Kevin Young, Brown

BROWN: POEMS, Kevin Young. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018,

Luis Alberto Urrea did such a fine job capturing this book in his 2018 New York Times review, that…well…why should I even try?

Kevin Young’s necessary new book of witness creates a parade through time, and I love a parade. Especially one with such good music — the poems in “Brown” dance through bebop and into James Brown’s megafunk. Marching players include B. B. King and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Sitting on that float decorated with bombed churches and flogged backs, baseball bats and basketballs, Fishbone records and railroad tracks, are Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf playing dusty blues for Big Pun. The parade is coming all night, blowing up dust in the crossroads, churning with music, mad for music, swearing “I Would Die 4 U,” grinning just a little so the initiated will feel the love burning like Jimi’s guitar at Monterey. Scrappy kids dive into public pools and hit line drives with broken bats. Every line of “Brown” is aware that this storm must scare the hell out of people who have locked their doors and kneel before Fox News Channel asking God what went wrong. —Luis Alberto Urrea

Yes, yes, yes. All that, and more. 161 pages of sparkling, pure Kevin-Young vernacular. A delight to read aloud.

Kevin Young is current editor of The New Yorker (to which I proudly subscribe), and recipient of so many awards (see his page at Poetry Foundation for the particulars).

Here’s a poem, which, trust me, is only a tiny sample of what’s possible in this book:

James Brown at B. B. King’s on New Year’s Eve

The one thing that can solve most
our problems is dancing.
And sweat,
cold or not. And burnt ends
of ribs, or reason, of hair
singed & singing. The hot comb’s
caress. Days after
he dies, I see James Brown still
scheduled to play B. B. King’s
come New Year’s Eve—ringing
it in, us, falling to the floor
like the famous glittering midnight
ball drop, countdown, forehead full
of sweat, please, please,
please, please,
on his knees. The night
King was killed, shot
by the Memphis moan in a town
where B. B. King sang, Saint
James in Boston tells
the crowd: cool it. A riot
onstage, heartache
rehearsed, practiced, don’t dare
be late or miss a note
or you’ll find yourself fined
fifty bucks. A fortune. Even
the walls sweat. A God-
father’s confirmation suit,
his holler, wide-collared, grits
& greens. Encore. Exhausted
after, collapsed, carried
out, away, off—not on a gurney,
no bedsheet over
his bouffant, conk
shining, but, boots on,
in a cape glittering bright
as midnight, or its train.

—Kevin Young

In his review, Urrea also says,

Did I say this was a political screed? A radical’s blurt of invective? Forget it. The Rev. Kevin Young has opened the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Lamentations, and he is here to pray.

It’s an urgent, necessary poetry, a poetry of witness, as Urrea says, contemporary American letters at its best, a perfect book to wrap up my 30 days of blogging for National Poetry Month.

You can listen to any of numerous podcasts, listed at Young’s website. This one, at the Slowdown with Ada Limón, shows another side of Young’s obsessions (start at 1:09 to skip the ad; Young’s “Egrets” begins at 4:30):

Monica Sok, A Nail the Evening Hangs On

A NAIL THE EVENING HANGS ON, Monica Sok. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 2020, 64 pages, $16 paper,

You know those poems you write into your commonplace book or send to friends when they go through a hard time? The poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On are not those poems.

“A daughter of survivors” (“Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions”), Monica Sok acts as witness for the Cambodian diaspora. Although she was born in 1990, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and now teaches in California, Sok’s relationship to America feels tenuous, on trial, as she retells, re-imagines, and brings to vivid life the 1970s genocide previous Cambodian generations escaped, and the trauma they brought with them and handed down.

Words such as “unflinching,” “powerful,” and “loss” abound in the reviews. From the cover:

“Embracing collective memory, both real and imagined, these poems traverse time to break familial silence. Through persona, myth, and invention, Sok joins voices and fragments in a transformative work that builds toward wholeness.”

The book is arranged in three sections: the first section is set in Cambodia; the third in the poet’s contemporary life (riddled by memory); the second section is one poem in parts about a visit with a six-year-old to a war museum, Tuol Sleng:

A boy runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,
his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.
He checks every classroom for the other kids.
He sits in a chair and waits. When I walk in,
he whispers, ghost.

In short, these poems struck me as both haunted and necessary. By the time I reached the final poem, “Here Is Your Name,” I, too, felt transformed by the poet’s memory, by her powerful witness of war’s legacy.


The fishermen, desperate, poisoned them with a cloudy gasoline
so they dropped like apples to the ground underneath a tree.

Except these were birds out of water, the conservationist said.
Sarus cranes, their long legs still wet, were sold for $200 each

at the border market, where Thais bought them and turned around.
After the war, that was how the local villagers made money.

The cranes, near extinction, migrated to waters near a Khmer Rouge holding,
where no one dared go, not that a mandate said keep out, no sign written

in blood. They rationed their food, knowing the pendulum of war
could swing anytime, and they’d need something to eat before evacuating.

They were sure it wasn’t over. Invisible the egrets and ibises, invisible
the forests of the eastern border to the one they shared with Laos.

This is why the wind blows a drought hard across the land, tonnage of life
destroyed in the invisible, invisible land.

—Monica Sok

So there is beauty in this book, but it breaks your heart.

To find more poems by Monica Sok, visit her webpage:, or The Poetry Foundation.

In the Hour of War: Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry

Despite my best intentions, I am not going to get a book of poems read today. A few days, ago, however, I came across this review, at, of a new anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry, edited by Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky. The review is well worth reading, and the book? One more I am going to have to buy.

Colleen McElroy, Blood Memory

BLOOD MEMORY, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260, 2016, 112 pages, $15.95 paper,

I met Professor Colleen J. McElroy when I was a newly minted MFA student at the University of Washington in 1985. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “storyteller.” Yes, she taught us (a lot) about poetry and the making of poems, but part of the glamor of her classes, for me, was when she would lean back in her chair, half-close her eyes, and begin telling a story. She put all of us in a trance.

The stories were about her travels—which were many; about poets she’d met and read with all over the world; about her St. Louis childhood; about her family, particularly the women who taught her how to tell stories. Reading Blood Memory transports me back to her classrooms, and to her office where, as my faculty advisor, she met with me (and regaled me) weekly. I read these poems, and I hear her voice, its cadence, its rich timbre, her laughter. And, sometimes, I can see her, fixing me with a look that she must have learned at the feet of the indomitable women who peopled her childhood.

from “Paint Me Visible”:

in a family of beautiful intelligent and profoundly
crazy women     one danced in the dark
to soothe her nerves      another wove shawls
from her husband’s hair and discarded both
when the work was done      another read palms
tea leaves   cards   anything that left an imprint
on her inner eye    neighbors said she saw
things nobody else could describe

From hopscotch rhymes to blues, through birth, abortion, estrangement, exile, and return no one can describe this world the way McElroy can. Here is the book’s opening poem:

The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the questions
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now lived again through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of the metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

—Colleen J. McElroy

From the back cover, these words of description and praise:

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Cloudy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn’t know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.” —Nikki Finney

Exactly so.

To read more about Colleen J. McElroy, find her at The Poetry Foundation,, and I recommend this interview with Bill Kenower of author Here she talks about where she learned to tell stories. And (love this) she talks about poetry as not just any relationship, “but an affair.” Maybe that helps explain the clotted love that breaks to the surface in poem after poem in this book.

I first read Blood Memory when it was released in 2016. It was a delight to read it this morning and enter the trance again.