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by Kevin Young
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 (cloth)
Kevin Young’s sixth collection showcases what has become his signature style: bluesy, short-lined couplets riddled with rhyme. The book’s first section, “Sweet Blood,” explores kin and those “called / kin so long you forget // who’s blood,” praising uncles and “aunties,” recalling childhood memories from Big Wheels to his first barbershop haircut. Young’s work often connects with the reader on the literal level immediately, with subsequent readings increasing the reader’s appreciation of the poems’ imagery, musicality, and wordplay. The book’s remaining sections feature a number of odes, and like fellow odist Pablo Neruda, Young finds no subject unworthy of consideration. From his father’s feet to kitchen grease, he praises the everyday with passion, humor, and thanks, often veering far from the original triggering subject by way of confident associative leaps. In “Ode to My Scars,” the speaker laments, “Soon I will be / simply / that skin darkening” and later imagines that skin “weep[ing] like kin / when parting— // the way brown rivers / after baptism / ripple, kiss themselves closed.” In the elegiac “Ode to Homemade Wine,” the brew that eases sorrow ultimately reminds the poet of his father’s death, an event central to the collection: “that rocker / I found after my father’s / funeral is like you—rickety / yet sturdy, you always / do the trick. You never / beg, nor borrow, save/ all the pain for tomorrow.” If the poems in Dear Darkness dramatize attempts to overcome pain and loss, they never suggest total healing or unwavering faith: “a lone seagull / wanders, walking // nowhere near water. / Who wants always // to be right? / Or alive? // Soon enough, / the sand // filling the mouth. / And—.” Young uses the dash almost as regularly as Dickinson; here it enacts perfectly the speaker’s ignorance of what follows, if anything, an interrupted life. This condition of unknowing connects us all and, as such, occasions empathy, a feeling Dear Darkness regularly provokes—and one perhaps able to soften, at least temporarily, thoughts of another condition we share: mortality.
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