To Repel Ghosts by Kevin Young

by John G. Nettles


Needle Drops on Black Wax

As with fire, one must always have be careful with hype. It seduces, it flares, it runs out of control, it kills. Much as I want to say that Kevin Young is a Vital Young Poet and that To Repel Ghosts is a Great Book, the book itself has warned me away from it. In 350 pages Young chronicles the dangers of hype as it struck down some of the greatest artists of the century — among them Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix, and particularly the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the main focus of this extensive, epic work. So I’ll attempt to pull back a notch and say that Kevin Young has produced something important here, an evocative and provocative examination of art, music, pop culture, and what it means to be — to use the overworked but inescapable phrase — young, gifted, and black.

The core of To Repel Ghosts is a cycle of poems Young composed to accompany a travelling exhibit of Basquiat’s work in 1998, tracing the artist’s life from his Brooklyn childhood to his vagabond teen years, where he garnered street cred under the handle SAMO©, both for his daring grafitti (contemporary with Keith Haring’s) and for his trademark pre-fashionable mohawk, through his famous love/hate association with Andy Warhol and his solo endeavors until his death from a heroin overdose in 1985. The beauty of Young’s work is that even without the exhibit, and without annotation (there are notes to possibly unfamiliar terms in the back of the book, but they’re not really necessary), and working in a broken, minimalist, free-associating style, he still manages to convey the course of Basquiat’s external and internal lives clearly.

cover art

To Repel Ghosts

Kevin Young

(Zoland Books)

Subtitled Five Sides in B Minor, the book is organized and laid out as if a five-album boxed set — a nod to Basquiat’s love of records — with each of the poems constituting “tracks,” and it’s best to receive the book in that spirit. While most collections of poetry encourage the reader to skip around a bit, this collection of songs should be played straight through. The Basquiat poems follow the artist’s chronology faithfully and lay down the basic riff, staccato triplets of flash images and wordplay:

Candid, Warhol
scoffed, coined it
a nigger’s loft

not The Factory,
Basquiat’s studio stood
anything but lofty —

skid rows of canvases,
paint peeling like bananas,
like scabs. Bartering work

for horse, Basquiat churned
out butter, signing each
SAMO©. Sameold. Sambo’s

soup. How to sell out
something bankrupt
already? . . .

— from “Campbell’s Black Bean Soup”

Establishing the fundamental groove, Young will spin off into side melodies, variations on the theme, with brief forays into other lives lifted by fame and burned out by hype. The longest and best diversion concerns Jack Johnson, the black boxer and cause celebre of the early part of the last century who was targeted by the boxing establishment for being too successful, an embarrassment to whites (James Earl Jones played him in The Great White Hope). But Young inevitably returns to Basquiat, the whole thing resembling a marathon bebop session a la Monk or Coltrane.

Young’s style mirrors the borrow-from-everything ethic of pop art, referencing films, television, comic books, advertising, and lists culled from the vocabularies of foreign language texts. For example, one poem, “Riddle Me This Batman,” jams imagery and sound effects together in a bleak examination of loss of control:

Doesn’t everyone die
a dozen
times, ready

or not? ZLONK!
KAPOW! @;#$%*!?!
The cancer

slow, or sudden
as heart’s failure —
desire desire — whether

suicide or mass
murder, we all
share final

breath. Rites.
To the Batetcetera

Robin! . . .

Young’s penchant for wordplay and exacting enjambment results in lines with double- and triple-meanings — his poems are exercises in verbal pointillism, meaning one thing up close and another in the long view. Although this technique makes for the occasional too-clever juxtaposition, the vast majority of the work denotes Young’s pinpoint control over his words and makes a good case for minimalist verse, as opposed to the rambling polysyllabisms favored by most current young poets.

It is a testament to Young’s ability that this book even exists, 350 being an awful lot of pages for a publisher to devote to the work of a largely unknown (though multiple prize-winning) poet. But To Repel Ghosts is a thicker book than it seems while reading it. The faux-record setup is an appropriate one — like the best jazz, like the best art, this collection propels the reader. It moves.

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