Poetry News

The Extreme Emotional Territory of Kevin Young's Book of Hours

By Harriet Staff

Book of hours

Craig Morgan Teicher reviews Kevin Young's new book, Book of Hours (Random House 2014), for NPR. (Disclaim! Find an excerpt here.) "In a kind of poetic daybook or diary, Young tracks his unfolding emotions in the aftermath of his father's death, and, in a separate set of sequences, narrates his growing anticipation in the months leading up to, and then just after, the birth of his son." More:

Young has always mined the depths of the vernacular, seeking the timeless in the quotidian. In emotional territory as extreme as this, his gentle metaphors sometimes have the effect of making the heart seem like a more habitable place than it may, in fact, be, but readers may nonetheless cherish and want to linger in that inaccuracy.

For instance, the most poignant expression of the father's absence comes in the form of his dogs, now without a master and temporarily under Young's care:

They do not bark.
Do they know he is dead?
They wag their tails

& head. They beg
& are fed.
Their grief is colossal

& forgetful.
Each day they wake
seeking his voice,

their names.
By dusk they seem
to unremember everything —

How could one not love them? Who has not been them? Dogs grieve like our hearts — "colossal / & forgetful" — but not like our minds, which argue, bargain, deny and dramatize.

Young's grief isn't always so adorable. This book also contains some of the first good, and often graphic, poetry about organ donation, in which the idea of saving another life is asked, and numbly fails, to assuage Young's sadness over the loss of his father, whose liver he says is "set like a bloody stone/ inside somebody / else to save."

Still, despite all the pain and conflict they represent, the dogs are pleasant to hang out with. Equally good company is the family addressing its unborn son in hopeful poems:

Son, what we learn
your first trip
to Paris is this: you love
Indian cuisine, croissant,
and Fra Angelico — or maybe
that's me. Soon
as curry creeps mama's
lips you start to kick.
And kick. My hand
on her stomach's music
can send you to sleep —

Read the full review--and read more from the book--at NPR.