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by Kevin Young

Hardcover, 161 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $27 |


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NPR Summary

James Brown. John Brown's raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed.: Young meditates on all things "brown" in this powerful new collection. Divided into "Home Recordings" and "Field Recordings," Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black, Kansas boyhood to comment on our times.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Brown


for my mother

The scrolled brown arms
of the church pews curve
like a bone—their backs

bend us upright, standing
as the choir enters
singing, We've come this far

by faith—the steps
& sway of maroon robes,
hands clap like a heart

in its chest—leaning
on the Lord—
this morning's program

still warm
from the mimeo machine
quick becomes a fan.

In the vestibule latecomers
wait just outside
the music—the river

we crossed
to get here—
wide boulevards now


in disrepair.
We're watched over
in the antechamber

by Rev.
Oliver Brown,
his small, colored picture

nailed slanted
to the wall—former
pastor of St. Mark's

who marched
into that principal's office
in Topeka to ask

why can't my daughter
school here, just
steps from our house—

but well knew the answer—
& Little Linda
became an idea, became more

what we needed & not
a girl no more—Free-dom


Now meant
sit-ins & I shall I shall
I shall not be

& four little girls bombed
into tomorrow

in a church basement like ours
where nursing mothers & children
not ready to sit still

learned to walk—Sunday school
sent into pieces
& our arms.

We are
swaying more
now, entering

heaven's rolls—the second row
behind the widows
in their feathery hats

& empty nests, heads heavy
but not hearts
Amen. The all-white


stretchy, scratchy dresses
of the missionaries—
the hatless holy who pin lace

to their hair—bowing
down into pocketbooks
opened for the Lord, then

snapped shut
like a child's mouth
mouthing off, which just

one glare from an elder
could close.
God's eyes must be

like these—aimed
at the back row
where boys pass jokes

& glances, where Great
Aunts keep watch,
their hair shiny

as our shoes
&, as of yesterday,
just as new—


chemical curls & lop-
sided wigs—humming
during offering

Oh my Lord
Oh my Lordy
What can I do.

The pews curve like ribs
broken, barely healed,
& we can feel

ourselves breathe—
while Mrs. Linda Brown
Thompson, married now, hymns

piano behind her solo—
No finer noise
than this—

We sing
along, or behind,
mouth most

every word—following
her grown, glory voice,
the black notes


rising like we do—
like Deacon
Coleman who my mother

always called Mister
who'd help her
weekends & last

I saw him my mother
offered him
a slice of sweet potato

pie as payment—
or was it apple—
he'd take no money

barely said
Yes, only
I could stay

for a piece
trim as his grey
moustache, he ate

with what I can only
call dignity—
fork gently placed


across his emptied plate.
Afterward, full,
Mr. Coleman's That's nice

meant wonder, meant
the world entire.
Within a year cancer

had eaten him away—
the only hint of it
this bitter taste for a whole

year in his mouth. The resurrection
and the light.
For now he's still

standing down front, waiting
at the altar for anyone
to accept the Lord, rise

& he'll meet you halfway
& help you down
the aisle—

legs grown weak—
As it was in the beginning
Is now


And ever shall be—
All this tuning
& tithing. We offer

our voices up
toward the windows
whose glass I knew

as colored, not stained—
our backs
made upright not by

the pews alone—
the brown
wood smooth, scrolled

arms grown
warm with wear—
& prayer—

Tell your neighbor
next to you
you love them—till

we exit
into the brightness
beyond the doors.