The B Side Poems: A Review of Blue Laws by Kevin Young

Kevin Young

With over nine collections of poetry, Kevin Young is by far one of the most instrumental poets of our time. He is instrumental because of his musical attention to poetry. Lucille Clifton describes the Harvard graduate’s earliest collection Most Way Home (2005) as, “an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American.” His collection
To Repel Ghosts (2001) surveys the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat with lines like, “skid rows of canvases, / paint peeling like bananas.” Jelly Roll (2003), Black Maria (
2005), For the Confederate Dead (2007), Dear Darkness (2008), Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amisted rebels (2011), and The Book of Hours (2014) are just some of his collections that bring racial, historical, and social context to his poems with the sheer beauty of his language. Never mind the fact that Young has won an award or received honorary mention for practically all of his books: National Poetry Series for Most Way Home, Quill Award in Poetry for For the Confederate Dead, and the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Excellence for Dear Darkness, but each collection stands as a body of work on its own. Young’s musicality is inherent in all of his poems by the way sound enters language, and how the blues influences his writing. His newest collection Blue Laws, a set of selected and uncollected poems ranging from the years 1995 – 2015 brings forth poems from all of his previous books including never before seen or printed poems. Similar to the way a musician records secret or hidden tracks on the B Side of a record, Young introduces his readers to the phantom poems that never made it to any of his published collections. Here is an excerpt from the commentary on Young’s Blue Laws: “A rich and lively gathering of highlights from the first twenty years of an extraordinary career, interspersed with ‘B sides’ and ‘bonus tracks’ from this prolific and widely acclaimed poet.”


One of the “B side” poems available in Blue Laws is “Glossalalia.” In his poem, Young gives a brief definition of the term “Gloselale” which has two meanings: nonmeaningful speech associated with schizophrenia, and a gift of tongues or speaking in tongues as religious folks often do. The tension between these two defenitions makes the poem multidimensional in meaning and sound. The poem raises questions about what we perceive as insanity. Do people with mental disorders have the gift of perceiving life through other dimensions? Young takes his reader through a series of images in hislist poem by the musical quality of his language:

Shoeless dust. Trusting, yassuh,

A rusty musk. Blank. Thank.

You, no. Lil’ Bo Peep done

lost her sheep. And shall not want—

He uses words with dialect and assonance to paint an association of images that are metonymic as if the speaker utters words with a broken music suggestive of schizophrenia. The language is beautiful and fragmented at the same time. The broken speech allows for images to intersperse in the lines thereby providing the reader with an alternative way to perceive the nursery rhyme of Lil’ Bo Peep that of viewing the world from a shattered mirror.

Another “B side” poem is from a new series in Blue Laws called “Chamber Music” which is part of his Jelly Roll extensions. These are the poems that never made it to Jelly Roll that now surface in his newest collection. One poem from the series, “Chamber Music,” speaks to the beloved using the simile of a violin:

Like a violin you leave

The sweetest

Bruise just beneath

My chin.

The sounds of “like” and “violin” strike the reader and carry the image through the reader’s body. The lines are almost haunting and visceral at the same time. One can feel the phantom of the beloved the way the chin feels the mark left by the violin. The ordinary life of the violin is used as a metaphor for the beloved. Young asks the metaphysical questions about love and loss using particular images and gestures familiar to our everyday lives. The hard goatfoot sounds of “bruise” and “beneath” create the sonic tension with the following line “My chin.” The sound of the words carry just as much emotion as the meaning.

From Blue Laws, a “B side” series extended from Dear Darkness, Young’s poem “Body Bag Blues” explores the Godless dimensions of a guitar:

The guitar

……..has no God

that is why

……..I picked it

Young uses a three syllable count to accentuate the musicality of these lines. The meaning itself is provocative enough to keep the reader engaged in the poem, but the added sonic pleasure of moving through the waves of his words in syllabic increments makes one feel as the poem itself is a guitar. The poem also speaks against dominant society’s need to uphold religion as its main structure for spirituality. The musician in the poet denies and ruptures the social order. The speaker chooses an instrument that has no God out of rebellion, a metaphor that illustrates the speaker’s need to rise against the forces of control and oppression in any community. From the first four lines, we can see this poem operates on a sonic, social, and spiritual level.

These are just some of the poems that have never been published before, and nothing could be more compelling than to raise awareness of Kevin Young’s epic work. For the first time, these uncollected works, along with his selected poems, will rest side by side in one collection. There are many more “B side” poems in Blue Laws that will please any reader with an ear for sound and a heart for language. This book is a must read.

Blue Laws

By Kevin Young

Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

For more information on Kevin Young:

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