Kevin Young was a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1992-2003, but there’s another Kevin Young you might want to get to know. He’s a poet from Nebraska and his poetry has been called “compulsively readable” by the New York Times Book Review. He writes about subjects and figures from American history, ranging from the Civil War to Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I’d have to agree. Although he’s most famous for his National Book Award-nominated collection of poems about jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton (called Jelly Roll), I’ve only read his most recent book, Ardency: A chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, published last year. I’d heard about it through the Adult Books 4 Teens blog from School Library Journal online, and felt like it was time to read some more poetry.
Ardency is an interpretation of a real event:
“In the summer of 1839, fifty-three Africans illegally sold in Havana mutinied on the schooner Amistad while being taken to Puerto Principe. The rebels, mostly men from the Mendi people of Sierra Leon, killed the captain and the cook but spared their masters to help steer toward the rising sun and Africa. For nearly two months, the would-be slaveowners rerouted by night until a navy brig captured the ship. …Authorities quickly threw the Africans in Connectiut jails while deciding either to return the men to their Spanish masters or award them as ‘salvage’ to the U.S. sailors.” (from the Preface)
Young takes on the voices of the Africans and imagines their thoughts, anger, and desire in four different sections. He starts with traditional poems, moves on to an imagined journal, then swerves into a libretto encompassing the whole group of Africans on Amistad, then ends with seven different monologues from a deathbed confession to a progress report, to a captain’s log. His language is lyrical and nimbly changes to fit the section and the speaker.
The poems in here cut to the heart of history and give you the immediacy of a primary source document with imagination and detail to take you even further into what it could have been like, as in the opening of “Broadway”:
At Broadway Tabernacle the abolitionists charge
half-dollar a head to view your Mendi zoo.
After the slideshow of Sierra Leone, they hold
spelling bees to show how far you’ve come.
I wish for a word I could become. If just one letter
would shift, worship turning warship . . . But little
Kale spells it right: —Bless-ed are the pure at heart.
The best part about the variety of Ardency is that you can pick a section and start there without reading the others, depending on your mood.
Happy poetry reading!
-Tessa, CLP – East Liberty