Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Kevin Young - Song of Smoke


To watch you walk
cross the room in your black

corduroys is to see
civilization start---

the wish-

of your strut is flint
striking rock---the spark

of a length of cord
rubbed till

smoke starts---you stir
me like coal

and for days smoulder.
I am no more

a Boy Scout and, besides,
could never

put you out---you
keep me on

all day like an iron, out
of habit---

you threaten, brick-
house, to burn

all this down. You leave me
only a chimney.

---Kevin Young

Kevin Young's Song Of Smoke

I ache for people who approach poetry with the torturous fear of a patient undergoing a root canal. They are probably exposed to some classic verse in their high school English classes, maybe dead, white, British men and a sprinkling of Whitman and Dickinson. That experience is enough; they see a poem later in life and run from it as if bees are chasing them. I’d like to think that some of these folks make it to college, and by fate or favorable class scheduling, end up in a Literature class that forces them to reexamine poetry. As I said, I’d like to think this to be true, but I’m realistic. To the average person, poetry conjures images of archaic rhyming couplets, Shakespeare, beatniks snapping their fingers, diaries full of feelings, and a horde of other stereotypes. That is enough to scare the bejesus out of most people (and if you are one of those people then you suffer from Metrophobia, the fear of poetry). To use a Whitmanesque ideal, poetry is everything, and that most certainly includes humor. All those people who pass poetry off as elitist and esoteric are happy to create their self-fulfilling prophecies, limiting themselves and missing out on gems, like this poem from Kevin Young.

Song of Smoke is one of many carefully crafted pieces in Kevin Young’s virtuoso collection of bluesy poems, Jelly Roll. If you like word play that has a focal point, that is not just clever to be clever, then you should head to your local library or bookstore and check this book out. Young can be drop-dead funny; he begins his poem Boast with these lines: “Wouldn’t be no fig leaf / if I was Adam // but a palm tree.” Far be it for me to question that assertion, but I will say this: Kevin Young is a fun poet to read. He writes about the blues, film noir, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Andy Warhol, and countless other people, places, and things. Basically, he writes about topics that matter, infusing them with sharp sounds in compact lines.

If you’re asking ‘what is a blues poem,’ the simple answer is Song of Smoke. The emotional charge builds magnificently, mirroring the spark that grows into a fire in the poem. I’m envious of Kevin Young’s ears; his sense of hearing is acute and effortlessly translates into words. Attention to the five senses makes writing come alive and Song of Smoke is a pristine example of this rule. The poem hinges on a moment when these senses collide: “the wish- / whish-whisk // of your strut is flint /striking rock---the spark //of a length of cord / rubbed till // smoke start---you stir / me like coal // and for days smoulder.” Sound, sight, and touch all converge as the speaker’s woman crosses the room. Her simple act of walking unlocks Young’s poetic toolbox and sets him off. He journeys back and discovers this beautiful woman to be the crux of civilization. In his world, she is responsible for starting everything. I’m impressed by the gravity of this compliment.

And not only does she start, but she finishes: “you / keep me on // all day like an iron, out / of habit--- // you threaten, brick- / house, to burn // all this down.” I engage in debate with myself over a part of these lines we just looked at. Is it a positive thing that she keeps him on “all day like an iron, out / of habit”? If she is keeping him turned on, and this is a habit, then she could very well be teasing him with unlikely possibilities. The other side of this argument asserts that the “habit” of keeping him on is catalytic and essential. Without her, our speaker is deprived of the spirit, the primordial roots of his life (and all life) that she provides. For lack of a better term, she keeps him running smooth. I often look to the poem’s final image for clues to solve the aforementioned debate. Her presence is fierce enough to “burn all this down,” and yet there is a touch of humor in the fact that she “leave(s) me / only a chimney.” Gallows humor is essential to good blues, and Kevin Young gives us a healthy dose of it with these closing lines. The image of the lone chimney is funny, but if you dig a bit deeper you’ll find it to be a telling symbol. The poem is presented through the eyes of a man, but it’s essentially about the woman’s intrinsically mesmerizing traits. Guys, don’t we all know a few women like this? Ladies, you’ve been this woman for at least one man, and maybe you didn’t even realize it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful analysis...