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Jelly Roll
By Kevin Young
Knopf, 176 pp., $23

Little known pejorative term "jelly roll" has an etymology linked to loving-goods acquired for free or hire in speakeasies and piano-brothels. Surely Kevin Young knows this as he weaves through a colloquial history of jimcrowed love. Jelly Roll rolls with a brilliant lyrical minimalism. With the fewest of words, Young delivers his expression of the foods, instruments, music and stylings of unadulterated negritude, and brings the reader to the track's other side. His work is mostly effective with its rhymed and unrhymed couplets of love and loss, and enough ambiguous tongue-in-cheek inference to make Robert Johnson proud.

It is exactly what Amiri Baraka would describe so eloquently in his work Blues People as blues legend Bessie Smith saying "kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass." Furthermore, Zora Neale Hurston in her "Characteristics of Negro Expressions" in Negro Anthology, states it as "the negro theater built up by the negro ... based on jook situations, with women gambling, fighting and drinking." Young gives it a great go with this Harlem Renaissance--by way of Delta/bayou--literary device.

The contents read like a dictionary of black folks' slang with such eye-ear-rockcandies as "Shimmy," "Zoot," "Jook" and "Boogaloo." Young is clever on the upside and downside of colored love with "Blackbottom" ("Like coffee I do not care/how bad you miss me--strong, black, I think") and "Gumbo" ("How the stomach, starved, spits out food-- ...I have left only skin--an old/unstirred soup") while "Gutbucket" brings to mind a crossroad somewhere, where ("I want like water, you/something wet 'gainst the back/of my throat. Carry me out"). In "Cakewalk" and "Boogie-woogie" he is gold-tooth sweet with a swig of something homebrewed. Even "bad-nigger-heroes" John Henry and Staggerlee make guest appearances to round off Young's bluesology.

For the most part this piece is celebratory, the likes heralded by masters of poesy and purveyors of colored cultural criticism. The work brings to mind Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Geneva Smitherman, Imaamu Amiri Baraka and Ben Sidran; the explanatory long plays of Young's intent.

Young has been here before in his second book of poems, To Repel Ghosts, (based on the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat) and Jelly Roll is described as a "double album," with its use of music, movement and word. It is a clever way to embellish the indescribable, the soul of those misplaced; expressing themselves as best they can on a very long sojourn. Geneva Smitherman describes it as this, in her book Talkin and Testifyin : "I lump music with cooltalk because much of the hip or slang aspect of black semantics comes from the music world."

Currently a Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University, Young comes off more like Delta bluesman Son House, sliding through puritanical censors with prose "race records" in the rhythm of a boogie woogie background. With the solemnity of sharecroppers with worn hands and the sorrow of brownish-red eyes that never quite clarify, Young invites his audience to indulge in "slanguage," that could easily pass as a Reader's Digest companion to Clarence Major's Juba to Jive.

A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Young has racked up accolades such as the Ploughshares' Zacharis First Book Award for Most Way Home, edited the anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers and appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. One might conclude that this nearly new writer is following in some great tracks laid by his blues predecessors--ones that he ceremonially pays homage to in the warmest fashion.

Jelly Roll is comfortable and familiar like a hand-me-down three-string and a rusty hockshop harmonica, providing us something pure and soul-stirring as hot hooch.

  • Jelly Roll

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