Poet's Choice By Robert Pinsky

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sometimes a poem delights by mismatching some familiar style of language with a surprising topic: T.S. Eliot taking material from the music hall as a way to brood on culture, Alexander Pope writing an epic about the trivialities of upper-class flirtation, Elizabeth Bishop describing her desk and its objects in the jargon of a miniature newscaster.

Kevin Young has written a book, Black Maria (an old term for a police wagon or a hearse), that lovingly uses the hyper-metaphorical tough-guy style of classic American detective fiction and movies. Part of his subject is male loneliness and selfishness, and connected to that subject are all sorts of poses and stereotypes. The book's protagonist is part Raymond Chandler, part Muddy Waters, and the poems unearth the emotional realities behind the old detective-story vocabulary of alibi and alias, suspect and saloon, gunsel and hideout, as well as the movie vocabulary of "Voiceover" (the rubric of each section or "reel" in the volume) and "Credits" (title of the last poem). Here is "The Hunch":


She wore red like a razor --

cut quite a figure

standing there, her

slender danger

dividing day

from night, there

from here. Where

I hoped to be is near

her & her

fragrant, flammable hair --

words like always

entering my mouth

that once only gargled doubt.

You see, I been used

before like a car . . .

Between us

this sweating, a grandfather

clock's steady tick, soundtrack

of saxophones sighing.

It's been too long --

a whole week

since love burned

me like rye. I had begun

to see the glass

as never empty

& that scared me.

She fills me

like the lake

fills a canoe --

no rescue -- & to swim

I never learned how.

Young helps us think about the language, stereotypes and psychology of actual feelings by alluding to their stylized presence in books and "B" movies. The mingling of parody, tribute and insight befits the word "allusion" -- originally meaning not learned reference but any playing with language -- which comes from the same root as "ludic" and "ludicrous." Young, in this book's serious cultural play, braids the ludicrous and the profound.

(Kevin Young's poem "The Hunch" can be found in his book "Black Maria: Being the Adventures of Delilah Redbone and A.K.A. Jones." Knopf. Copyright 2005 by Kevin Young.)

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