Kevin Young is not a musician. The 40-year-old poet, Emory professor, and rare book curator has no recordings for sale. He strums no strings, blows no horn, sings no tune. Still, music starts playing in your head when you crack the spine to Jelly Roll: A Blues, Young's 2003 National Book Award-finalist poetry collection. The sounds you hear in poems such as "Gutbucket" or "Muzak" or "Honky Tonk" are the work of words, not instruments; of language two-stepping with form across the dance floor of a page. Like poets John Berryman or Amiri Baraka before him, Young takes vernacular and musical idioms to their poetic limits. He plays the blues or gospel or jazz as a metaphor, as a way to get at the meaning of his words.
His latest book, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, turns to a moment in American history when the origins of blues, jazz and gospel were taking shape. Ardency tells the 19th-century story of the Africans who mutinied the slave ship Amistad, were captured, imprisoned and eventually released back to West Africa in 1842 after a landmark Supreme Court case. Young has crafted an American epic in Ardency, one that captures the horror of slavery without ignoring the beauty and strength of those who fought and survived it. There is also his own history in this book — a young poet finding his voice through the traditions, stories and songs that came before him.
Broken into three sections and an afterword, Ardency recounts the Amistad story through a patchwork of voices: translations of an interpreter; the rebels' letters from jail; the songs of a choir; and, most significantly, a libretto intoned by the rebellion's leader Cinque.
Ardency might be called operatic since a libretto anchors the book. Gospel music also comes to mind amid the choir's recurring spirituals. Young, though, has a comparison of his own. "It's like my Basement Tapes," he says in an offhand reference to the much-fabled Americana recordings of Bob Dylan and the Band.
Young might be referring to the fact that Ardency wasn't necessarily a project he meant to publish. He started work on the book 20 years ago, while a student at Harvard and a member of the Dark Room Collective, which also included now-acclaimed poets Natasha Trethewey and Major Jackson. The manuscript has followed him since, through a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, years teaching at UGA and Indiana University, and eventually to Emory University, where he's now a professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. Despite his prolific output over the last two decades — Young has published six collections of poems and edited five others — he says, "I knew pretty early that I didn't want to rush it. It was the kind of thing that I would show to some people, but it was largely a personal project. I thought maybe it would just end up in a drawer somewhere."
Young discovered the story of the Amistad through the rebels' letters, which were written shortly after they learned English and while they were still imprisoned. "[The letters] struck me almost as poems in waiting," he says. "They seemed like terrific writers writing in a new language about a world they didn't really know but understood all too well. I thought that was really powerful — that tension between what they were saying and what they weren't saying."
Ardency's short second section, titled with the pun "Correspondance," is a sequence of poems drawn from those letters. In "Correspondance," Young adapts the letters' tone and unexpected phrases into verse that is just as recognizably his own. In "New Haven," Young borrows the run-on syntax of mutineer Kinna's letter to President John Quincy Adams to create a sense of urgency, "We want you to tell the court that Mendi people no want to go back to New Havana, we no want to be killed. Dear Friend you tell our Judges let us free."
Young makes Cinque's perspective the focus of Ardency. "I wanted to understand what it must have been like to be a rice planter one minute and be leading a mutiny the next, the sort of horror that preceded and followed that," he said. "I was young when I started this book, but so was he when he had this rebellion."
Cinque's libretto, the book's third and largest section, begins with a recollection of his life and capture in Sierra Leone, follows the tumultuous events of the Amistad, and ends with his return to West Africa. The epic cycle of events is relayed through spirituals and hollers, lonely confessions, reading lessons, a minstrel show and the periodic songs of a choir. "Homily" asserts the strength and longing needed for survival, "All night we sang/not of Death,– the cut/down tree – but of that/fruit you call free." Digressions linger on poetic miscommunications, as in "Lawd's Prayer," which reads in part, "Lead us not/into this nation/but deliver us from/weevils," and the uncomfortable balance of bawdy humor and sadness that Young crucially understands as integral to the blues.
Dylan's Basement Tapes plumbed the origins of rock music and American history, trying to better understand how folk traditions shaped the culture of the '60s. When Ardency's poems point at the horror and absurdity of the slave trade, they're also identifying the origins of the blues forms that continue to shape Young's work today. It's this conversation — or "correspondance" — between Young's voice and the voices of the rebels, between the spirituals and the words that take their tune, that makes Ardency a powerful and important book.
Ardency by Kevin Young. Knopf. $27.95. 256 pp.