By this point in his career Kevin Young is an old hand at the psychic restoration of outside source material. His books, including Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Black Maria, have each found something lyrical in the dry air of various historical and cultural archives while maintaining a crucial link to his own personal experience and sense of family. This is key to the work in Ardency because it’s his least personal book so far, but in many ways that allows him to approach those same emotions within the book’s historical characters from a more objective stance. Kevin Young rehydrates history with the often impenetrable abstract motivations of humanity, those emotions both feral and civil that run through us all.
Those human characters, and their voices, are the cornerstone of Ardency. This epic embodies in verse their experience as men, boys, and girls kidnapped from the paths winding through their home country of Sierra Leone, illegally (as opposed to amorally) sold into slavery in Cuba, who then rebelled on their ship and attempted to sail east to Africa only to find that they were being misdirected towards New York at night, where they were tried, and with the intervention of abolitionists and a president, set free. But that’s all the testable material.
For everything past the introduction, Kevin is filling in the cracks and doing so with warmth, music, and brevity (only a handful poems last longer than a page). Headlines, locations, and names are bandied about to serve the poem and its multi-dimensional enterprise:
__________________The whole country flocks
to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting
the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds
for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail
go well:—They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars
in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares
how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.
The language is somersetting around itself, becoming the textual embodiment of the circus while we read aghast as twenty-first century ignoramuses of this experience. We read “black headlines blare” and trip over the subtext but it’s all part of the spectacle that the poem reenacts so concisely. Reenactment is a fair approximation of what this poetry accomplishes, as something beyond reportage but free of the budgetary and chronological constraints of cinema but fully immersed in the drama of experience. From “Testimony”:
You call us rebels____we were spoons
in that ship for so long____the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song____sold on land
like ships____like us____christened
out of water
This is the type of historical document that should be read, taught, and discussed from classrooms K through Ph.D. Kevin is so clearly integrated with the tools of poetry that even first time readers can sense the distance it keeps from fiction, what is conveyed through an image of men spooned together at the bottom of the ship as literal cargo surpasses statistical analysis. This book comes closest to the actual experience on the Amistad, and more importantly, afterwards.
The strength of the first two sections is such that the third, “Witness”, initially left me gasping in their wake. “Witness” is the majority of the book and is definitively elegant. But where “Buzzard” and “Correspondance” teem with character, setting, and energy, “Witness” gives a slight advantage to quantity over quality.
I frequently found myself wondering if I’d read this poem or that poem earlier in the manuscript, wondering where the fervor went. No single poem is bad, each carries the same weight, but by the end that weight begins to feel repetitive. “Witness” pulls down on the eyes and the mind. Which might not be a terrible thing: it’s easy to breeze through some poems about the hardships undergone by these rebels, get a sense of their misfortune, then throw a movie on or step out for some falafel. Elements of song are interspersed with the single eyewitness account of Cinque, leader of the rebellion. But it’s hard to determine Cinque’s character, especially after the captivating montage of the first two sections.
did I know
then, learned it
and silent and covered
even the trees.
Inside my cell
There neither do lions
speak, nor preach
till the sand beneath
the sea shifts
till the waves
erase the names.
By the time we hear this poem Cinque feels less like a man and more like an amalgamation of suffering, endurance, and trial. Job is the easy comparison, which may be why these poems initially felt so thin to me. But upon second consideration, “Witness” is more than just viewing. It makes the reader the witness, emotionally enduring the same tolls heaped upon Cinque and his fellow rebels. Names are erased, everything is left cold and silent, the mere adoption of the language and religion of the West is enough to obliterate these rebels. Which is sort of how I felt after reading this section, a sense of obliteration, exhaustion, but a need to carry on.
The themes of cold and snow, this new world Merica, and home bounce around “Witness” in constant rotation. This mimics the thought of a captive, someone kidnapped from their home and forced through horrific ideals, someone who has to find something to hold onto mentally in order to maintain some level of sanity. A 240-page historical epic poem already carries the potential for exhaustion, but perhaps this last section is meant to be more meditative. Like overwhelming the trees with silence, or the tides that erase the names of the dead, the trauma of witness can overwhelm the human psyche, and perhaps this is the feeling I approach when reading through the section.
Despite my first impression, the impact of “Witness” has caused me to more deeply ponder the effects of this history on Kevin Young and the readers of Ardency. I may not have felt as much throughout reading it, but I can hardly flip to a page without finding the nuance and pace of the first two sections working in a similar way, albeit one that must simmer. While I still feel that those poems of “Witness” don’t quite shine as individually as the ones of the first two sections (and the final “Afterword”), the bulk of its reading is subliminally affective, which may be closer to the truth of these rebel’s experiences than any proclamation.
Ultimately, Ardency is a poised, fantastic collection that I can’t wait to share with my students. In terms of documentary poetics and its potential, this book is quite fitting as another feather in Kevin Young’s cap.