Book Review: 'Brown'

Apr 30, 2018

Kevin Young

April is National Poetry Month. With one day left, there is still time to get in a final fix, and one need look no further than Kevin Young’s new collection Brown: Poems. From poems about Brown V. Board of Education to James Brown and John Brown, to the multitude of shades of brown skin, this volume fully illustrates Young’s special kind of genius.

Divided into two sections, “Home Recordings” focuses on a childhood spent in Topeka, while “Field Recordings” looks at life outside of Kansas.

Home Recordings, includes a tryptic “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” In the first section, “Western Meadowlark,” we get the landscape. One stanza reads:

“Land of silos,
missile & otherwise.
Land of squinting eyes,
milo and wheat,”

Into which:

“Strode tall John Brown.
in one hand a bible,
the other a rifle,
face more scowl than frown.

In the second section, “American Bison,” Young describes a school field trip to the State Capitol, seeing the fiery mural of John Brown, while in section three, “Sunflower,” Young reunites with childhood friends as they recall deceased parents while watching their own children.

The long title poem “Brown” is for Young’s mother, who took Kevin to church every Sunday. The minister, Rev. Brown, is the same one, as Young writes:

“who marched
 Into that principal’s office
 in Topeka to ask

Why can’t my daughter
 school here, just
 steps from our house—“

Young’s gift is his careful scrutiny into how personal experience shapes culture, and how cultural forces become very personal.