Kevin Young | Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

Young’s virtuosic use of the English language enables his words to practically sing themselves off the page.


272 pages. Knopf, 2011. $27.95 (hardcover)

Kevin Young may not be a musician in the traditional sense, but the 40-year-old American poet has repeatedly used musical idioms and obsessively crafted phraseologies, all pushed to their poetic limit, to give deep-rooted meaning to his words. His virtuosic use of the English language enables his words to practically sing themselves off the page.
In his latest book, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, Young continues to wrestle with the difficult and often unsettling complexities of American history. Written over the course of 20 years, Ardency chronicles the story of53 Africans who mutinied aboard the Amistad slave ship in 1839. (The historical Amistad mutiny, which provides the heartbeat for Ardency, played an important role in the abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War.) And Young does not shy away from the horrors of slavery, be he also captures the courage and strength of those who fought against slavery and survived, and does so with stunning beauty.
Presented in four main sections (“Buzzard”; “Correspondance” [sic]; “Witness”; and “After Word”), Young uses an assemblage of Negro spirituals and hollers, lonely confessions, reading lessons and letters, all told through various interwoven voices, to recount the Amistad story—a story he himself became familiar with by reading the letters the rebels had written shortly after they learned English while still imprisoned. Additional included artifacts (a bookkeeping expense report showing the cost/profit breakdown of transporting slaves, and various historical notes) aid to enhance the commentary being given these events, and the wide scope through which they’re being viewed, experienced, relived.
“All we want is make us free,” the captives write from jail—in their newfound tongue, which abolitionists have taught them while converting them to Christianity—in one of their many letters to John Quincy Adams. It’s this level of heartbreak and struggle that Young invokes throughout all of Ardency. But at many times it’s juxtaposed against the beauty of the human desire to be heard: “My words the barnacles clutching ship’s wood, helpless, helping themselves. Wait and they will spring geese from my mouth”; the great spirit of survival: “I went till going was all I was good for”; and justice: “Good comes always to the good; any bad found must be deserv’d.”
With musical immediacy and poetic resonance, Young has crafted a monumental text built on consequential ironies. Ardency explores the violence and virtues of America’s past with an unblinking eye and an unwavering tongue. | Matthew Treon


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