Taming Grief

On poems by Kevin Young


The poems by Kevin Young printed here make a compact daybook of grief. They recall the death of a father and the coming to terms with such a loss by finding language for it. The backdrop is chilly, wintery spring—the in-between time before renewal, when an ending doesn’t end but goes on circling the poet like those stray dogs, hungry and untamed, that represent “Sorrow” in the poem of that name. Part of the power of this new work comes from Young’s having written about his father’s death before. But these poems take a new approach, darker and more direct than the elegies for his father that appeared in his book Dear Darkness. It may not be right to call these new poems elegies at all, because their concern is not with the dead but with the living and what it is like to be left behind with death.

Young is the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory. He is also the curator of that university’s Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, one of the world’s major archives of modern and contemporary poetry. Fascinated by the blues, jazz, and oral storytelling, he is a prolific editor and an eloquent commentator on African-American art and culture. His seven books of poetry have shifted in their focus between public and private subjects, African-American history and family chronicles. But that division is probably misleading. The intimacies of personal relationship, solidarity, longing, and loss are the emotional center of Young’s public poems—as they are in Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, his multivoiced, operalike poetic sequence about the 19th-century slave revolt led by Joseph Cinque. Conversely, culture and tradition shape the personal experience of family life in his poems. In “Wintering,” Young explores a sense of collective identity handed down from one generation to the next. In his mourning, he wishes not to die, but to walk among the dead, whom he pictures as “the throng singing.” Or he might be satisfied simply to share in the permanent “gnawing,” a familiar, familial condition of unfulfilled desire, which may be all that is left after this life. Because it is by its nature shared, grief promises to warm him like the heirloom quilt made by his grandmother. Its weight is both a burden and a comfort at the foot of his own “marriage bed.”

Young likes short lines of uneven lengths set down in rough-edged, two- or three-line stanzas. His voice skips and hesitates as he picks his way among the little silences created by those enjambments. Now and then, rhyme pops up like a chance insight. He seems to be searching for a place of balance and repose, but also resisting it and the finality it would represent. The homely image his eye snags on at last in “Pity”—the pool filter “sucking // its lower lip & teeth / like a child trying // hard not to weep”—expresses his own grief, which he holds onto and yet also holds in throughout these poems.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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