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JELLY ROLL (A BLUES)

Kevin Young, Author
Kevin Young, Author . Knopf $23 (208p) ISBN 978-0-375-41460-2
Reviewed on: 11/25/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
Paperback - 190 pages - 978-0-375-70989-0
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The careful, colloquial, lyrical Most Way Home (1995) established Young among the best-known poets of his emerging generation; this third book will satisfy many readers' long-held hopes. Despite the title, Young's new work relies not just on blues but on a plethora of musical genres; poems (almost all in short, two-line stanzas) take their titles and sometimes their sounds from older popular genres ("Dixieland" "Ragtime" and "Calypso") and classical forms ("Scherzo," "Nocturne"), bringing things up to date with "Disaster Movie Theme Music." Young matches these various models with a unity of subject: like an old-fashioned sonnet sequence writ large, the book chronicles the start, progress, and catastrophic end of a love affair. Early on, poems like "Shimmy" describe the birth of passion: "You are, lady,/ admired—secret// something kept/ afar." In "Riff," Young comes up with a precise, slow-motion polyphony: "I am all itch,/ total, since you done// been gone—zero/ sum, empty set." Despite the self-imposed, consistent limit of short lines, the verse here shows Young to be not only a terrific love poet but one of real emotional variety: after a sonnet sequence (called "Sleepwalking Psalms") Young turns from excitement and romance to disillusion, breakups and regrets ("Joy is the mile-/ high ledge"), concluding with poems addressed to landscapes, and with an elegy for a dead male friend. Young has daringly likened himself in earlier poems and prose to Langston Hughes: this versatile lyric tour de force may well justify the ambitious comparison. (Jan.)

Forecast:While Young gained a reputation with poems in journals (and with his anthology Giant Steps), his sophomore effort To Repel Ghosts, a narrative poem about Jean-Michel Basquiat, was not quite a breakthrough, especially as its publisher went under. This long but reader-friendly third collection should do far better; expect strong reviews nationwide.

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