January 2007

Amy GŁth

poetry

For the Confederate Dead by Kevin Young

Kevin Young manages to again balance intimate and known, ethno-specific and totality in his latest collection of poetry, For the Confederate Dead. Though chronicling moments in African-Americana, his hauntingly beautiful stories of praise, grief and outcry transcend community and resonate universally. Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Young’s work, particularly in this recent collection, is the musical quality so fundamentally ingrained and supplied to each piece. Young’s work feels so effortlessly written, so much so that at a point, he almost seems worthy of dislike, or at least resentment, yet his work comes from such an honest and heartfelt place, this proves impossible.

Every piece making up For the Confederate Dead is, quite simply, both beautiful and heartbreaking, each written in unique characterization while all reaping cohesion through Young’s melodic voice.

In his opening work, “Elegy for Miss Brooks,” in praise of Gwendolyn Brooks, delivers imaginative and impassioned language, but does so patiently and gingerly, letting each word thoroughly evolve before moving to the next. “Nicodemus,” his next piece, keeps this unflustered and steady tone, with the subtle addition of dialectal colloquialism that remains believable and suggestive without resorting to caricature or lessening his characters in the least. The third section, “Booker T. Abroad,” is harder and choppier, especially in comparison to the smooth and ease of words in initial sections, but it remains powerful nonetheless. In fact, perhaps it is in this very section that Young best demonstrates his talent, creating minimal groupings of words without sacrificing any of his emotionally driven trademark.

“Un Chien Andalou,” though one of his shorter poems, feels in the book like a tragic intermission of sorts. It stands out, it is somehow different, and seems to change the overall tone to a slightly more melancholy one, despite the following long section, “The Ballad of Jim Crowe,” being filled with sharp wit and brilliantly comedic imagery. It is within this very humor that Young’s patient notes momentarily give way to quick-drawn words, whizzing past only to catch up at the ends of phrases to offer effectively jarring comprehension. This pace continues into the next piece,Guernica,” but only briefly, as this piece manages to restore the measured pace in previous sections that continues until the collection’s conclusion. “America,” the section perhaps most difficult to categorize, manages to include notes and voices of all the previous pieces within its subsections, ranging from clever grins hidden in imagery to glaring heartbreak. Though also brief, “April In Paris” adds more conspicuous suspense with a sense of resentful resignation that is echoed in the final piece, “Homage to Phillis Wheatly.” But arguably the most haunting piece is the second-to-last, “African Elegy.” It is within this section that tragic moments begin to pull at something indistinguishably familiar and weave a threnodic tone that is both unshakeable and somehow hopeful in its earnestness.

For the Confederate Dead by Kevin Young
Knopf
ISBN: 0307264351
176 pages