Monday, January 2, 2012

Poetry Review: "Lime Light Blues," Kevin Young

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Lime Light Blues,” by Kevin Young, was originally published in Tin House 37 (Fall 2008). It was reprinted in Young’s collection Dear Darkness, and is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler and David Lehman.

Kevin Young’s short poem “Lime Light Blues” evokes feelings of extreme self-consciousness, specifically the African-American narrator's awareness of others' prejudice against him. Drivers in parked cars treat him as a potential carjacker, women in elevators see him as a possible mugger, and police and teenagers assume he is a drug dealer. (The police consider him a potential shoplifter as well.) Nothing is actually done to him, so there is no way to respond. But the poem isn’t really about the prejudices so much as the narrator’s private anger, and Young's artfulness comes from the tropes he uses to illustrate it.

Young’s most effective figurations are ironies. One laughs at lines like “I’m in an anger/encouragement class,” or “I know all/a movie needs/is me/shouting at the screen/from the balcony.” They have a subtle absurdity. Others cut deeper. There’s a poignance to a passage like “Crowds gather/& wonder how/the spotlight sounds.” One knows those in the crowds couldn’t care less about the impact of their prejudices on the people the prejudices are projected onto. If they cared, they would disabuse themselves of the prejudices. An earlier set of lines is even more disturbing. Young writes, “When I dance,/which is often,/the moon above me/wheels its disco lights--/until there’s a fight.” The point is that there never is a fight; giving into one’s enjoyment--the “dance”--is undermined by the awareness that others’ prejudices lead them to consider violence a constant possibility. Knowledge of outside bigotry creates a hothouse of resentment that undermines life's enjoyments.

The poem’s use of metaphor isn’t as accomplished. A figuration such as “What pressure/my blood is under” is a pretty hackneyed trope for anger, and the title “Lime Light Blues” is at least as obvious when it comes to evoking the anxiety one feels in response to outside attention. The poem’s opening sentence, “I have been known/to wear white shoes/beyond Labor Day,” is better. It conveys, in the context of the entire poem, the tension between awareness of idiosyncrasy and knowledge that the idiosyncrasy is too slight to warrant the attention one feels from others. However, one wonders if the idiosyncrasy is too slight to express that tension. It doesn’t make the reader respond on an emotional level; one is left to figure out Young’s intention.

However, my reservations about some of the tropes aside, Young does a fine job of portraying the state of mind that accompanies consciousness of others’ bigotry. The examples he gives of everyday prejudicial assumptions strike immediate chords, and the ironies that render the narrator’s aggravation and unease are quite effective. “Lime Light Blues” is a solid poem.

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