California Poet Laureate Al Young’s ‘Blues’
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Al Young was born on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. He grew up in the rural South and in Detroit before moving to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960.
Morning Edition, April 24, 2008 Â· Al Young took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, “to make out the sound of my own background music.”
He’s now the poet laureate of California, celebrating National Poetry Month with a collection called Something About the Blues.
Though he’s lived in California for decades, the 68-year-old poet was born in rural Mississippi and had the good luck to find himself in one very special classroom in the second grade.
In the segregated South of the 1940s, Young attended a black-only school. “At the Kingston School for Colored, we put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture,” he tells RenĂ©e Montagne. “So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.”
Young moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960, “under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns … and there was just a lot of romance about it.” He had $15 and a guitar.
Young’s poems touch on not only blues and jazz music but also, not surprisingly, life in California. In “Watsonville After the Quake,” he writes about the Mexican immigrants forgotten in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In “Blues My Naughty Poetry Taught Me,” Young observes the state through the window of an Amtrak train:
Sea-fences, industrial wash-ups, slushy tracks
and rickety light: skies so soulfully watercolored
you’d have to be an arts commissioner not to see it.
Seen across the Bay through trees and the undersides
of freeways San Francisco looks lonely at the end
of one bridge and the beginning of another…
Poems: ‘Something About the Blues’
NPR.org, April 23, 2008 Â·
‘Watsonville After the Quake’
On Central Coast radio KTOM blasts
Eddie Rabbitt thru waves of air the sea
surrounds, & all the other country stars
come out (Claude King, Tammy Wynette, Shelley
West) & spread themselves in droplets.
The sacred moisture of their song is skin
to seal a pain that quavers in this ash blue night
coming on just now like a downcast motel date,
who’s warned you from in front that she’ll be coming
’round the mountain when she comes.
Whose tents are these? What’s with these shot
parking lot & alleyway families peeping around
the raggedy backs of undemolished fronts?
That brownskin kid on a grassy patch along Main,
catching a football & falling with joy
on the run, is his family up from MazatlĂˇn,
up from Baja or Celayaâ€”or edges of eternity?
Network TV didn’t do this news up right.
For all their huff & puff & blow your house down,
the mediators of disaster and distress
didn’t find this sickly devastation sexy.
Besides, who’s going to cry or lose sleep
over a spaced out, tar papered, toppled down town
by the sea, brown now with alien debris?
‘Los Angeles, Los Angeles:
One Long-Shot, One Cutaway’
Inside your belly, a new beast ripens.
While all your twilit litters guard the door,
the ghost of Ho Chi Minh pours out a toast:
Here’s to old Saigon, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing;
Iran before the Shah; to Port-au-Prince,
and Port of Spain, Tijuana, Kingston Town;
to Tokyo, Bombay, Tel-Aviv, Nairobi and Accra.
Not Ghana but the oldest Gold Coast drums
her thoughts out loud in not so cooling colors,
The darkest nights of Seoul turn into tunnels,
where rays of hope, spaghetti thin, break skin
and ream the veins of dreams so long deferred
that laser-lined Thought Police 100 years from now
still can’t decrypt the meaning of their blood;
A Stoly on the rocks, some rock cocaine,
a spoon of smack can crack the sound of barriers
and barrios alike. But light is hard.
‘The James Cotton Band at Keystone’
And the blues, I tell you, they blew up
on target; blew the roof right off
& went whistling skyward, starward,
stilling every zooming one of us
mojo’d in the room that night, that
instant, that whenever it was. Torn
inside at first, we all got turned out,
twisting in a blooming space where
afternoon & evening fused like Adam
with Eve. The joyful urge to cry
mushroomed into a blinding cloudburst
of spirit wired for sound, then atomized
into one long, thunderous, cooling downpour.
What ceased to be was now & now & now.
Time somehow was what the blues froze
tight like an underground pipe before
busting it loose in glad explosions; a
blast that shattered usâ€”ice, flow & all.
The drift of what we’d been began to
shift, dragging us neither upstream nor
down but lifting us, safe & high, above
the very storm that, only flashing moments
ago, we’d been huddling in for warmth.
Melted at last, liquefied, we became
losers to the blues & victors, both.
Now that he’d blown us away with his shout,
this reigning brownskinned wizard, wise
to the ways of alchemy, squeezed new life
back into us by breathing through cracks
in our broken hearts; coaxing & choking
while speaking in tongues that fork & bend
like the watery peripheries of time; a
crime no more punishable than what the
dreaming volcano does waking from what it was.
Believe me, the blues can be volatile too,
but the blues don’t bruise; they only renew.
Â© 2008 by Al Young, from Something About the Blues. Published by Sourcebooks.