April 2005

Joey Rubin

poetry

Black Maria by Kevin Young

Noir -- both in its literary and in its cinematic manifestations -- is a genre defined by cliché. The trope of the world-weary "Private Eye," the too-good-to-be-good femme fatale, the shadowy bar, the seedy deal; all of these and more have filled the terrain of noir since its early manifestations in the 1930s. Revisiting this form today, in any medium, can easily become an exercise in redundancy. But Kevin Young, best known for his work with blues poems (Jelly Roll: A Blues and the Everyman's anthology
Blues Poems), treats redundancy as an asset in his most recent poetic work, Black Maria.

Black Maria (which, we are told, is slang for hearse and "rhymes with pariah"), tells a classic noir story: A resilient underdog detective, mixed up in organized crime, meets and falls for the beautiful but untrustworthy mistress of a crime boss who, as it happens, has it in for him. But it does not tell this story in a classically noir fashion. Rather, Young weaves this simple tale through 80 poems in a manner that takes advantage of the novelty of writing poetry based on a filmic genre. The dark visual effects and seamy overtones that are definitive of film noir are rendered, successfully, in Black Maria as sarcasm, attitude and wit.

Young's poems, which are often broken into couplet-sized stanzas, are conversational; they sound and feel like they are being mumbled by pouting showgirls and yelled by cigar smoking hard drinkers. Consequently, when his sexy sweet-talkers speak in rhymes ("Love scenes/ & holdup schemes") and his bitter drawlers constantly reinvent clichés ("here comes the bribe") they present an authentic kind of self-awareness, a kind that feels genuinely noir: gloomy and sinister, but ruthlessly honest.

The book, split into a series of five "reels," each preceded by a narrativized "voiceover" explaining the action, has a plot -- but the plot doesn't seem to be the point. It is a collection of poems, written with language inspired by the images and emotions of the noir genre, and though it tells a story reminiscent of those often told in noir film, this story is both hard to follow and unimportant. Each section is comprised -- not of a narrative written poetically -- but of shorter lyric poems that tell, from the perspective of the detective (A.K.A. Jones), the mistress (Delilah Redbone) and others, the emotional experiences of those unhappy with the bleakness of their noir world.

In this way, Black Maria relies on the reader's recognition of the familiar tropes and overused gimmicks of noir; because the story Black Maria tells is so familiar, Young can paint interesting and intricate poetry on top of the obvious narrative skeleton. Without trying to "decipher" the plot, the language -- in all its rollicking puns, wild images and jarring splices -- beats the clichés of noir into a new kind of pulp; producing a newly provocative and emotional blend.

Like the films, these poems are visually subtle; unlike the films, they are intricately inventive. From "The Sucker":

What a thrill…

to know my name
still spills

her sucker-stained tongue.

And from "The Snitch":

His lips

sealed, & that seal broken

as a record.

Yet this language -- that crawls through the book like a reflective and shape-shifting insect -- does, at times, become tiring. The number of descriptive poems meant to "set the scene," the number of love poems (from her and his perspectives), the large number of new characters introduced but never explored, do eventually become overbearing and convoluted. And because the plot does little besides serve as a vehicle for Young's elastic and intricate language, when the gimmicks stop being played-with, the poems really feel played-out, overworked and exhausting.

This might just be because Black Maria is ultimately not a film; it's not meant to be read from cover-to-cover in one sitting. Or, because standing alone, Young's lyric persona poems don't do much to reinvent noir, but merely riff on its tried tropes. Either way, the excitement of seeing what Young's new language can bring to this very old genre is worthwhile, and for those with a passion for film noir and poetry, it's about as perfect of a marriage as could be.

Black Maria by Kevin Young
Knopf
ISBN: 1400042097
256 Pages