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Brown

Poems

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James Brown. John Brown's raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prize-winning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things "brown" in this powerful new collection—now in paperback.

Divided into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings,” Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times. From “History”—a song of Kansas high-school fixture Mr. W., who gave his students “the Sixties / minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a march on Washington”—to “Money Road,” a sobering pilgrimage to the site of Emmett Till's lynching, the poems engage place and the past and their intertwined power. These thirty-two taut poems and poetic sequences, including an oratorio based on Mississippi “barkeep, activist, waiter” Booker Wright that was performed at Carnegie Hall and the vibrant sonnet cycle “De La Soul Is Dead,” about the days when hip-hop was growing up (“we were black then, not yet / African American”), remind us that blackness and brownness tell an ongoing story. A testament to Young's own—and our collective—experience, Brown offers beautiful, sustained harmonies from a poet whose wisdom deepens with time.


“Necessary. . . . Young’s book releases a universal shout—political in the best, most visceral way, critical, angry, squinting hard at this culture—while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal. Love soars over every section, especially the most painful ones.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, The New York Times Book Review

“Ambitious. . . . [Young] effortlessly blends memories of his own experiences—his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels—with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have impacted American life. . . . Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.” —Elizabeth Lund, Washington Post

“Vital and sophisticated . . . sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed. . . . Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Not only beautiful but essential. . . . A survey of American history through the ‘intimate eye’ that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

“Feels effortless. . . . Each poem is tight to its subject, spare and musical in its language, and specific but resonates with significance in social, political, or historical realms.” —American Microreviews & Interviews, Edward A. Dougherty

“Kevin Young’s poetry dazzles me.” —Lorraine Berry, Signature

“This new collection continues and deepens the poet’s lyrical exploration of the African American cultural influences who shaped his—and the nation’s—identity. Through short, spare lines that dance, chime, laugh, lament, and assert, Young creates a consciousness-in-motion, a weaving of personal and national histories that not only reanimates the past but moves forcefully into the present.” —Fred Muratori, Library Journal

“Thrillingly quick-footed, Young’s poems are also formally intricate and fully loaded with history, protest, and emotion.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Young is writing through moments of the exemplary and mundane—‘we breathe,/ we grieve, we drink / our tidy drinks’—for himself and his community alike. . . . Personal, historic, and contemporary confrontations with white supremacy, such as ‘Triptych for Trayvon Martin,’ feature prominently.” —Publishers Weekly
© 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
Brown
 
          for my mother
 
 
The scrolled brown arms
            of the church pews curve
like a bone—their backs
 
bend us upright, standing
            as the choir enters
      singing, We’ve come this far
 
by faith—the steps
            & sway of maroon robes,
      hands clap like a heart
 
in its chest—leaning
            on the Lord—
      this morning’s program
 
still warm
            from the mimeo machine
      quick becomes a fan.
 
In the vestibule latecomers
            wait just outside
      the music—the river
 
we crossed
            to get here—
wide boulevards now
 
*
 
 
in disrepair.
We’re watched over
      in the antechamber
 
by Rev.
      Oliver Brown,
his small, colored picture
 
nailed slanted
to the wall—former
pastor of St. Mark’s
 
who marched
into that principal’s office
      in Topeka to ask
 
why can’t my daughter
school here, just
steps from our house—
 
but well knew the answer—
& Little Linda
became an idea, became more
 
what we needed & not
            a girl no more—Free-dom
      Free-dom—
 
*
 
 
Now meant
            sit-ins & I shall I shall
I shall not be
 
moved—
& four little girls bombed
into tomorrow
 
in a church basement like ours
where nursing mothers & children
not ready to sit still
 
learned to walk—Sunday school
sent into pieces
& our arms.
           
