Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Twinning Grief And Hope, A Poet Softens Pain's Sharp Edge

Death and birth; grief and hope; fear and elation — these seeming opposites are made of much the same stuff, asserts Kevin Young in his eighth book of poems, which works to wrap itself around the extremes of a father's death and a son's birth. 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.

Young marshals the same linguistic resources to manage the depths and disorientation of mourning and the dizzying bewilderment of welcoming a new life. At times, he calls on crystal clear description, breathless narration of the unfolding of time: Young confronts grief with absolute precision in a two-line poem that simply reads "In the night I brush/ my teeth with a razor." And he gives a graphic play-by-play of birth that in the unforgettable poem "Crowning," in which we see "your cap of hair half / in, half out, and wait, hold / it there, the doctors say ... "

Elsewhere, only Young's brand of jaunty metaphor can carry this weight or anchor this levity. Longing for his lost father, Young writes, "Whatever the well / you want me // To fall down I will" — one of the loveliest, friendliest figures for the wish to rejoin the dead. Poems addressed to the unborn son offer equally companionable invitations to join the living:

Kevin Young's 2012 essay collection <em>The Grey Album: On The Blackness Of Blackness</em> was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Melanie Dunea
Kevin Young's 2012 essay collection The Grey Album: On The Blackness Of Blackness was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

... The ultrasound
a spotlight

you swim in,
bow. Your first

appearance is black
and white, like the beginning

of words, or a world.


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 --

Of course, awaiting a child isn't all hope and giddiness, and Young does find his way into the murk of fear and ambivalence that one must also expect when expecting:

I now know pain

is part of any journey --
that this is the opposite

of grief, but grief
the only way I know

to describe waiting
and waiting without

knowing, hoping one day
joy will arrive.

Once again in these lines Young twins grief and hope: it's the book's first and last insight, the one it keep trying to prove and re-prove, most profoundly in the closing title sequence. There, Young laments, "It's death there / is no cure for — // life the long/ disease," and yet, he concludes, "Why not sing."

It's best, this book seems to say, to make equally good friends with grief and hope, in order to survive them. And if one is going to throw words into the mouths of the dead and the unborn, it's wise to make them kind words — the kind of words one wants, and needs, to hear.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit