I just finished Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness, a relatively long collection of poems (almost 200 pages!) and very enjoyable. I’m glad I got to read it here and now, that is, in Mississippi, and during the monsoon-like rain that rings in the end of summer. This book feels Southern.
If there’s one thing Dear Darkness makes clear, even if you only look at the table of contents, it’s that Kevin Young likes his Southern food, fried, greasy, salty and rich. His odes to chitlins, okra, pork, chicken, gumbo, crawfish, even to greens and kitchen grease, closely tie food to family, comfort and love. At times, a food becomes a lover, a cousin, a friend.
Not all African-American families look like this one, or act like this one, but that does not make them any less of a family. Young’s collection takes inventory of a constructed family — some blood relatives, some ‘play’ relatives, uncles who aren’t actually uncles — and how this family still lingers in the world around him. This family has little in common with the Huxtables, although, well, the father is a doctor there as well. They face floods, poverty, ill health, racism. At the same time, there are typical “American Childhood” moments: Father and son go fishing together. The boy gets a puppy of his own. His first kiss happens on a bus.
And then there’s food. Lots of it, like irresistible sweet potato pie, the starry shapes of okra and mouth-watering barbecue. In fact, food is a source of happiness:
In all the paintings of heaven / there is little / / or no food – and an afterlife / minus okra / / or barbecue or your arms / seems useless. Of course / / it wasn’t even heaven / you were after – / / instead, as you once said, / I am trying to find / the perfect sauce (from: “Ode to Barbecue Sauce”)
Not all the poems are like this. While there is a good number of food-themed odes, there are also bluesy poems and some tender, quieter pieces like “Childhood” and “Bachelorhood” or the very personal “Labyrinth” about his grandfather’s failing strength. There’s also the strong voice of “Ode to the South” where the speaker exclaims,
I want to be soused, / doused / / in gasoline / & fried, / / fired up like a grill – / / Let’s get fired up / We are fired up / / – I want to squeal / like a pig / / or its skin. Gridiron. / Pork rind. / / I want to be black / on the weekend –
While the first line suggests getting drunk, the second and third quickly turn this image around with sobering allusions to racist attacks on African Americans. Nobody in their right mind wants to be burned alive.
And again, food. The speaker wants the enjoyable part of being black, – to be black on the weekends. Where towards the beginning, the speaker wants God to “root for the home team”, in the last stanza of the poem he explains, “I want to give God / a nickname.” Being on joking terms with God rather than working for pie in the sky.
There’s nostalgia, but with a healthy dose of realism. As down-to-earth and tangible as these poems are, they reach further.
One of the (admittedly many) poems I love in this collection is “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a set of incidents that are connected only by not being what they seem, not quite being what we want them to be. The friendly waves are not friendly waves at all, the whales that so many volunteers spend hours trying to rescue will strand again the next day, the romantic cause of a big fire is a lie. “And what if they had / been people instead / / of whales, my mother wonders, / would that many / / gather to save us?”
Another recurring theme, in addition to food, family and the South, is music. The collection even ends on it:
[…] you spill out / like music, my daddy / dead, or grief, / or both – afterward his sisters / my aunts dancing / in the yard to a car radio / tuned to zydeco / beneath the pecan trees. (from: “Ode to Boudin”)
Zydeco is a type of French Creole music that originates in Louisiana and mixes R’n’B with Cajun music and blues. Here’s a sample:
All in all, I really enjoyed the variety of poems Young put together in this book. While they are thematically arranged in five sections, the collection still feels like a whole. I think the food poems in particular would be fun even for people who don’t usually read poetry. In any case, a good book.
He’s also written (more recently) Ardency, which is A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, also in verse. Really interesting stuff, based on actual records of the 1839 events where slaves rebelled and took over the ship on which they were being transported (the Amistad) to try and sail back to Africa. The book is written in different voices, using hymns, letters, liturgy, text from primers, and other materials.
Oh, and before I forget, Kevin Young is coming to USM in just over a week as part of the Center for Writers‘ Visiting Writers Program. This is very cool because there will be an open reading, as well as a Q&A for us grad students. Really looking forward to this.