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Brown: Poems

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Lucy & Phyllis is a Certified B Corporation that meets the highest standards of social and eveironmental impact.

James Brown. John Brown's raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prizewinning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things "brown" in this powerful new collection.

“Vital and sophisticated ... sinks hooks into you that cannot be easily removed.” —The New York Times

Divided into "Home Recordings" and "Field Recordings," Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times.

From "History"—a song of Kansas high-school fixture Mr. W., who gave his students "the Sixties / minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a march on Washington"—to "Money Road," a sobering pilgrimage to the site of Emmett Till's lynching, the poems engage place and the past and their intertwined power.

These thirty-two taut poems and poetic sequences, including an oratorio based on Mississippi "barkeep, activist, waiter" Booker Wright that was performed at Carnegie Hall and the vibrant sonnet cycle "De La Soul Is Dead," about the days when hip-hop was growing up ("we were black then, not yet / African American"), remind us that blackness and brownness tell an ongoing story.

A testament to Young's own—and our collective—experience, Brown offers beautiful, sustained harmonies from a poet whose wisdom deepens with time.

ISBN-13: 9781524711146

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 03-03-2020

Pages: 176

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

KEVIN YOUNG is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, including Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995-2015, longlisted for the National Book Award; and Book of Hours, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Young's book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, a New York Times Notable Book, was longlisted for the National Book Award and appeared on many "best of" lists for 2017. His collection Jelly Roll: A Blues was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. His nonfiction book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He is the editor of eight other collections and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

Brown
 
          for my mother
 
 
The scrolled brown arms
            of the church pews curve like a bone—their backs
 
bend us upright, standing
            as the choir enters
      singing, We’ve come this far
 
by faith—the steps
            & sway of maroon robes,
      hands clap like a heart
 
in its chest—leaning
            on the Lord—
      this morning’s program
 
still warm
            from the mimeo machine
      quick becomes a fan.
 
In the vestibule latecomers
            wait just outside
      the music—the river
 
we crossed
            to get here—
wide boulevards now
 
*
 
 
in disrepair.
We’re watched over
      in the antechamber
 
by Rev.
      Oliver Brown,
his small, colored picture
 
nailed slanted to the wall—former pastor of St. Mark’s
 
who marched into that principal’s office
      in Topeka to ask
 
why can’t my daughter school here, just steps from our house—
 
but well knew the answer—
& Little Linda became an idea, became more
 
what we needed & not
            a girl no more—Free-dom
      Free-dom—
 
*
 
 
Now meant
            sit-ins & I shall I shall
I shall not be
 
moved—
& four little girls bombed into tomorrow
 
in a church basement like ours where nursing mothers & children not ready to sit still
 
learned to walk—Sunday school sent into pieces
& our arms.
           
We are swaying more now, entering
 
heaven’s rolls—the second row
            behind the widows in their feathery hats
 
& empty nests, heads heavy
      but not hearts
Amen. The all-white
 
*
 
 
stretchy, scratchy dresses
            of the missionaries—
the hatless holy who pin lace
 
to their hair—bowing
            down into pocketbooks opened for the Lord, then
 
snapped shut like a child’s mouth mouthing off, which just
 
one glare from an elder
            could close.
God’s eyes must be
 
like these—aimed
            at the back row where boys pass jokes
 
& glances, where Great
Aunts keep watch,
their hair shiny
 
as our shoes
            &, as of yesterday,
just as new— 
 
 
*
 
 
chemical curls & lop-
            sided wigs—humming
      during offering
 
Oh my Lord
            Oh my Lordy
      What can I do.
 
The pews curve like ribs
            broken, barely healed,
      & we can feel
 
ourselves breathe—
while Mrs. Linda Brown
Thompson, married now, hymns
 
piano behind her solo—
No finer noise
      than this—
 
We sing along, or behind,
      mouth most
 
every word—following her grown, glory voice,
      the black notes
 
 
*
 
 
rising like we do—
            like Deacon
      Coleman who my mother
 
always called Mister
            who’d help her
      weekends & last
 
I saw him my mother
            offered him a slice of sweet potato
 
pie as payment—
            or was it apple—
      he’d take no money
 
barely said
            Yes, only
      I could stay
 
for a piece
            trim as his grey
      moustache, he ate
 
with what I can only
            call dignity—
      fork gently placed
 
 
*
 
 
across his emptied plate.
            Afterward, full,
      Mr. Coleman’s That’s nice
 
meant wonder, meant the world entire.
      Within a year cancer
 
had eaten him away—
the only hint of it this bitter taste for a whole
 
year in his mouth. The resurrection
            and the light.     
For now he’s still
           
standing down front, waiting at the altar for anyone to accept the Lord, rise
 
& he’ll meet you halfway
& help you down
      the aisle—
 
legs grown weak—
As it was in the beginning
Is now
 
*

 
And ever shall be—
All this tuning
      & tithing. We offer
 
our voices up toward the windows whose glass I knew
 
as colored, not stained—
our backs made upright not by
 
the pews alone—
the brown        
wood smooth, scrolled
 
arms grown
            warm with wear—
& prayer—
 
Tell your neighbor
            next to you
you love them—till
 
we exit into the brightness beyond the doors.