Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

Image of Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
Release Date: 
January 24, 2011
Reviewed by: 

Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels is Kevin Young’s powerful verse account of the 1839 mutiny of Mendi-speaking kidnap victims from Sierra Leone. The book covers their fight against their Spanish captors; their trial in New Haven, CT; and their repatriation to their homeland.

Mr. Young’s epic comprises four poetic sequences whose individual poems, most in the voices of the dramatic personae, others excerpts of 19th Century American grammar textbooks, are adapted from prose source material—a method Young has successfully employed in his previous books.

The practice of writing poems adapted from prose texts is well established. Most of Ezra Pound’s Cantos are adapted from what ever Pound happened to be reading, including the correspondence and journals of several early American former Presidents; Charles Reznikoff’s documentary poems Testimony: the United States, 1885–1915: Recitative and Holocaust are verse adaptations of trial transcripts of criminal cases (the former from American court cases and the latter from the Nuremburg and Eichmann trials); and the poet whose pen name is Ai has written poems in the voices of such public figures as J. Edgar Hoover and Jimmy Hoffa that combine research and her own poetic voice. (As a writer in this subgenre, this reviewer confesses a particular attachment to writing poems adapted from prose source material.)

The poems in Ardency’s first sequence, “Buzzard,” are told in the voice of James Covey, a Mendi speaker, who years earlier had also been kidnapped and shipped out. His luck changed when his captors’ slave ship was seized by the British Navy, which was enforcing the international ban on the slave trade. The British liberated and subsequently educated Covey at a British church mission school in Sierra Leone. At the start of the Amistad trial, Covey was a New York dockworker discovered by a member of the Amistad legal team who had learned to count to ten in Mendi and hired Covey as a translator.

The book’s title, Ardency, is a nautical term meaning the tendency of sailing ships to sail into the wind. The Mendi rebels forced the ship’s crew to sail east to Africa, but at night the crew navigated by the stars and turned the ship west. Covey asks:

“Did you expect to meet ardency,
that wanting of wind? Who supposed
the stern would slow, your seizing
break, or guessed your masters,
while you slept, sailed for Providence?”

Providence here is the town at the tip of Cape Cod where the rebels went ashore to buy food and the locals notified the authorities. Historical sticklers might object to Young’s placing 20th century slang idioms such as “pigs” and “G-men” in the mouth of a 19th century speaker, but Young is employing a literary devise that links this one incident with four centuries of African American encounters with white authority figures, in the poem “Washington:”

“You harbored the ship like a criminal, stole
ashore hungry. Even eastward of Providence
reports had drifted of the strange spook
ship:—most thot you pirates, skin
the flag you never flew,--black covering skulls
& bones, crossed. When you signed for food,
dogs, folks drew water polite as blinds, then

called the pigs.”

The Amistad was apprehended off of Long Island, NY by the U.S. Navy ship Washington whose “Lieutenant added it up: —slaves & a fortune//in salvage.” The leader of the rebels,

“Cinque pictures the necktie party the G-men got planned,—
I shall be hanged, I think, every day,—tongue flapping
a weather-beaten banner, pants full of freedom, soilt.”

There is a less justifiable anachronism in the next poem, “Experiment,” where the same lieutenant reads the Mendi captives their Miranda rights, “The right to remain/et cetera,” while indicting them under the Spanish names their captors gave them to pass them off as Cuban slaves from birth rather than recently kidnapped Africans.

The poems in the second sequence, “Correspondence,” are adapted from letters the Mendi, who were taught English and converted to Christianity before and during their trial in New Haven, CT, wrote to former president John Quincy Adams and other abolitionist supporters in 1840–41. In simple English with calculated religious references these letters say what the Mendi think their Evangelical recipients want to hear, and ask for continued assistance to achieve freedom and repatriation. In “Con.,” a poem adapted from a letter Cinque wrote to President Tyler, he promises the president that when they return to Africa they will look after and not abandon their teachers, continue to wear American clothing for the rest of their lives, will send back to America ivory, camwood (a dye made from African sandalwood), palm oil, and other products, and will proselytize their countrymen:

“When we are in Mendi we never
hear of such a thing as men taken away
and carried to Cuba, and then return back
home again. The first thing we tell
them will be that great wind bring
us back. We tell them all about
Merica. We tell them about God
and how Jesus Christ, his only beloved
Son, came down to die for us, and we
tell them to believe, for these your sons
were lost before now. We want you
to give your children to us, give
to the teachers to teach them
to pray, and not to pray to any
thing but God.”

