For the Confederate Dead

by Kevin Young
Knopf 2007
Reviewed by John Deming


Sliding By

for the confederate deadIt’s been more than three years since Kevin Young was robbed for the National Book Award by an okay C.K. Williams book. But surely awards are really only a luxury that serve at best to point people in the direction of decent literature, and if nominating Young’s 190-page epic for the broken-hearted Jelly Roll: A Blues pointed readers in Young’s direction, then the literary dictators did something right. Jelly Roll is among the best books written this century (21st); it reminded us that our nation’s most organic art form (blues) means more than a 1-4-5 chord pattern: it means accessing a certain tone, means beating the things that are beating you, sometimes only by acknowledging you are being beaten—arguing as far as the 5-chord will take you, but maintaining a sense of self-deprecating humility:

When I said I didn’t mind
your leaving, I lied—
even the funny-lookingest kid
in class gets a valentine

and I hear now he’s got mine.

In 2005 Young published a bold sort of noir screenplay in verse, Black Maria, and his latest, For the Confederate Dead, shows the continued drive to make not only books, but large-scale masterpieces. At least one early review has labeled For the Confederate Dead less a unit than Young’s earlier books, the stacking of apparently unrelated sections. But the governing theme is deeper here, and the book is as cohesive as anything I’ve read in a while. Young demands more from his readers and the results are breathtaking.

Young’s work can seem at times a traditional look at self and society. There is the individual and there is society, and regardless of a person’s national, racial or familial allegiance, everyone is in the end on a solitary journey. Each person, Young reveals, constructs his or her private country out of people, places, experiences. The book opens with a one-poem section, a short elegy for the honorable Gwendolyn Brooks: “I tuck your voice, laced / tight, in these brown shoes.” Racial implications sure, but it’s a lot more than that: this is a narrator acknowledging his journey is his feet, wherever he’s taken or takes them. But rather than delving into a bluesy exploration of self à la Jelly Roll, the subsequent section digs into American history, opening things with the 19th century journey of a few freed slaves struggling for identity in the post-Civil War south.

The section, titled “Nicodemus,” follows a handful of characters through peril to the tiny, developing, all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas. We meet several characters like Lucy, whose father Black Tom dies and is dug a shallow grave in mud alongside the trail. Tom “Saw the soil, / tasted it, & that was enough,” our surviving narrator offers, and keeps an eye on Lucy:

                                No Liberia here
for her Daddy Tom to return to, his body
must find its own precious way.

Liberia has virtually no chance of being a home country any longer, and why should it. America is truly born. Robert Hayden once commented that “a Negro poet [should not] be limited to racial utterance,” and that he wanted to be able to use black history without “narrow, racial, propagandistic implications.” His great poems “Witch Doctor” and “Middle Passage” were perhaps the best example of this doctrine, and in many ways, the early work in For the Confederate Dead picks up where “Middle Passage” left off. “Middle Passage”—the slave route from Africa to America—documents the famous revolt of the slaves aboard Amistad:

voyage through death
        to life upon these shores.

Young’s “Nicodemus” section felt like a searing follow-up on that voyage.

At this point you may or may not be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Robert Lowell. There’s Young’s autobiographical nugget: “No one, much less / my parents, can tell me why // my middle name is Lowell.” There’s also the fact Lowell was tight with his teacher Allen Tate, whose surname seems all but stripped these days by the superior Tate (James), and who published in 1928 his “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”  Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” offers contemplations in and around Boston Common, as the poet digresses on the bombing of Hiroshima and on the monument of Union Colonel Robert Shaw, famous for his leadership of a regiment of black troops. This poem was somewhat a response to Allen Tate’s poem. Young offers here his third chapter; the title poem is one of the best in the book, fixing its poet near a monument for the Confederate dead, and trailing into the apocalypse, which the weatherman perpetually predicts:

Forget the weatherman

whose maps move, blink,
but stay crossed
with lines none has seen. Race

instead against the almost
rain, digging beside the monument
(that giant anchor)

til we strike
water, sweat
fighting the sleepwalking air.

The enjambments—“race” with “lines none has seen,” for example—are precise and engage a multitude of meanings (Lowell always said he revised endlessly, who knows how effortless this is for Young); Young is bluesy til the end, and the poem covers every base. The dead themselves, especially some desperate escaped draftees—many of whom were slaves—have little to do with the cause itself, and from the Southern standpoint it was not a “Civil War,” Young reminds us, but a struggle for independence.

The book is the stuff of Americana through and through; as a country develops, its people watch it change. “Old Exit 9,” for example, has since become Exit 29:

Old Exit 9 can’t stand
        theater but loves drama—
Has been there
        but not done that.
Is gone, like Mama,
        bless her heart,
& ain’t comin back.

He twists clichés into slant rhymes and maintains impeccable rhythm. I could quote this book all over the place. There’s found poetry from the American landscape, there’s blues, a series on Jim Crow. And all the while whose country is whose—the notion of owning land—becomes pedestrian beside the notion of self-as-country, and the book, in the end, explores some of the inhabitants of Young’s country: Gwendolyn Brooks, Booker T. Washington, Lionel Hampton, James Hampton, Countee Cullen, “Mr. David King, who drove me all over Baltimore,” Allen Ginsberg, Bob Marley, Michael S. Harper, Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca, and Young’s friend Philippe Wamba, who died in a tragic car accident in Kenya and is the subject of series of powerful elegies.

Following the reggae-rich sequence of elegies for Wamba, Young concludes where he started—with tribute to a female poet, this time in “Homage to Phyllis Wheatley,” whom Young notes was “the first black poet to publish a book in what would soon become the United States.” Wheatley is pictured on a boat from the United States to England—“At Sea which owns no country.”  It’s often said a person is owned by his or her possessions. If a nation of people is owned by the land it’s said to own, then the sea is unowned, and in turn owns nothing.  Here death too is a sea which owns no country: it is inevitable largesse with domination over everyone’s petty squabbling. There’s the sense—as Hayden illustrated in “Witch Doctor”—that eventually everything might be a con, but that that’s no reason for disbelief.

The blues, in the end, is about moving on. Where Jelly Roll seemed to emphasize moving on in life after a loss, For the Confederate Dead moves softly on into death, death as a fitting conclusion to any life:

        Death, dark mistress,
would come a-heralding silent
the streets,—no door to her closed.

But only to the extent that you finish the book and find yourself strangely yet fiercely independent and alive. Mid-January, and already the first essential title of 2007.