Music, Memory, and Black Bodies: Kevin Young’s Brilliant Variations on the Blues

“Blues are not poetry,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1927, ventriloquizing his critics among journalists of the time. He meant, it seems, the opposite, and he wasted no time straightening the record. “Those who have made a more thorough study of Negro folk verse than I and who are authorities in this field” — he’s referring, for one, to James Weldon Johnson — “say that many Blues are excellent poetry.”

Blue Laws, Kevin Young’s enormous new book of poems, selected and collected from a remarkably consistent and prodigious 20-year period, feels like an extract from a lost American hymnal, one that contains all heaven’s news, good or bad. This is fitting, too, because its title refers, as the preface explains, “to the traditional, often unenforced laws that restrict behavior on the Sabbath” — you can’t buy liquor in Bloomington, Indiana, on a Sunday. And it will be obvious to any longtime admirer of Young’s that this title also alludes to the blues.

Blues is of course a music and form, and, to be sure, Young’s output is marked by an almost perpetual framing of poetry by musical forms — touched or reshaped by blues. There are psalms here, wedding songs, anthems, hymns. His second book, To Repel Ghosts, which transforms the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat into an ars rhythmica, was later “remixed” by Young in 2005. Jelly Roll: A Blues, a National Book Award nominee in 2003, one of several unimpeachably great books by Young, is a poetic proof of the limitless emotional range of blues music and its embeddedness in the American imaginarium. The underrated Black Maria could likewise be described as a film noir set to the musical score of Young’s poetic idiom.

None of this would matter if Young was not one of our preeminent poets of musical language. Each poem in this collection is marked by his singular yet adaptable rhythms, from earlier poems like “Visiting Home,” a polyvocal poem of family life that is both comedic and tragic, to work from his most recent Book of Hours (2014):

Welcome
the moon’s squinting

into space.
The trees

bow like priests

The storm lifts
up the leaves.

Why not sing.

Reading Blue Laws, one begins to wonder whether, in American poetry, so much emotional and thematic variability is registered anywhere else with such short lines — lines that seem to have been first cooked in To Repel Ghosts and later brought to the table in Jelly Roll (and every other book). Here even short poems  with short lines are unforgettable. “Early Blues” (alongside Ammons’ “Their Sex Life”) makes me believe that all tiny poems are about failure or sadness or lament. Or blues.

But blues, Young makes clear, not only in his poetry but also in his critical writing, is about failure. It is, he writes in the indispensable Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, “a recognizing of and reckoning with existence, however tragic, even (or especially) in its failings.” And in his penetrating writing on John Berryman — which can be read alongside Toni Morrison’s own thoughts on literary failure — he makes it clear that failure is a centerpiece of his poetics:

I have long been interested in poems that may be called “successful failures”— those overreaching, underplanned, ill-conceived messy delights that do not enact a perfect marbleized form (nor wish to) but nevertheless delight with their sense of surprise, of sound—their personality. They are poems you’ll sit and listen to awhile, their stories too wild to ignore; or maybe you’ll dial them up: long poems are nothing if not loyal.

Failure for Young is generative, many-faced, and often tragic. It spreads out to include personal loss and grief, as in Dear Darkness and Book of Hours, as well as the irrepressible need to recover what has been erased or ransacked from black history and literature and art. For the Confederate Dead (2007), Homage to Phillis Wheatley (written from 1998-2011), and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (written over twenty years, published in 2011), in this way, are acts of what Young — following Toni Morrison’s Beloved — calls rememory. “Such a process, the willed recovery of what’s been lost, often forcibly,” Young writes in The Grey Album, “I suppose is what keeps me going.”

Memory or rememory is tragically, too, written on the body, and Young’s archival will is deeply attuned to the arrangement and violation of black bodies, and even the way the threat of violence arranges life and memory. From “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” the opening poem from Homage to Phillis Wheatley:

At your back dusk.
At your back stars
and this abiding sense
of what you would since

call God. The auction
block, the boat that rocked
and renamed you Phillis
your young back the driver’s lash

(maybe) managed not to meet.

In Blue LawsYoung seems to counterpose the deep music of his language to the brutal regulation of black life: he reminds us that music can be a way of moving bodies against the grain of the law. This is to say that there is spectacle here and resistance. Or as Young writes in “Langston Hughes”: there is “all heaven’s news.” Blues are poetry, yes — feeling and sound — made blue.