We are
swaying more
now, entering
 
heaven’s rolls—the second row
            behind the widows
in their feathery hats
 
& empty nests, heads heavy
      but not hearts
Amen. The all-white
 
*
 
 
stretchy, scratchy dresses
            of the missionaries—
the hatless holy who pin lace
 
to their hair—bowing
            down into pocketbooks
opened for the Lord, then
 
snapped shut
like a child’s mouth
mouthing off, which just
 
one glare from an elder
            could close.
God’s eyes must be
 
like these—aimed
            at the back row
where boys pass jokes
 
& glances, where Great
Aunts keep watch,
their hair shiny
 
as our shoes
            &, as of yesterday,
just as new— 
 
 
*
 
 
chemical curls & lop-
            sided wigs—humming
      during offering
 
Oh my Lord
            Oh my Lordy
      What can I do.
 
The pews curve like ribs
            broken, barely healed,
      & we can feel
 
ourselves breathe—
while Mrs. Linda Brown
Thompson, married now, hymns
 
piano behind her solo—
No finer noise
      than this—
 
We sing
along, or behind,
      mouth most
 
every word—following
her grown, glory voice,
      the black notes
 
 
*
 
 
rising like we do—
            like Deacon
      Coleman who my mother
 
always called Mister
            who’d help her
      weekends & last
 
I saw him my mother
            offered him
a slice of sweet potato
 
pie as payment—
            or was it apple—
      he’d take no money
 
barely said
            Yes, only
      I could stay
 
for a piece
            trim as his grey
      moustache, he ate
 
with what I can only
            call dignity—
      fork gently placed
 
 
*
 
 
across his emptied plate.
            Afterward, full,
      Mr. Coleman’s That’s nice
 
meant wonder, meant
the world entire.
      Within a year cancer
 
had eaten him away—
the only hint of it
this bitter taste for a whole
 
year in his mouth. The resurrection
            and the light.     
For now he’s still
           
standing down front, waiting
at the altar for anyone
to accept the Lord, rise
 
& he’ll meet you halfway
& help you down
      the aisle—
 
legs grown weak—
As it was in the beginning
Is now
 
*

 
And ever shall be—
All this tuning
      & tithing. We offer
 
our voices up
toward the windows
whose glass I knew
 
as colored, not stained—
our backs
made upright not by
 
the pews alone—
the brown        
wood smooth, scrolled
 
arms grown
            warm with wear—
& prayer—
 
Tell your neighbor
            next to you
you love them—till
 
we exit
into the brightness
beyond the doors.
“Necessary . . . Young’s book releases a universal shout—political in the best, most visceral way, critical, angry, squinting hard at this culture—while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal. Love soars over every section, especially the most painful ones.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, The New York Times Book Review

“Ambitious . . . . [Young] effortlessly blends memories of his own experiences — his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels — with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have impacted American life . . . . Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.” —Elizabeth Lund, Washington Post

“Vital and sophisticated . . . sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed . . . Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Not only beautiful but essential . . . A survey of American history through the ‘intimate eye’ that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

“Feels effortless . . . Each poem is tight to its subject, spare and musical in its language, and specific but resonates with significance in social, political, or historical realms.” American Microreviews & Interviews, Edward A. Dougherty

“Kevin Young’s poetry dazzles me.” —Lorraine Berry, Signature

“This new collection continues and deepens the poet’s lyrical exploration of the African American cultural influences who shaped his—and the nation’s—identity. Through short, spare lines that dance, chime, laugh, lament, and assert, Young creates a consciousness-in-motion, a weaving of personal and national histories that not only reanimates the past but moves forcefully into the present.” —Fred Muratori, Library Journal

“Thrillingly quick-footed, Young’s poems are also formally intricate and fully loaded with history, protest, and emotion.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Young is writing through moments of the exemplary and mundane—‘we breathe,/ we grieve, we drink / our tidy drinks’—for himself and his community alike . . . Personal, historic, and contemporary confrontations with white supremacy, such as ‘Triptych for Trayvon Martin,’ feature prominently.” Publishers Weekly

About

James Brown. John Brown's raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prize-winning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things "brown" in this powerful new collection—now in paperback.

