Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

Kevin Young, Knopf, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-307-26764-1
The story of the Amistad is widely known: enslaved Africans on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba in 1839 took over the schooner and sailed to the United States. Put in jail in New Haven, the Amistad rebels found assistance from American abolitionists when they faced trial: finally they were allowed to return to Sierra Leone. The prolific Young (Dear Darkness) has organized a big and varied book around that story. The strongest part, called a libretto, consists largely of short-lined, intense poems sung, spoken, or thought by the rebel leader Cinque, who muses often on Christian providence: "Our shroud a sail—/ heaven our home—// we compass/ our helpless bones." Stanzaic poems at the start and the end of the volume follow the Amistad Africans in America and after their return, giving voice to perhaps a dozen characters: "My calling is to vanish," says the free black translator James Covey, "finish/ the thoughts others don't know/ they own." The famous story becomes a microcosm of everything wrong with American, and Atlantic, history. As with Young's previous ambitious book-length projects (such as a verse life of Jean-Michel Basquiat), the book taken as a whole is more powerful than some of the individual poems. That whole is impressive indeed. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/17/2011
Release date: 01/01/2011
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