For the Confederate Dead

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In this passionate new collection, Kevin Young takes up a range of African American griefs and passages. He opens with the beautiful “Elegy for Miss Brooks,” invoking Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000, and who makes a perfect muse for the volume: “What the devil / are we without you?” he asks. “I tuck your voice, laced / tight, in these brown shoes.” In that spirit of intimate community, Young gives us a saucy ballad of Jim Crow, a poem about Lionel Hampton's last concert in Paris, an “African Elegy,” which addresses the tragic loss of a close friend in conjunction with the first anniversary of 9/11, and a series entitled “Americana,” in which we encounter a clutch of mythical southern towns, such as East Jesus (“The South knows ruin & likes it / thataway—the barns becoming / earth again, leaning in—”) and West Hell (“Sin, thy name is this / wait—this place— / a long ways from Here / to There”).

For the Confederate Dead finds Young, more than ever before, in a poetic space that is at once public and personal. In the marvelous “Guernica,” Young’s account of a journey through Spain blends with the news of an American lynching, prompting him to ask, “Precious South, / must I save you, / or myself?” In this surprising book, the poet manages to do a bit of both, embracing the contradictions of our “Confederate” legacy and the troubled nation where that legacy still lingers.

“Young reminds us that freedom has not been realized for everyone, but his vigorous and appealing voice encourages the hope that we may continue to understand and appreciate one another’s perspectives and dialects.”Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader

“Heartfelt bluntness . . . Rich with unfettered honesty . . . A confederation of losses, continuing Young’s exploration of African-American culture and history in musical form: Jazz and blues spoken here.” Katie Peterson, Chicago Tribune
© Maciek Jasik
KEVIN YOUNG is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He previously served as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Young is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including BrownBlue LawsSelected & Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015Book of Hours, winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Jelly RollA Blues, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry; Bunk, a New York Times Notable Book; and The Grey Album, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. The poetry editor of The New Yorker, Young is the editor of nine other volumes of poetry, most recently, the acclaimed anthology African American Poetry250 Years of Struggle & Song. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was named a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2020. He lives in Washington, DC. View titles by Kevin Young
TABERNACLE Since they shared the samemonogram, JimCrow & Jesusoften found themselvesgetting the other’s dress shirtsback from the wash.This was after Jimhad made it big& could afford suchsmall luxuries. He& Jesus mostly metSundays in churchwhere Jesus came for the singingbut stayed for the sermon& to see whether the preacherever got it right.Jim, you guessed it,came for the collection plate& after stayedfor the hotplates of the LadiesAuxiliary (no apostrophe).To onefolks prayed,the other they obeyed.FOR THE CONFEDERATE DEADI go with the team also. –WhitmanThese are the last daysmy television says. Tornadoes, morerain, overcast, a chanceof sun but I do nottrust weathermen,never have. In my fridge onlythe milk makes sense–expires. No one, much lessmy parents, can tell me whymy middle name is Lowell,and from my tableacross from the ConfederateMonument to the dead (that palefinger bone) a plaquedeclares war–not Civil,or Betweenthe States, but for SouthernIndependence. In this café, below sea- and eye-level a mural runsthe wall, flaking, a plantationscene most do not see–it’s too mucharound the knees, heighthof a child. In its fields Negroes bendto pick the endless white.In livery a few drive carriageslike slaves, whipping the horses, facesblank and peeling. The old hotellobby this once was no longerwelcomes guests–maroon ledger,bellboys gone butfor this. Like an inheritancethe owner found itstripping hundred years(at least) of paintand plaster. More leaves each day.In my movie there are nohorses, no heroes,only draftees fleeinginto the pines, some fewwho survive, gravelywounded, lyingburrowed beneath the dead–silent until the enemybayonets what is believedto be the lastof the breathing. It is getting later.We preparefor wars no longerthere. The weatherinevitable, unusual–more this time of yearthan anyone ever seed. The earthshudders, the air–if I did not knowbetter, I would thinkwe were living all alonga fault. How lateit has gotten . . .Forget the weathermanwhose maps move, blink,but stay crossedwith lines none has seen. Raceinstead against the almostrain, digging beside the monument(that giant anchor)till we strikewater, sweatfighting the sleepwalking air.POSTSCRIPTSThe world is a widow.Storms surround us, areasof low& high pressuremoving through–should be gone tomorrow.Rain from the skylike planes.We pull ourselves upfrom bedor death, wanderstreets like ghosts,lost guests.Everyone’s a townwith the shops shuttingdown, no hoursposted. Even the radiostays closed–only newsor fools stillbelieving love.Traffic that won’t move.In the crossing, a white hearsehanging a left.I want to be that womanjust ahead, tapping her footout a car window, bare,in time to a musicI can’t quite hear.September 2001
“Young reminds us that freedom has not been realized for everyone, but his vigorous and appealing voice encourages the hope that we may continue to understand and appreciate one another’s perspectives and dialects.” —Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader

“Heartfelt bluntness . . . Rich with unfettered honesty . . . A confederation of losses, continuing Young’s exploration of African-American culture and history in musical form: Jazz and blues spoken here.” —Katie Peterson, Chicago Tribune