Divided into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings,” Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times. From “History”—a song of Kansas high-school fixture Mr. W., who gave his students “the Sixties / minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a march on Washington”—to “Money Road,” a sobering pilgrimage to the site of Emmett Till's lynching, the poems engage place and the past and their intertwined power. These thirty-two taut poems and poetic sequences, including an oratorio based on Mississippi “barkeep, activist, waiter” Booker Wright that was performed at Carnegie Hall and the vibrant sonnet cycle “De La Soul Is Dead,” about the days when hip-hop was growing up (“we were black then, not yet / African American”), remind us that blackness and brownness tell an ongoing story. A testament to Young's own—and our collective—experience, Brown offers beautiful, sustained harmonies from a poet whose wisdom deepens with time.


“Necessary. . . . Young’s book releases a universal shout—political in the best, most visceral way, critical, angry, squinting hard at this culture—while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal. Love soars over every section, especially the most painful ones.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, The New York Times Book Review

“Ambitious. . . . [Young] effortlessly blends memories of his own experiences—his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels—with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have impacted American life. . . . Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.” —Elizabeth Lund, Washington Post

“Vital and sophisticated . . . sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed. . . . Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Not only beautiful but essential. . . . A survey of American history through the ‘intimate eye’ that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

“Feels effortless. . . . Each poem is tight to its subject, spare and musical in its language, and specific but resonates with significance in social, political, or historical realms.” —American Microreviews & Interviews, Edward A. Dougherty

“Kevin Young’s poetry dazzles me.” —Lorraine Berry, Signature

“This new collection continues and deepens the poet’s lyrical exploration of the African American cultural influences who shaped his—and the nation’s—identity. Through short, spare lines that dance, chime, laugh, lament, and assert, Young creates a consciousness-in-motion, a weaving of personal and national histories that not only reanimates the past but moves forcefully into the present.” —Fred Muratori, Library Journal

“Thrillingly quick-footed, Young’s poems are also formally intricate and fully loaded with history, protest, and emotion.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Young is writing through moments of the exemplary and mundane—‘we breathe,/ we grieve, we drink / our tidy drinks’—for himself and his community alike. . . . Personal, historic, and contemporary confrontations with white supremacy, such as ‘Triptych for Trayvon Martin,’ feature prominently.” —Publishers Weekly

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

Brown
 
          for my mother
 
 
The scrolled brown arms
            of the church pews curve
like a bone—their backs
 
bend us upright, standing
            as the choir enters
      singing, We’ve come this far
 
by faith—the steps
            & sway of maroon robes,
      hands clap like a heart
 
in its chest—leaning
            on the Lord—
      this morning’s program
 
still warm
            from the mimeo machine
      quick becomes a fan.
 
In the vestibule latecomers
            wait just outside
      the music—the river
 
we crossed
            to get here—
wide boulevards now
 
*
 
 
in disrepair.
We’re watched over
      in the antechamber
 
by Rev.
      Oliver Brown,
his small, colored picture
 
nailed slanted
to the wall—former
pastor of St. Mark’s
 
who marched
into that principal’s office
      in Topeka to ask
 
why can’t my daughter
school here, just
steps from our house—
 
but well knew the answer—
& Little Linda
became an idea, became more
 
what we needed & not
            a girl no more—Free-dom
      Free-dom—
 
*
 
 
Now meant
            sit-ins & I shall I shall
I shall not be
 
moved—
& four little girls bombed
into tomorrow
 
in a church basement like ours
where nursing mothers & children
not ready to sit still
 
learned to walk—Sunday school
sent into pieces
& our arms.
           
