2003 National Book Award Finalist: Poetry

Kevin Young

Jelly Roll: A Blues

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House, Inc.


From Blues to Dixieland to Ragtime, early 20th century American popular music serves as a stylistic and thematic model for the poems in this collection. The poet limits himself to short verses, often of only two lines, complementing his urgent and highly personal subject matter while lending melodic vocal attributes to the verse. The collection infuses decades-old American lyric formulas with contemporary diction and vernacular, and, in so doing, recasts the past in the most contemporary of terms.

Author Biography

A 2003-2004 Guggenheim fellow and Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University, Kevin Young has written two previous books of poetry, Most Way Home (1995) and To Repel Ghosts (2001), which is based upon the work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. His poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Callaloo; and he also edited the acclaimed Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. In 2001, Mr. Young was the writer-in-residence for the National Book Foundation's week-long Family Literacy Project at James Monroe Campus Schools in the South Bronx

Selected Backlist

Most Way Home
To Repel Ghosts

Excerpt from Jelly Roll


Quite difficult, belief.
Quite terrible, faith

that the night, again,
will nominate

you a running mate–
that we are of the elect

& have not yet
found out. That the tide

still might toss us up
another–what eyes

& stars, what teeth!
such arms, alive–

someone we will, all
night, keep. Not

just these spiders
that skitter & cobweb,

share my shivering bed.



You, rare as Georgia
snow. Falling

hard. quick.
Candle shadow.

The cold
spell that catches

us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,

tricked, gardenias blown about,
circling wind. Green figs.

Nothing stays. I want
to watch you walk

the hall to the cold tile

night, a lifetime.


"Harvest Song"

Lover you leave me
autumn, tilling, a man

tending his yard,
or one not even

his own. Outskirts
of town a farmer

one-armed, walks his fields
into fire--my neighbor

on his knees with a razor
trims his lawn. Next door

I am in the pines--
grass thirsting, and up

to here in weeds--
poison, neglect,

I have tried to forget--
nothing works. Let

the birds rabbits
termites have the run

of the place, the worms,
I will take them in


"Elegy, Niagara Falls"
for Bert King, d. 1996

Here snow starts
but does not

is not enough
to cover
the bare thaw--

ed ground.
Grief is the god that gets us--

good--in the end--
let out

early--in time
to catch the lunch
special--at my local

hotel. Sunday--
even the bus
boy has your

face. And still
having heard
some days later you

were dead--
I haven't caught

Excerpted from Jelly Roll by Kevin Young Copyright© 2003 by Kevin Young. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo Credit: Greg Whitaker