 Lenore Marshall Prize for Book of Hours, puts his characteristically succinct narrative lines on full display as he crafts voices that speak to the pleasures and pains of African-American lives, including his own. Young demonstrates a deft skill for persona, taking on the voices of such historical figures as Jack Johnson, the great 20th-century boxer, and Cinque, the leader of the Amistad rebels. Music, especially blues, jazz, and hip-hop, moves as both an undertone and overtone throughout the book. Young shows his mastery of form throughout particularly in "Urgent Telegram to Jean-Michel Basquiat" while his love poems display a tremendous ear and the talent for turning stock images into moving metaphors: "Even a bird,/ a dog, got him a cage// he can bark/ all night in, or sing." Some poems feel more concerned with flexing their muscles than engaging the reader, and metaphors can seem redundant (not altogether surprising, given Young's prolific output), especially in a series of odes to foods. Yet Young also offers stunning confessional lines that will move the reader with their lyrical starkness, as in a heartrending series of elegies for his father: "The day will come// when you'll be dead longer/ than alive."