We are
swaying more
now, entering
 
heaven’s rolls—the second row
            behind the widows
in their feathery hats
 
& empty nests, heads heavy
      but not hearts
Amen. The all-white
 
*
 
 
stretchy, scratchy dresses
            of the missionaries—
the hatless holy who pin lace
 
to their hair—bowing
            down into pocketbooks
opened for the Lord, then
 
snapped shut
like a child’s mouth
mouthing off, which just
 
one glare from an elder
            could close.
God’s eyes must be
 
like these—aimed
            at the back row
where boys pass jokes
 
& glances, where Great
Aunts keep watch,
their hair shiny
 
as our shoes
            &, as of yesterday,
just as new— 
 
 
*
 
 
chemical curls & lop-
            sided wigs—humming
      during offering
 
Oh my Lord
            Oh my Lordy
      What can I do.
 
The pews curve like ribs
            broken, barely healed,
      & we can feel
 
ourselves breathe—
while Mrs. Linda Brown
Thompson, married now, hymns
 
piano behind her solo—
No finer noise
      than this—
 
We sing
along, or behind,
      mouth most
 
every word—following
her grown, glory voice,
      the black notes
 
 
*
 
 
rising like we do—
            like Deacon
      Coleman who my mother
 
always called Mister
            who’d help her
      weekends & last
 
I saw him my mother
            offered him
a slice of sweet potato
 
pie as payment—
            or was it apple—
      he’d take no money
 
barely said
            Yes, only
      I could stay
 
for a piece
            trim as his grey
      moustache, he ate
 
with what I can only
            call dignity—
      fork gently placed
 
 
*
 
 
across his emptied plate.
            Afterward, full,
      Mr. Coleman’s That’s nice
 
meant wonder, meant
the world entire.
      Within a year cancer
 
had eaten him away—
the only hint of it
this bitter taste for a whole
 
year in his mouth. The resurrection
            and the light.     
For now he’s still
           
standing down front, waiting
at the altar for anyone
to accept the Lord, rise
 
& he’ll meet you halfway
& help you down
      the aisle—
 
legs grown weak—
As it was in the beginning
Is now
 
*

 
And ever shall be—
All this tuning
      & tithing. We offer
 
our voices up
toward the windows
whose glass I knew
 
as colored, not stained—
our backs
made upright not by
 
the pews alone—
the brown        
wood smooth, scrolled
 
arms grown
            warm with wear—
& prayer—
 
Tell your neighbor
            next to you
you love them—till
 
we exit
into the brightness
beyond the doors.

Praise

“Necessary . . . Young’s book releases a universal shout—political in the best, most visceral way, critical, angry, squinting hard at this culture—while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal. Love soars over every section, especially the most painful ones.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, The New York Times Book Review

“Ambitious . . . . [Young] effortlessly blends memories of his own experiences — his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels — with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have impacted American life . . . . Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.” —Elizabeth Lund, Washington Post

“Vital and sophisticated . . . sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed . . . Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Not only beautiful but essential . . . A survey of American history through the ‘intimate eye’ that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

“Feels effortless . . . Each poem is tight to its subject, spare and musical in its language, and specific but resonates with significance in social, political, or historical realms.” American Microreviews & Interviews, Edward A. Dougherty

“Kevin Young’s poetry dazzles me.” —Lorraine Berry, Signature

“This new collection continues and deepens the poet’s lyrical exploration of the African American cultural influences who shaped his—and the nation’s—identity. Through short, spare lines that dance, chime, laugh, lament, and assert, Young creates a consciousness-in-motion, a weaving of personal and national histories that not only reanimates the past but moves forcefully into the present.” —Fred Muratori, Library Journal

“Thrillingly quick-footed, Young’s poems are also formally intricate and fully loaded with history, protest, and emotion.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Young is writing through moments of the exemplary and mundane—‘we breathe,/ we grieve, we drink / our tidy drinks’—for himself and his community alike . . . Personal, historic, and contemporary confrontations with white supremacy, such as ‘Triptych for Trayvon Martin,’ feature prominently.” Publishers Weekly

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