Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015

Image of Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015
Release Date: 
February 1, 2016
Reviewed by: 

Kevin Young has a new collection called Blue Laws, culled from 10 ten previously published books of poetry, with new “bonus tracks” as he calls them. The prolific poet is also a musician, spoken-word performer, and professor of creative writing at Emory University. Along with receiving many prestigious poetry awards, Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.  

Obviously care was put into arranging the bulk of his previous poems for Blue Laws, a lucid retrospective of literary poetic range and vital social consciousness. The title references the old Blue Laws that were in place prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, for instance; but Young exposes the much more draconian implications for black Americans. 

 The title also refers to blues music, its significance as an American art form and its resonance with black culture and American musical history. Young explores blues legends and its musicality as it informs his poetry, employing the poetic version of the essential “blue note” in that lives in jazz music. Indeed, there is intoxicating music laced through the poems of Blue Laws. Young is innovative with both lyrical form and abstract fusion. He also brings a gallery of portraits of musical giants from Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and iconic literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance     

In selections from Jelly Roll Young time-travels to early 20th century America with its transient affairs, dance joints, rail-hoppers, street buskers, the raw, mythic invocations of creative genius, and the birth of the blues through the voice of Robert Johnson, with earthy realism in such blues portraits as “Body Bag.”

The guitar/has no God/that is why/I picked it./or it me-throat/I can throttle-/a broken bottle held against the neck/til it whines-/a belly/to strum/thunder from-/a murmur or holler/no church knows . . .

In contrast, Young’s wry vignettes from Black Maria (rhymes with pariah) slang for police wagon or hearse has pulp-fiction snark in such poems as “The Set-Up,” “The Speakeasy,” “The Hush,” “The Boss,” “The Suspects,” and “The Alias,” with imagery is as intoxicating as a slug of rotgut from a flask. 

In selections from To Repel Ghosts: The Remix—sung by the author—is a panorama of portraits of Jean Michel Basquiat—and those in his world including Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and Keith Haring—that conjures the mystique of 80s Bohemian life in New York with a generation of disaffected poets, writers, and musicians among the art glamour, drugs, poverty, stardom, and pervasive human tragedy. 

Unique journalistic clarity teems through Young’s bio-history Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebel in which he creates the voices of characters who bear witness to the black holocaust from slave trading on the oceans by Europeans to the legacies of Jim Crow. It is searing verse, achieved through Young’s indelible artistic craft and imagination.

This sterling collection reminds that poetry need not be arcane, subject to academic fashions, or remote from popular culture. Blue Laws should be studied, enjoyed, and placed on the shelf next to Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Federico Garcia Lorca, Audre Lorde, Charles Wright, John Ashbery, and a other relevant contemporary masters.