TO REPEL GHOSTS
Release date: 06/01/2001
In this thick volume of 117 lean-lined poems, Young reanimates Jean-Michel Basquiat, the much-documented painter, graffiti artist and art world martyr who overdosed in 1988 at age 27. Unlike the salacious biographies, however, this epic is impressively faithful to its subject's obliquely political style and preoccupations: "Basquiat scrawls/ & scribbles, clots/ paint across/ the back/ wall of Keith Haring's/ Cable Building studio—/ two cops, keystoned,/ pounding a beat,/ pummel/ a black face—scape/ goat, sarcophagus—/ uniform blue." By and large, the poems are ekphrastic, addressing particular Basquiat works and often incorporating Basquiat's painted texts into the poems (with the former often out-performing the latter), disturbing the neat division between homage and appropriation: "Andy's already bit/ the dust/ & Basquiat's just/ about to—DEBT (SIC)/ PISS PASSPORT/ FREE KIT LIGHT RED/ PAYING DUES." Divided into five record-like "ablums," with the poems of each "side" functioning as songs (a frequent Basquiat inspiration), the project's size can work against it, devolving into repetitive riffs. And some of the poems are overloaded with expositional details about Basquiat's life or recastings of well-worn truisms about the painter's role in the "decadent" 1980s. When on, though, Young creates a midway point between his own and Basquiat's vernaculars, an inspired bricolage of shiny borrowings, canny enjambments and angry popist elegy: "Upstairs/ Superfly loops on,/ watching the room—/ nobody home. I'm your mamma/ I'm your daddy—/ Basquiat's 57 Jones/ Street pad stands empty/ like a tomb/ pirated. Tell ole/ Pharaoh, let my people go." (June 1)
Forecast:Basquiat's reputation is slowly moving from '80s art star to major 20th-century artist, Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic notwithstanding. Young is the author of the National Poetry Series pick Most Way Home and editor of Giant Steps, a anthology of younger African-American writers. His homage will appeal to art cognoscenti and readers of cultural studies, as well as to Young's already solid poetry base.