Brown by Kevin Young
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018; 180 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Pick up Brown, Kevin Young’s ninth collection of poems, and you’d think writing poetry is easy. I don’t know his process, but the result 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.
The book’s frontpiece, “Thataway,” responds to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and is in the voice of a migrant, not from Syria or Central America, but from America’s south. A set of images put the whole book within a particular context. The speaker says some people were not ready to leave until “good / Jim swung from a tree,” but the brutality of that single act is not enough. The lynching happened in a social environment where “the white folks crowded / the souvenir photo’s frame”—people took pictures as keepsakes—but also took trophies: “the extremities [of his body] / shorn—not shed, / by skimmed off…An ear / in a pocket, on a shelf, / a warning where a book / could go.” The social context is one of domestic terrorism.
That sets the blues soundtrack of the book. The first half, called “Home Recordings” blends the author’s experiences with his son with his reflections of playing baseball as a kid with odes to the Harlem Globetrotters, Arthur Ashe, Mohammed Ali and Hank Aaron. There are funny childhood moments like recalling getting walked, the “Only time / I ever heard / my eyes were any good,” but the ending about stealing second base picks up the book’s blue note: “I rarely / got caught. I ran / like only the sly, // four-eyed can—to get there / & to get away— / to reach somewhere // safe, where I / never thought / to stay.”
The second half, “Field Recordings” continue the cultural odes, to James Brown, the band Fishbone, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ol Dirty Bastard (a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan) who died in 2004, and the 24-sonnet sequence “De La Soul is Dead” (even though the rap trio still makes music). The scope of the book more explicitly opens out to social issues in a marked elegiac tone.
Each sonnet spins off popular songs or artists, when “we said word / & def, said dang & down & fly.” Young characterizes a time and his generation, but also a culture that notes, as the first poem in the series concluded: “we said no goodbyes // just Alright then, or Bet. / No one was dead yet.” This is the basis of the reflective sadness. In a later poem, he says, “In 1990 / we had us an early 80s party— / nostalgic already.” When existence is threatened, memory is precious but its eras are tiny and nostalgia powerful. This elegy-in-advance prefigures the “Triptych for Trayvon Martin” which also invokes Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown.
“A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville” invokes the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rallies by a whole host of right-wing groups, including neo-Nazis. Heather D. Heyer was killed and more than 30 others were injured. The poem shows Young’s deft hand. As he presents the basketball game, he notes that “Here the pain / mostly goes away.” That understatement contrasts the national events with crushing power. Likewise the ending unifies the game with the rallies with the book’s overall theme, and it is so subtle, so seemingly easy that it could be missed: here every call // is wrong, all / fouls technical— / even here black / means guest, not home.”