Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor
Zoland Books, Cambridge, MA.
Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts: Five
Sides in B Minor immediately put me off. A poetic biography of the
painter Jean-Michel Basquiat where the "poetic" consisted of the repeated
use of a single form with relatively minor variations. As boring in concept
and execution as anything by MacLeish, Benét, Warren, or Berryman,
I thought. The bio on the flyleaf, with its gab of prizes, ploughshares,
and NPR, reading like mud, depressed me further. Why had I agreed to review
this book? Three-hundred-and-fifty-fucking pages! I don't have that much
time left, as they say. Then I began reading. It soon became apparent
that Basquiat was not so much the center of this book as the main dynamic
representative of a presence in the cultural-historical montage that was
America in the twentieth-century, a presence rendered protean by Young
in the text's sightstream as boxers (such as Jack Johnson and Muhammad
Ali), singers (Billie Holiday), musicians (Charlie Parker and Lester Young),
blues artists (Robert Johnson), folk painters (Bill Traylor), and writers
(Langston Hughes), each an articulation of the echoic possibilities and
hardships, life after life, of our morphing protagonist. That's the "center."
These figures are not the foils of Basquiat (though perhaps Warhol is),
but the confluence of such lives which testify to the intelligence and
courage with which they confronted the crude accommodations of their age.
In common their confusion, frenetic activity, pain, and self-destruction.
In common as well, their vitality, vision, and openness (from amid the
wreckage, a naivete yet peers, etc.). Most often the very real possibility
of "making it" and "after a fashion" (given some "accommodation of spirit")
in the white man's world is proffered, only to be inevitably withheld
(the way an armed robbery is a withholding), with the resultant failure
in any terms other than their lives might attest or such a book measure.
Not so comfortably conceived as I first thought.
And the measure in its most obvious form
is the terse triplet, unrhymed, generally four words per line or less,
often nouns and noun phrases flying at the reader who must, if he will
attend, realize these flailing clusters (think of cummings' grasshopper)
in their multiple connections and witness the articulation of these joints
which often seen to move, like the thumb, several ways gracefully at once.
The lines themselves are bright, frenetic things, generative clusters
of mind thought, cultural jabber, and luminous observations as they flow
circumstantially yet inevitably through a representative life, as though
each was an experiment; lines luminous with a language (Young's tongue
here the sieve of culture itself) drawn from movies, ads, signage, headlines,
idioms, jargon, argot, and common phrases from newspapers, labels, cartoons,
and the blather of our time, the inane contiguous with the intelligent.
Each noun cluster flowing into the next or interrupted by the following
in the three-line time of Young's remarkably versatile tercet into an
intuitive, associative, and dynamic montage of the possible and its injection
into the actual world, usually with brutal results. In the hands of Young,
the three-liner is an instrument capable of highly various and nuanced
effects both in its isolation and as it runs through the poem,
through the book.
The intelligence of the montage (which
is sometimes both overlay and sequential) is fast and facile, flying in
the face of aesthetic standards based on a consistency, narrowly conceived,
of tone, riding a generative engine of chance, wordplay, jokes, memory,
references spawning references in parallel phrasing, as well as biographical
and meditative furtherance. Amid the whiplash of reference and recognitions,
Young's poetry floats just over the center, as above the rotating blades
of a helicopter, almost pacific, with one or another of his figures. And
over the center, as well, a faith in art itself, not just Basquiat's or
his own, but the art of living as achievement, a wobbling pivot to be
certain, but a pivot nonetheless. That is the diorama of the culture and
these lives pivots, drunkenly, to a series of conclusions, each deadly
serious. Yet in toto the work is oddly optimistic. Asserting and reasserting
the fact that such men as Robert Johnson and Jean-Michel Basquiat are
possible, that their lives and work engage the most essential portions
of themselves despite the oppressive and ubiquitous hostility or ignorance
of their time. That the world is, finally, regenerative.