Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
Craig Morgan Teicher
A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
by Kevin Young
$27.95 List Price
In several book-length poetry projects, Kevin Young has reexamined pivotal figures in African-American history and culture—Civil War soldiers, blues singers, and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name a few. His latest, Ardency, considers the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, which was taken over by a group of African captives known as the Mendi, who were later recaptured and tried in New Haven for murder, putting them at the center of the abolition debate. Young revisits these events in ways that a history book couldn't, telling the captives' stories in different poetic styles and through a parade of voices.
The first of the book's three sections presents itself as an account of the event by James Covey, a world-weary African interpreter who translates between the Mendi and the Americans. Covey is cynical, prone to punning, and thinks a lot about what words can and can't accomplish; in short, he's like many contemporary poets. In the markets of Cuba, he observes traders closely inspecting the merchandise, even studying slaves' teeth for the figurative seeds of rebellion. As he helps teach the Mendi English, he wonders, "Could this be my fate, / my invisible art, to translate an opaque race?"
That question points to the dominant inquiry in all of Young's work: how to be an ambassador of—and how to speak for—African-American culture, particularly the aspects of it that have been silenced. He imagines the everyday lives of the Mendi in the middle section, a series of poems that take the form of letters from the prisoners to their captors and supporters. Here, we see the