Las Vegas, Nashville, despair, the Midwest, “Bar-B-Q Heaven” and his family’s Louisiana home: these are the American places that Kevin Young visits in his powerful, heartfelt sixth book of poetry. Begun as a reflection on family and memory, Dear Darkness became a book of elegies after the sudden death of the poet’s father, a violent event that silenced Young with grief until he turned to rhapsodizing about the food that has sustained him and his Louisiana family for decades. Flavorful, yet filled with sadness, these stunningly original odes—to gumbo, hot sauce, crawfish, and even homemade wine—travel adeptly between slow-cooked tradition and a new direction, between everyday living and transcendent sorrow.
As in his prizewinning Jelly Roll, Young praises and grieves in one breath, paying homage to his significant clan—to “aunties” and “double cousins” and a great-grandfather’s grave in a segregated cemetery—even as he mourns. His blues expand to include a series of poems contemplating the deaths of Johnny Cash, country rocker Gram Parsons, and a host of family members lost in the past few years. Burnished by loss and a hard-won humor, he delivers poems that speak to our cultural griefs even as he buries his own. “Sadder than / a wedding dress / in a thrift store,” these are poems which grow out of hunger and pain but find a way to satisfy both; Young counts his losses and our blessings, knowing “inside / anything can sing.”