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):

Linda McCarriston, Eva-Mary

EVA-MARY, Linda McCarriston. Tri-Quarterly Books, Northwestern University, 2020 Ridge Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208, 1991, 78 pages $10.95 paper.

A friend gave this book to me in 1993, the year my twins were born. I don’t know when I read it, though I know I eventually did. Since then—for most of the last thirty years—it has been shelved above my writing chair with a lot of other poetry books.

I meant to write about another poet today, and their 2023 book of poems, but for some reason this morning I took down Eva-Mary and opened it to the first poem, “The Apple Tree,” dedicated to the poet’s mother. “Oh, yes,” I thought. “I remember this book.”

I was misremembering it.

Yes to blossoms, yes to family kitchens, yes to horses, yes to Irish ballads. But also yes to women raped with rifle barrels, to incest, to judges ordering women home to abusive husbands, priests ordering bruised daughters, “Mind your father.” The time-line stretches into adulthood, into divorce and custody battles. Even so, Eva-Mary is beautifully wrought, the winner of the Terrence Des Pres Prize for Poetry, a finalist for the National Book Award, in its 3rd printing by the time it came to me. I read every page (as if I’d opened a dystopian novella, I couldn’t pry my eyes away), and even so I can’t seem to offer this review without a trigger warning.

One reads this book, from the second poem (“To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons”) onward knowing exactly what the subject matter is, so I’m not giving away the content. And, on the chance that one of my readers needs permission to write her or his own devastating truth, I am happy to recommend this book. McCarriston does it brilliantly. (You could take nothing away but the metaphors and be redeemed.)

I know that I read this book, by the way, because I can see the ways in which it influenced my own writing. Here is perhaps my favorite McCarriston poem in this collection:

A Thousand Genuflections

Winter mornings when I call her,
out of falling snow she trots
into view, her tail and mane
made flame by movement, carrying,
as line and motion, back into air
her shape and substance—like fire
into heat into light, turns
the candle takes, burning.
And her head—her senses,
every one a scout sent out
ahead of her, behind, beside:
Her eye upon me, over the distance,
her ear, its million listeners,
delicate and vast her nose, her mouth,
her voice upon me, closing the distance.
I could just put the buckets down
and go, but I kneel to hold them
as she eats, as she drinks, to be
this close. For something of myself
lives here, stripped of the knowing
that is not knowing, a single thing
from the least webbed tissues
of the heart straight out to the tips
of the guard hairs that shimmer off
beyond my sight into air, the grasses,
grain, the water, light.
I’ve come like this each day
for years across the hard winters,
seeing a figure for the thing itself,
divine—appetite and breath,
flesh and attention. This morning
her presence asks of me: And might
you be your body? Might we be
not the figure, but the thing itself?

—Linda McCarriston

Among these poems (not to mention among horses) there is also great power to bless and console.

I’ve now learned that McCarriston wrote on, winning many awards. She is professor emeritus at the Low-Residency Creative Writing Program, University of Alaska, Anchorage, and you can learn more about her at Poetry Foundation and on her page at UAA.

At Poetry Foundation, I found another horse poem that I am compelled to share:

W. S. Merwin, 1927-2019

GARDEN TIME, W. S. Merwin. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 98368, 2016, 78 pages, $16 paper,

When I was in the MFA program at the University of Washington, I helped to bring W. S. Merwin to read as part of our Watermark Series, and I was one of a handful of students to be granted a one-on-one tutorial with him. Born the same year as my father, he wore a logger’s hickory stripe shirt that day, and he had intense blue eyes, like my logger father. I could hardly speak, I was so in awe of him.

I stumbled across this book recently while browsing a small bookstore, and, surprised I hadn’t seen it when it was first published, I grabbed it up. Garden Time, which is time outside of our usual everyday time, is a perfect title. Merwin wrote it—dictating the poems to his wife, Paula—when he was losing his eyesight. Among the 62 short, contemplative poems I could pick out any number of “favorites.” It’s hard not to choose “Pianist in the Dark,” which opens with these lines: “The music is not in the keys / it has never been seen / the notes set out to find / each other / listening for their way.” And these notes:

Rain at Daybreak

One at a time the drops find their own leaves
then others follow as the story spreads
they arrive unseen among the waking doves
who answer from the sleep of the valley
there is no other voice or other time

—W. S. Merwin

An Irish Times reviewer described the poems as “graceful, often stunning,” and, “Focused brilliantly on what we see and how we are seen.” I couldn’t agree more.

Not Early or Late

Is it I who have come to this age
or is it the age that has come to me
which one has brought along all these
silent images on their shadowy river
appearing and going away as the river does
all without a word though they all know me
I can see that they always knew where to find me
bringing me what they know I will recognize
what they know only I will recognize
to show me what I could not have seen before
then leave me to make sense of my own questions
going away making no promises

—W. S. Merwin

Merwin was elected U. S. Poet Laureate in 2010, and was the recipient of two Pulitzers for Poetry as well as many other awards over his long life of writing. Here’s the book page at Copper Canyon, and you can learn much more about his spiritual practices, and gardening practices in this profile at Poetry Foundation.

Maggie Smith, Goldenrod

GOLDENROD: POEMS, Maggie Smith. One Signal Publishers / Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 2021, 116 pages, $20 hardcover.

I discovered Maggie Smith through her poetry, so I was surprised when a friend recommended the audio of Smith’s new memoir, You Could Make this Place Beautiful; and, when another friend—hearing that I was writing a blogpost—said, “Maggie Smith, the memoirist?”

Yes, as I’m finding out, but she’s also an award-winning, acclaimed poet.

This month, I have found myself categorizing my favorite poets into groups:

1. The sort of poet who makes me want to hang up my writing cape.

2. The sort of poet whose poems I wish I had written.

3. The sort of poet who makes me race to my desk and begin writing a poem.

Smith is in the last category. She writes about children, about relationships, about living in Ohio (in the U. S., on earth), about aging (though she’s only 46!), and about animals (see “During Lockdown, I Let the Dog Sleep in My Bed Again”). Always with a light, deft touch, always laced with humor, if also regret. So human.

So this morning I wrote one of her poems into my journal, then listed five possible poems I might write. You can join me, your assignment: to write a poem revealing the underside of a clichéd expression.

In the Grand Scheme of Things

It sounds like someone wound up the wrens
and let them go, let them chatter across your lawn

like cheap toys, and from here an airplane
seems to fly only from one tree to another, barely

chalking a line between them. We say the naked eye
as if the eye could be clothed, as if it isn’t the world

that refuses to undress unless we turn our backs.
It shows us what it chooses, nothing more,

and it’s not waxing pastoral. There is too much
now at stake. The skeletal rattle you hear

at the window could be only the hellion roses
in the wind, their thorns etching the glass,

but it could be bones. The country we call ours
isn’t, and it’s full of them. Every year you dig

that goddamn rose bush from the bed, spoon it
from soil like a tumor, and every year it grows back

thick and wild. We say in the grand scheme of things
as if there were one. We say that’s not how

the world works as if the world works.

—Maggie Smith

If only I could make it look so simple.

And, by the way, Maggie Smith is an award-winning, brilliant memoirist as well as a poet. Read more at, and all over the place.