Topeka-raised poet’s latest collection channels the blues

Kevin Young’s latest work, “Blue Laws,” includes selections from his 10 books of poetry.
Kevin Young’s latest work, “Blue Laws,” includes selections from his 10 books of poetry.

Poets are not always rock stars like Bob Dylan, but Kevin Young is indeed another gifted musician and poet.

The National Book Awards recognized his latest book, “Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1995-2015,” on its long list for the national prize, and he has won many other awards.

Raised in Topeka and educated at Harvard and Brown universities, Young is a brilliant poet, essayist, spoken word performer, professor and editor. This month, he will begin work as director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

This member of the legendary Dark Room Collective of Cambridge, Mass., centers his verse on African-American arts, especially the blues.

The 600 pages include selections from the poet’s 10 books. A generous portion of one, “Jelly Roll: A Blues” (2003), shows Young’s use of music as structure and theme.

The title is a direct reference to pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who was the first person to write and arrange jazz. Young prefaces this book section with “(composed and arranged by) Kevin Young,” emphasizing the musicality of the project. Titles are “Ragtime,” “Dixieland,” “Cakewalk” and “Early Blues,” which is a two-line poem: “Once I ordered a pair of shoes / But they never came.” This pokes fun at the typical sadness of the blues as well as its brevity.

Humor is a welcome companion in the poems.

The next section, “Chamber Music,” is “Jelly Roll Outtakes 1999-2004,” which gives readers a chance to see what verse did not fit with the original book.

The title poem goes through the instruments of a chamber music group, from “Woodwind” to “Rhythm Section.” These are sumptuous love bits, like “Fiddle,” a brief four lines, “Like a violin you leave / The sweetest / Bruise just beneath / My chin.” Short lines keep all the poems in this section moving at an upbeat tempo.

The book’s title, “Blue Laws,” refers to “laws that restrict behavior on the Sabbath,” writes Young, and also blues music. Unpublished poems that are outtakes from the book “Dear Darkness” (2008) are also titled “Blue Laws.” Among them are “Dead Daddy Blues,” which ends, “Old grief can’t protect you / New sorrow / sails your way / Lately it stays evening / almost all day.” The exaggeration of the pitiful narrator in the final image almost lifts the poem into a brighter key.

The elegiac quality of the blues bleeds into most of the poet’s work. Several books celebrate a pained history, like “For the Confederate Dead” and “Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels,” about African slave mutineers who survived two months of prison to win freedom in 1841.

Some of the most effective poems are about Young’s personal grief — his father’s death — in “Book of Hours” (2014). The poem “Rue” explains the ongoing process of loss, “Strange how you keep on / dying — not once / then over / & done with.” In “Wintering,” grief is “the long betrothal / beyond. Grief what / we wed.”

“Blue Laws” is a companion to Young’s book of essays, “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Together these two volumes are essential reading about American experience from Colonial times to the present. In poetry and prose, they celebrate cross pollination of music and written verse. They grieve slavery and renew the sustenance of voice.

Denise Low’s recent memoir, “The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival,” is from the University of Nebraska Press.

“Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015,” by Kevin Young (608 pages; Knopf; $30)