Poet and Regular Contributor Amy Pence is back today with a compelling review of Ardency by Kevin Young – and a convincing argument for paper over digital.
Kevin Young’s collection of poetry Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels is proof of why I still love actual physical books. Poetry has long been our record of the past—think of Homer’s Odyssey— and as I read my hardback copy on a hammock with the sounds of the creek running across rocks, I could think of no better way to experience the textural depths of this tragic event.
Young’s book tracks the harrowing journey of the illegally-traded Africans who mutinied the Amistad schooner in 1839, their imprisonment and release from jail in America, and their return by missionaries to Africa. The title of the book has a double meaning: the enslaved Africans’ impassioned cries for freedom as well as the nautical term for sailing into the wind and the difficulty of keeping course. Metaphorically wavering off and on shore myself, I paged back and forth in the book, looking at the original illustrations from an 1840 account of the event, and often referring to the biographies of the major players at the time. The near 250-page book concretizes a profound history in a way no digital version can match.
This is a book told in voices and about voicings. Young sings in different tongues: first in the voice of James Covey, the African interpreter for the Mendi, then in various voices of the Mendi as they appeal for their release from jail in America, and finally in what feels like the truest voicing in the book: Cinque’s libretto. Cinque was the leader of the rebellion who murdered the captain and the cook (a man who prompted the rebellion when he suggested that he and the Captain were going to cannibalize the Africans)—and the third section, called “Witness,” is the strongest. White abolitionists take up the Mendis’ cause, imposing their language and their Christianity upon them:
with new tongue
Our feets heavy
caught in the stars
like a bone
in the sky’s throat
Cinque struggles with “Merica’s” tongue in a collage-like presencing. Amid gospel verses and language from early reading primers, Young puns on Cinque’s astute malapropisms:
me? I apologize
suh, for seeing
when you clearly
once told me to shut up
& take it
like a man,
buy it like a slave.
But no salve is worth
that apothecary’s price
(from “Lexicon (Last Lesson)”)
Once back in Africa, Cinque leaves the mission to seek his wife and children, but they may have been killed and he never finds them.
Most haunting, perhaps, is a formal poem in the last section of the book, “Afterword: or The Mission & its Fate.” In a progress report from the mission, we hear the unconscious virulent racism of the missionaries as one of them flatly conveys the fates of several of the characters in the Amistad drama.
A contemporary Langston Hughes, Young captures Cinque’s experience with jazzy wordplay which rises to a lyric intensity in the long poem “Ring Shout,” as his soul’s journey comes to the forefront:
Or is the soul
that will not heal—
leaves, in its unleaving
the branch bare…
And the soul
also the egg, begging,
pecking its way out—
(From the section “Shrovetide”)
Kevin Young spent twenty years writing this book, and I highly recommend Ardency for its range and its sustained passion.
– Amy Pence, Regular Contributor