The poem/letter concludes:

“. . . O please let us go
to the Africa. We want to see no more
snow. We no say this place no good,
but we afraid of cold. Cold catch us all
the time.”

Young makes liberal and mostly effective use of dashes reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s poems in the third and longest sequence, “Witness, a Libretto,” in whose poems Cinque sings of his capture, the mutiny, his sojourn in America, his longing for his family and country, and what he finds when he returns home to Sierra Leone in cadences interspersed with verses from African-American spirituals. For example, in “Petition” Cinque tells of the march of the kidnapped from inland Africa to the coast:

“We are
by definition dead,—

unable to speak
or sing—of sin—

We march
toward the sea

shuffled many miles

Oh won’t dem
mourners rise
and ‘tell”

The section of the poem “Mass (Ordinary)” entitled “Gloria” recounts the rebellion:

“The flock
of birds in my chest
lifted up—
as one—

We shored

Like a clock
we bore arms
& struck:—”

Cinque describes the rebels at sea in the first of two poems entitled “Chantey:,”

“For now, risen
up like that nigger

we rule our roost—


We bend toward
sunrise—the seas

are kind
till wind

grows against us—
We send

into it, weighing

what the sailors name

The poem concludes:

a hog

we haven’t eaten —yet—“

“Offering” describes the Mendis’ incarceration in America and concludes:

“Let us turn
back to brown

& do our leave

of this Massa’s

“Spelling B.” describes the entertainment the Mendi must perform after winning their freedom in court to raise funds to return to Sierra Leone. Cinque expresses the Mendis’ homesickness in “Mass (Proper):”

save us from
this damn nation—“


is our Rock

This, our
hard place—“

Young associates Cinque’s desire to sail home with the longing found in African-American spirituals for redemption both in this world and the hereafter, such as in this excerpt from just such a spiritual in “Choir (Dawn):”

“Say I’m building
myself a rain ship

To shore up
my feet my arms

O I’m raising
myself a sail

Lawd said
Won’t be long

(Lawd don’t make
me wait too long)

Lawd don’t listen
forever to this song

Without sailing
my ark on home”

Once back in Sierra Leone, Cinque and the other Mendi, except for Covey and Marghu, an adolescent girl renamed Sarah, abandoned Christianity and the mission set up by their American Evangelical escorts, and returned to their communities and former way of life. With deft use of line and stanza breaks Young has Cinque express this transformation and repatriation in puns in several sections of “Lexicon (Last Lesson):”


After that sea

I was borned
into the world

only the Mericans
call Old

my biblical cord”

The reaction of the missionaries was to slander Cinque, who relates his:



the mission
and its prone position—

it felt like re-
hab, a halfway

house –for us—
I wanted back

my habit-
at, went

into my re-

back into Africanness
like sleeping

least that’s

what The Committee

and Satanists

called us—out our name—
said I sold

out, started

claimed I’d re-

Before his captivity Cinque was a farmer, a husband and father of three children. Upon his return he found his community (who made him a chief) and his extended family but not his wife and children.


I cross the fields
looking for the X

that marks the spot
where my wife once stood—

Of my house, left
is only wood—words—

The mills are full
of rumor—how my once-

wife & son were stole
like I was, after—“

This loss confirms his departure from Christianity:

“now I’m only
an ex-

on parole from lockdown

& the Lawd.
I’ve left belief for good

not evil—
I live—

the past is a place
you cannot visit

but still—veiled—can see—”

In “For Rain, If the Time Require” Cinque mourns his wife, a loss inconsolable since he does not know where she is or whether she is alive or dead:

“Heaven hurts me.
Knowing you

are somewhere, forever,
not here—

nor everywhere
like I once believed

the departed were—

the thought
thins me.”

The poems of the fourth and final sequence are in the voices of the Mendis’ American escorts who established a church mission and mostly died of tropical diseases. In his deathbed confession Covey regrets that his relatives will not be able to read or recognize the name on his tombstone. The book’s last poem is Sarah’s letter from Oberlin College where she is “studying Roman history, algebra/physiology, the sonnet” and preparing to return to the mission. She asks for an accordion and refers to herself as “God’s instrument—/I fear not disease, nor the Devil,—/only rust!”

The verses quoted in this review are just a taste of this rich and moving book, though it would be an even stronger collection with a tad fewer grammar lesson excerpts. Pound defined the epic as a poem about history. Ardency is a book that deserves a wider readership than the genres of history and poetry normally enjoy. Its individual poems are also recommended to editors of high school history textbooks seeking ways to make the past come alive.