Eat, love, die

The one thing that can be counted on at a wake is plenty of food. It might seem odd to take this connection between death and food—as well as the connection between family and food—to weave a testament to love, but Kevin Young’s sixth collection, Dear Darkness, braids these strands carefully, with the familiar hands of a beloved relative.

Grief is a powerful impetus to poetry, and Young makes the most of it, balancing between the specifics of the loved ones (and, by extension, the past) he is mourning and the wider themes he is addressing. Like Mary Jo Bang, whose collection Elegy works similarly, Young succeeds in finding the sweet spot between his own losses and those the rest of us have experienced.

It is, perhaps, the connection to food that holds it all steady. As working people the world ’round know, food is love, comfort, hospitality, kinship, the first thing offered to a guest in one’s home and the last item wrapped up to ease a traveler on his or her way. In a number of poems—“odes” to various food items—Young commingles food and family, familiarity and loss. Invested with just a touch of humor (his “Ode to Chicken” includes the lines “almost any / thing I put my mouth to / reminds me of you”), these poems ground love and loss quite firmly in the physical body. It’s called “soul food” for a reason, but these dishes also fill the belly.

And it is that loss of the physical that most evokes the pain of death, as “Elegy to Maque Choux,” a spicy, thick Cajun corn stew, ties the loss of his grandmother to his own inability to cook that particular dish:

                No more
        maque choux.
                No more gar
        made to sing in a stew—
        even tasting it I knew
        no one else could lure
        such a tune
        out of bone.
                I do not want
        to get good
        at grief—
                just to know again
        that Indian corn
        scraped clean, & tomato,
        its sweet relief.

If food is the physical resonating point for these poems of grief, then music is its aural counterpoint. Young has edited two collections of poems about American music for the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, Jazz Poems and Blues Poems. Throughout this collection, he adds his own musical poetry with a number of blues poems, as well as poems with their roots in classic rock or country music. Included are a couple of poems that mourn the passing of Johnny Cash, another that takes its title from a Hank Williams song and one both heartbreaking and hilarious titled “On Being the Only Black Person at the Johnny Paycheck Concert.”

Humor is also in the works elsewhere, as in “Ode to My Sex” (“Like France, / it leans left), and in “Why I Want My Favorite Band to Break Up,” with its list of the never-ending boxed sets, reunion concerts and special editions that are sure to follow. Still, there is that fear of finality, staved off by merchandising: “Our long, never-final / farewell.”

But such moments of levity do not distract from the task at which all poets eventually labor: making sense of life in light of the inevitability of death. It is the great question asked of grief, the eternal, demanding “Why?”

Young’s answer is in these poems.