Try reading Kevin Young's poem "Ode to Barbeque Sauce" three times before you move on to another article in the paper or on to some other matter of your daily business. On the first reading, just seek to wrap your tongue around the words. Speak it out loud slowly -- or at least mouth the words -- all the way through, tackling each word and phrase as best you can. Sure, it may feel and sound a little difficult, especially if you don't read too much poetry. Plod on as best you can. The word I stumble upon is "worcestershire." Pretty surprising to find that in a poem and it is a bit of a mouthful to pronounce. This first time through we want to pick up on the major ideas of his father's death, homemade barbeque sauce, a refrigerator, a family farm, and life. You are just trying to get a little handle on where this poet is coming from and what he is trying to convey to us.
On our second time through, the meaning hopefully gets clearer as we pick up on the rhythm. Meaning and rhythm go so closely together in poetry, and if you can read a poem with the rhythm in which it was composed, a lot of meaning is made clear. In Young's poems, we find that we can't pause too long at the end of a line or stanza, for the sentence continues onward and so must we to follow the thread and complete the thought.
Young is a master poet at surprising us with meaning simply by putting disparate items close together such as "okra," "barbeque," and his father's "arms." When we pick up the rhythm we find the poem really begins to sing. We hear the connections between pairs of words such as "honey" and "sour," "molasses" and "Pickapeppa," "thistle" and "native grass." Certain phrases begin to stand out as the big themes of the poem, such as the recognition that "all our answers are maybe" and "trying to find what can't be/ among the weeds." As readers we are likely still to have questions about what is happening or being shown to us (what about these "two funerals"?!), but we are also gaining confidence as poetry readers.
Then, as we give the poem our third reading, we seek to fine-tune the cadence, pitch, and flow of the poem. We allow ourselves to sink down into the meaning, the images, symbolism, the whole scene and story. This is a pretty heavy poem about death and an aging condiment in the fridge. And as we marinate in the juicy images and ideas of the poem, we naturally make connections with our own lives. What household item do I most closely associate with my father? How will I mourn his passing? What are the small acts of daily life that carry the deepest meaning for us? In what ways are all of us "fighting/ against time and the light"? Oh, and by the way, where is the nearest BBQ joint now that Young has whet my appetite?
"Ode to Barbeque Sauce" is from Young's fabulous new volume of poems, Dear Darkness. This book is packed like a Southern kitchen with poems about aunts, uncles, and cousins, a "Prayer for Black-Eyed Peas," a "Song of Cracklins," and "Short End Blues." He has written odes to grits, okra, crawfish, homemade wine, his sex organ, sweet potato pie, as well as a poem about being the only Black guy at a Johnny Paycheck concert. Young's style tends toward the short, intense line which sings out and where many of his words and phrases may be interpreted in multiple meanings. For instance, in the poem "Inheritance," Young muses on both the contents and the extended meanings of a "battered box" he retrieves from his grandmother's house: "Everything hinged/ on what bloomed inside/ among the muggy smell/ of old paper, and loans..." Later he adds, "I owe/ them my life, my grandparents/ who fought the elements/ and the earth to raise me up,/ and us, planted the seeds/ of cotton, of promise..." This poet is a master of the elegy and in this volume his attention is directed most lovingly toward family members.
Young is a wide-ranging poet and editor with other books covering jazz, the blues, and John Berryman. Just back in 2007, he published For the Confederate Dead, another exquisite volume with elegiac poems directed to: Booker T. Washington and Jim Crow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Federico Garcia Lorca, and James Hampton, the self-taught artist whose secret garage shrine made of found aluminum foil now stands in the Smithsonian. There is also a particularly moving suite of elegies to Phillipe Wamba, a friend and fellow author tragically killed in a car accident in Kenya.
Perhaps it took years of life and art before this poet could turn his eye and pen to those closest to him -- his father, mother, and near relatives -- but at least to me, it was worth the wait/weight to receive these poems now. My copy of Dear Darkness is already heavily dog-eared. These poems are worth as many read-throughs as you will give them. Go out and pick up a brown paper bag of BBQ and a book of Young's poems and see what kind of nirvana you can find together.