Kevin Young’s poetic line is generally on the concise side, generating a pithy, earthy, evocative quality that hovers somewhere between the haiku-like jazziness of Robert Creeley and the delta blues of Son House or Skip James.
Book of Hours, by Kevin Young. Knopf, 208 pages, $26.95.
By Matt Hanson
Kevin Young’s ninth book takes its title from a religious devotional that dates back to the Middle Ages. Often containing illuminated plates, a book of hours often consisted of a litany of saints, a calendar of holy dates, psalms, and prayers for the dead. Its usefulness lies in the power of recitation and repetition, the passage of thought (and words) into spirit. The poems that make up Book of Hours were written and revisited ten years after the death of Young’s father in a hunting accident. It’s fitting that his secular devotional should begin on a note of bereavement rather than transcendence. Young’s style has always been about riding on the blue notes, turning anguish into beauty though the use of terse yet lyrical poetic diction.
Throughout his career, especially in his excellent earlier books To Repel Ghosts and Jelly Roll, Young has been a master of the miniature. His poetic line is generally on the concise side, generating a pithy, earthy, evocative quality that hovers somewhere between the haiku-like jazziness of Robert Creeley and the delta blues of Son House or Skip James. Young can hit very hard with only a couple of sentences. Here is a poem, early on in Book of Hours, entitled “Grief”: “In the night I brush/ my teeth with a razor.” Instantly, a complicated, deeply private experience is laid bare. I also love the devastating simplicity of “Elegy”: “The cemetery bench/ Still warm.” These are the two shortest poems in the book, by far, but it takes a lot of courage to attempt writing something so deceptively plain.
Young’s reveries gain resonance and an oblique power through their sparseness, as if you were hearing music through the wall of an adjacent room. One poem concludes with the so-true-it-hurts admission that “Not the storm/ but the calm// that slays me.” Young suggests that it isn’t memory that causes the largest amount of pain. The risk of forgetting presents the biggest and most agonizing challenge. One of his most moving and heartfelt poems in the book’s elegiac cycle refers to his father’s dogs, who are still living in a beautiful kennel he built for them: “Their grief is colossal// & forgetful.//Each day they wake/ seeking his voice,// their names,/By dusk they seem/ to unremember everything-.” If memory is about preservation of the past and therefore ultimately about a certain kind of survival, then forgetting means to fight off oblivion. This emptiness is the very thing the poet, like any mourner, is quietly struggling to keep at bay: “At night I count/ not the stars/ but the dark.”
Book of Hours then takes a redemptive turn, progressing through what philosopher Jacques Derrida once called “the work of mourning” into literal and metaphorical rebirth. Young brings the reader through a cycle of poems that traces the path from loss and confusion into the joys of parenthood. It ain’t easy, of course, but nothing truly worth doing ever is. One thing Young does extremely well in Book of Hours is to create the sense of a narrative through a series of moments and images spread out over time. The book is structured chronologically, but it’s the chronology of the unconscious, of the poet’s inner dialogue. After a miscarriage and the subsequent disappointment and hesitance, the reader feels it’s about time to see things take a turn for the better.
Luckily, they do. We share in the poet’s delight in the beginning of a new pregnancy, his seeing an ultrasound image of his son and then hearing the first beats of the child’s heart. It’s an excitement that any parent can understand and Young finds a wonderful metaphor for it: “You are like hearing hip-hop for the first time- power// hijacked from a lamppost- all promise.” Music has been an essential touchstone in Young’s writing throughout his career. (He meditated with amazing depth and detail about just about every genre under the sun in his magnificent critical work The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness.) In terms of his poetics, Young’s use of music isn’t just about rhythm and timbre, though that’s certainly a part of it. It’s also about locating his poetic subjects within a larger cultural trajectory. His lyricism is all the richer because it draws on eclectic sources. Phrases and titles and images begin to repeat themselves throughout the text like leitmotifs or sampled loops. Young’s poetry at its best illustrates what a musical poetics (or a poetics of music?) might start to look like.
A series of poems describe the lead-up to what impresses the reader to be a heroically long labor, until we get to the climactic moment of birth in “Crowning”: “she squeezing my hand, her face/ full of fire. Then groaning your face/ out like a flower, blood-bloom, crocused into air.” I’ve read those lines several times now and I still can’t get enough of that image. After this apotheosis, the poems express the relief and satisfactions, as well as the anxieties, of new parenthood. The baby boy is named after his grandfather, bringing the process full circle, poet bluntly stating that “a father‘s love/ is not milk-/but blood.”
The last section of the book, eponymously titled “Book of Hours,” is a lengthy and complex series of poems reconciling the loss of a father with the arrival of a son. The poet works through the complexities of how the world looks after having gone through a tumultuous period of change. And he comes down on the side of hard-won affirmation: “Damn the dark./ Keep me company// till morning./then leave me// with only the light!// Let night rain/ its names over me.” The final words of this poem end the book: “Why not sing.” Notice the lack of a question mark here. The poet doesn’t need to ask why he needs to sing—the act itself is redemptive in and of itself.
Elizabeth Bishop was surely right when she said that the art of losing isn’t hard to master. It’s pretty much a given that one’s life is made up of moments of relinquishment in some form or another; be it a set of car keys, a lover, or a member of your family, all things must pass (George Harrison, on a somewhat different note, knew this pretty well too). The longer you live, the more you must come to terms with the fact that time is the least of what you’re bound to lose. Book of Hours, thankfully, is one of the rare books that not only delves into loss but also successfully resurfaces to remind you of the beauty and the power of what remains.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.