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 Mendi struggling with their new language and politely trying to convince powerful Americans that they merely want to go back home: "We want you to tell the court that Mendi people no want to go back / to New Havana, we no want to be killed," they write to John Quincy Adams, then a lawyer.
If Covey is Young's stand-in, then his hero, the Odysseus of this epic, is Cinque, the leader of the Amistad rebellion, whose voice speaks or sings the book's third and longest section, full of thin-lined poems that ramble like journal entries. Billed as a libretto, Cinque's portion utilizes an arsenal of forms and registers. Rather than disguising himself, Cinque masters the various selves he must inhabit in his long quest to get back to Africa—"Forward // is all the soul / knows," notes one poem. He eventually arrives, along with other freed Mendi and a troupe of American missionaries, whose sobering accounts of their troubles bring the book to a close.
Ardency moves slower than Young's other book-length sequences, favoring an accumulation of perspectives over narrative momentum. But it's powerful stuff, some of the prolific Young's best, driven by his ventriloquistic skills and sense of loss. By learning America's language and adopting Christianity, the Mendi may have won respect from newspapers and freedom from the courts. At the same time, Young movingly suggests, this new knowledge left them irrevocably altered.