Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307264343, 216pp.
Publication Date: September 9, 2008
Las Vegas, Nashville, despair, the Midwest, “Bar-B-Q Heaven” and his family’s Louisiana home: these are the American places that Kevin Young visits in his powerful, heartfelt sixth book of poetry. Begun as a reflection on family and memory, Dear Darkness became a book of elegies after the sudden death of the poet’s father, a violent event that silenced Young with grief until he turned to rhapsodizing about the food that has sustained him and his Louisiana family for decades. Flavorful, yet filled with sadness, these stunningly original odes—to gumbo, hot sauce, crawfish, and even homemade wine—travel adeptly between slow-cooked tradition and a new direction, between everyday living and transcendent sorrow.
As in his prizewinning Jelly Roll, Young praises and grieves in one breath, paying homage to his significant clan—to “aunties” and “double cousins” and a great-grandfather’s grave in a segregated cemetery—even as he mourns. His blues expand to include a series of poems contemplating the deaths of Johnny Cash, country rocker Gram Parsons, and a host of family members lost in the past few years. Burnished by loss and a hard-won humor, he delivers poems that speak to our cultural griefs even as he buries his own. “Sadder than / a wedding dress / in a thrift store,” these are poems which grow out of hunger and pain but find a way to satisfy both; Young counts his losses and our blessings, knowing “inside / anything can sing.”
Kevin Young is the author of five previous collections of poetry and the editor of Library of America’s John Berryman: Selected Poems, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets
anthologies Blue Poems and Jazz Poems, and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. His book Jelly Roll was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and won the Paterson Poetry Prize. His most recent collection, For the Confederate Dead, won the 2007 Quill Award for poetry and the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, Young is currently the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Young is a fluid and bold interpreter of American culture and attitude, writing shrewd blues and droll lyrics that upend and undo catchphrases, familiar figures, and down home habits . . . Young reaches for myth but can’t resist wit, playing hilarious tribute to aunties and uncles, dealing in double entendres, capturing the topsy-turvy, otherworldly ambience of Las Vegas. And even while deeply mourning his father, he pulls a Neruda and writes funny, sly odes to the ordinary, focusing on food, metaphors for desire, the life force, and death’s endless consumption.” —Booklist
“[Young is] perhaps the most prominent African American poet of his generation . . . For all the humor, and all the autobiography, in this big book, Young digs deepest and sounds most powerful when he returns to the unlucky, unlovely, generalized personae of blues, who become in his hands at once a source of energy and a means for elegy.” —Publishers Weekly
“National Book Award finalist Young energizes the poems in his latest collection with subtle and not-so-subtle references to songs as well as to biblical passages . . . Ultimately, the collection effectively becomes an exercise in soul-searching even as it eulogizes Young’s father.” —Library Journal