About

In this passionate new collection, Kevin Young takes up a range of African American griefs and passages. He opens with the beautiful “Elegy for Miss Brooks,” invoking Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000, and who makes a perfect muse for the volume: “What the devil / are we without you?” he asks. “I tuck your voice, laced / tight, in these brown shoes.” In that spirit of intimate community, Young gives us a saucy ballad of Jim Crow, a poem about Lionel Hampton's last concert in Paris, an “African Elegy,” which addresses the tragic loss of a close friend in conjunction with the first anniversary of 9/11, and a series entitled “Americana,” in which we encounter a clutch of mythical southern towns, such as East Jesus (“The South knows ruin & likes it / thataway—the barns becoming / earth again, leaning in—”) and West Hell (“Sin, thy name is this / wait—this place— / a long ways from Here / to There”).

For the Confederate Dead finds Young, more than ever before, in a poetic space that is at once public and personal. In the marvelous “Guernica,” Young’s account of a journey through Spain blends with the news of an American lynching, prompting him to ask, “Precious South, / must I save you, / or myself?” In this surprising book, the poet manages to do a bit of both, embracing the contradictions of our “Confederate” legacy and the troubled nation where that legacy still lingers.

“Young reminds us that freedom has not been realized for everyone, but his vigorous and appealing voice encourages the hope that we may continue to understand and appreciate one another’s perspectives and dialects.”Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader

“Heartfelt bluntness . . . Rich with unfettered honesty . . . A confederation of losses, continuing Young’s exploration of African-American culture and history in musical form: Jazz and blues spoken here.” Katie Peterson, Chicago Tribune

Author

© Maciek Jasik
KEVIN YOUNG is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He previously served as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Young is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including BrownBlue LawsSelected & Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015Book of Hours, winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Jelly RollA Blues, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry; Bunk, a New York Times Notable Book; and The Grey Album, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. The poetry editor of The New Yorker, Young is the editor of nine other volumes of poetry, most recently, the acclaimed anthology African American Poetry250 Years of Struggle & Song. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was named a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2020. He lives in Washington, DC. View titles by Kevin Young

Excerpt

TABERNACLE Since they shared the samemonogram, JimCrow & Jesusoften found themselvesgetting the other’s dress shirtsback from the wash.This was after Jimhad made it big& could afford suchsmall luxuries. He& Jesus mostly metSundays in churchwhere Jesus came for the singingbut stayed for the sermon& to see whether the preacherever got it right.Jim, you guessed it,came for the collection plate& after stayedfor the hotplates of the LadiesAuxiliary (no apostrophe).To onefolks prayed,the other they obeyed.FOR THE CONFEDERATE DEADI go with the team also. –WhitmanThese are the last daysmy television says. Tornadoes, morerain, overcast, a chanceof sun but I do nottrust weathermen,never have. In my fridge onlythe milk makes sense–expires. No one, much lessmy parents, can tell me whymy middle name is Lowell,and from my tableacross from the ConfederateMonument to the dead (that palefinger bone) a plaquedeclares war–not Civil,or Betweenthe States, but for SouthernIndependence. In this café, below sea- and eye-level a mural runsthe wall, flaking, a plantationscene most do not see–it’s too mucharound the knees, heighthof a child. In its fields Negroes bendto pick the endless white.In livery a few drive carriageslike slaves, whipping the horses, facesblank and peeling. The old hotellobby this once was no longerwelcomes guests–maroon ledger,bellboys gone butfor this. Like an inheritancethe owner found itstripping hundred years(at least) of paintand plaster. More leaves each day.In my movie there are nohorses, no heroes,only draftees fleeinginto the pines, some fewwho survive, gravelywounded, lyingburrowed beneath the dead–silent until the enemybayonets what is believedto be the lastof the breathing. It is getting later.We preparefor wars no longerthere. The weatherinevitable, unusual–more this time of yearthan anyone ever seed. The earthshudders, the air–if I did not knowbetter, I would thinkwe were living all alonga fault. How lateit has gotten . . .Forget the weathermanwhose maps move, blink,but stay crossedwith lines none has seen. Raceinstead against the almostrain, digging beside the monument(that giant anchor)till we strikewater, sweatfighting the sleepwalking air.POSTSCRIPTSThe world is a widow.Storms surround us, areasof low& high pressuremoving through–should be gone tomorrow.Rain from the skylike planes.We pull ourselves upfrom bedor death, wanderstreets like ghosts,lost guests.Everyone’s a townwith the shops shuttingdown, no hoursposted. Even the radiostays closed–only newsor fools stillbelieving love.Traffic that won’t move.In the crossing, a white hearsehanging a left.I want to be that womanjust ahead, tapping her footout a car window, bare,in time to a musicI can’t quite hear.September 2001

Praise

“Young reminds us that freedom has not been realized for everyone, but his vigorous and appealing voice encourages the hope that we may continue to understand and appreciate one another’s perspectives and dialects.” —Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader

“Heartfelt bluntness . . . Rich with unfettered honesty . . . A confederation of losses, continuing Young’s exploration of African-American culture and history in musical form: Jazz and blues spoken here.” —Katie Peterson, Chicago Tribune

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