“If you didn’t know / better, you might think / Muhammad was praying, / not talking smack— / arms up, Ali / leans way back / as if trying to catch / a glimpse / of the Almighty— … The thumbs / of his old-fashioned boxing gloves / upright like Ali / hopes to hitch a ride / to heaven.”

“Rumble in the Jungle,” from Brown: Poems by Kevin Young

As a Mormon, I’m old hat at endowing heroic figures with both mortal and divine potential. Also familiar to me, the belief that the veil separating Earth and Heaven is thin. Even if one regards this belief as metaphorical, gesturing to Heaven remains a perfectly understandable action. Granted, Kevin Young is not writing poetry about Mormonism. Still, the above imagery resonates with me in this fashion.

Though I’ve never met him, Mr. Young has become a mentor of sorts. He is The New Yorker’s poetry editor and hosts a wonderful podcast on the genre. In conversation with other professional poets, he mixes shoptalk, philosophizing, and personal reflection. Poetry is a hopelessly subjective enterprise, but Young models how to make it manageable and worthwhile.

A couple of weeks ago, I bumped Young’s book Brown: Poems to the top of my reading list. I’m grateful I did. In Brown, divine imagery and vocabulary appear frequently. Though, religion is only one of several topics the collection makes vivid. It also immerses readers in worldly experience with its sensual and gladiatorial rites of passage. Brown is as much about Monday through Saturday as it is about Sunday. The veering from ecclesiastical to carnal sometimes occurs within a single stanza.

For this post, having read the book is unnecessary. In your mind, simply juxtapose notions of high and low, sacred and profane, powerful and persecuted, father and son. Young says it best in a poem centered on music legend B. B. King:

“A poetry where Saturday night / meets Sunday morning, / a midnight music, / a crossroads sound— / coming home from the juke / & heading right to church…”

“B. B. King Plays Oxford, Mississippi” by Kevin Young

Time and culture are in relationship here. When I first read the above line, I paused and started singing a familiar LDS Primary song: “Saturday is a special day. / It’s the day we get ready for Sunday.” Young lays it out this way in his poem “Money Road”: “The blues always dance / cheek to cheek with a church—”

By way of confession, I have landed far away from the core subject of Young’s Brown: an achingly profound exploration of growing to adulthood, and parenthood in particular, as a black man routinely subjected to racism. As I said above, poetry is a hopelessly subjective enterprise. That goes for both the writing and reading of it.

Young’s poetry bounds back and forth between secular and sacred contexts. His technique amplifies the themes, mixing finely crafted rhythm and rhyme with stammer and slang. I guess it also speaks to something I believe is true: nothing prepares you for Sunday worship quite like living it up on Saturday night. And the same should be said of Sunday’s potential to help us survive Monday. Fulfillment may never be achieved by landing permanently in one lifestyle or the other. Perhaps it is achieved through our weekly oscillations between raucousness and reverence.

Questions for Discussion:

  • How does your diet of secular culture affect your religious diet?
  • Who is someone you look to as a model for being successful in the world? Who is a different person you look to as an example of how best to be religious? How do these two role models compare and contrast?

Image credit: SocialButterflyMMG on Pixabay.