California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues'

Al Young is California's poet laureate. i i

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. Courtesy Al Young hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Al Young
Al Young is California's poet laureate.

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.

Courtesy Al Young

Young Reads Young

Al Young reads two poems from his new collection, Something About the Blues.

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 attend 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 Renee 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'

'Something About the Blues'

 

'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 Mazatlán,

up from Baja or Celaya—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'

1/

 

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;

      their blues.

 

2/

 

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 us—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.

 

© 2008 by Al Young, from Something About the Blues. Published by Sourcebooks.

Books Featured In This Story

Something About the Blues

An Unlikely Collection of Poetry

by Al Young

Hardcover, 211 pages | purchase

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