When Kevin Young’s father was killed in a hunting accident a decade ago, Young’s grief took the form of verse – a natural response for a young poet who, with eight collections of verse to his name, is already a significant presence in contemporary poetry.
Young’s latest collection, Book of Hours, begins with his father’s death but then moves – as has Young’s life – to the joy surrounding his own son’s birth.
Pairing death and birth in this collection “wasn’t exactly a decision,” Young explains in a phone interview. “It’s more trying to write about the life that I was living.” Life is full of passages, says Young. “Poetry marks them better than anything.”
In the early pages of “Book of Hours,” Young’s loss feels universal, engulfing his father’s dogs and neighbors. The dogs’ grief is “colossal/ & forgetful./ Each day they wake/ seeking his voice,/ their names./ By dusk they seem to unremember everything....”
Yet at night, Young imagines, “I expect they pace/ as I do....”
By day Young tends to details, such as collecting his father’s “errant dry cleaning.” The dry cleaner refuses his money as a woman at the store tells him “how funny” his father was, how he “joked with her weekly.”
But now the newly cleaned clothes must go to Goodwill “to live on another/ body/ & day.”
It is poetry, Young believes, that offers solace. “It’s not about looking away or pretending everything is okay, but of saying, ‘this is what it was like,’ ” says Young. Poetry is “the hand outheld or outstretched to help you make that journey back from the dark.”
“Book of Hours” moves on to chronicle the arrival of Young’s son. In a poem called “Expecting” he listens to the baby in the womb: “like hearing/ hip-hop for the first time – power/ hijacked from a lamppost – all promise./ You couldn’t sound better, break-/ dancer, my favorite song bumping/ from a passing car.” Young’s earlier poems now have fresh purpose: “My son [can] know something of my father.”
For Young, poetry is essential. “It tells us something about ourselves that nothing else can,” he says. He sees it as “an utterance of the place we live, the changes, the music that is possible in human existence.”
Young first encountered poetry at the age of 13. “I didn’t know any poets growing up in Kansas,” he says, but he liked “the language and [its] strangeness.” But it was as a young adult that he discovered that poetry was “something in my own backyard, something I could make out of dirt and air.”
Today, as a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Young helps other writers learn to shape raw elements into words. But for Young, writing is no mere intellectual exercise.
“Book of Hours” ends with the line: “Why not sing.” “I don’t want that to be a question,” explains Young. “It’s a kind of declaration of ... resilience, of survival, of joy” – and, just as emphatically, “of poetry’s place” in human life.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor books editor.