Brown: Poems by Kevin Young. Penguin Random House, $27.
Brown, a poetry collection by Kevin Young, is about a lot of things. It’s a meditation on not only brownness as an identity — a lot of these poems center around Young’s childhood as a black kid in Kansas — but “brown” as an encompassing theme. The collection is carried by an undercurrent of art, music, sports and culture, along with more solipsistic ideas of self. “Brown” comes across sometimes literally, with poems mentioning James Brown and Brown vs. Board of Education — the “scrolled brown arms of the church pews curve like a bone,” Young writes in the title piece. Other times, “brown” is more of an enveloping feeling, which sometimes comes alive with warmth — a pride in the beauty, strength and glory of brownness. In other glimpses, it’s a look at the shame and self-pity that inherently comes with growing up brown; in an early piece, Young recalls the time when a racist neighbor would not let him play on her swing set. Overall, Brown is a beautiful collection of pieces revolving around not only the things that separate us, but those that bring us together. My favorites from this collection are “Flame Tempered,” “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” and “Triptych for Trayvon Martin.” — Meerah Powell
An Object in Motion by Patrick Newson. Nomadic Press, $12.
When I first met the writer Pat Newson, he was a bent wild man, part satanic elf and part hobbled saint, and his whole being bled black ink and raw, embryonic desire. I immediately identified something precious and endangered in the short stories he wrestled to the page: a true writer’s voice, tender and brutal and wise, something that can never be taught but which bubbles up from the primordial gunk of being, a pearl burnished by the jagged edges inside all of us.
Some years have passed since those heady, heartbreaking days, and now Newson has emerged from the belly of the whale with a new poetry collection, An Object in Motion. It is a staggering work. It took the wind right out of me, in the best way possible. It zapped me awake.
The collection is anchored in the theme of guns, much in the same way Moby Dick is anchored in the theme of whaling: Not didactically or ideologically, but rather as an intellectual and spiritual flashpoint, a flare that lights the way to an investigation into the totality of our American experience. They are forever grounded in the real, the meat and bone of lived experience, whether that is the writer’s outdoorsy Northwest childhood or his more recent years residing in the battle zone of Oakland’s urban core.
The truism “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is as stupid as it is true, and Newson’s collection puts the lie to our whole sick gun culture — which, after all, is less about bullets than the lust for brutality that breathes itself into every stitch of our national fabric. — Rick Levin