Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

Overview

Acclaimed poet Kevin Young gathers here a chorus of voices that tells the story of the Africans who mutinied onboard the slave ship Amistad. Written over twenty years, this poetic epic—part libretto, part captivity epistle—makes the past present, and even its sorrows sing.

In “Buzzard,” the opening section, we hear from the African interpreter for the rebels, mostly from Sierra Leone, who were captured on their winding attempt to sail home and were jailed in New Haven. In ...

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Overview

Acclaimed poet Kevin Young gathers here a chorus of voices that tells the story of the Africans who mutinied onboard the slave ship Amistad. Written over twenty years, this poetic epic—part libretto, part captivity epistle—makes the past present, and even its sorrows sing.

In “Buzzard,” the opening section, we hear from the African interpreter for the rebels, mostly from Sierra Leone, who were captured on their winding attempt to sail home and were jailed in New Haven. In “Correspondance,” we encounter the remarkable letters to John Quincy Adams and others that the captives write from jail, where abolitionists taught them English while converting them to Christianity. In lines profound and pointed, the men demand their freedom in their newfound tongue: “All we want is make us free.” The book culminates in “Witness,” a libretto chanted by Cinque, the rebel leader, who yearns for his family and freedom while eloquently evoking the Amistads’ conversion and life in “Merica.”

As Young conjures this array of history and music, interweaving the liberation cry of Negro spirituals and the indoctrinating wordplay of American primers, he delivers his signature songlike immediacy at the service of a tremendous epic built on the ironies, violence, and virtues of American history. Vivid and true, Ardency is a powerful meditation on who we’ve been and who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The story of the Amistad is widely known: enslaved Africans on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba in 1839 took over the schooner and sailed to the United States. Put in jail in New Haven, the Amistad rebels found assistance from American abolitionists when they faced trial: finally they were allowed to return to Sierra Leone. The prolific Young (Dear Darkness) has organized a big and varied book around that story. The strongest part, called a libretto, consists largely of short-lined, intense poems sung, spoken, or thought by the rebel leader Cinque, who muses often on Christian providence: "Our shroud a sail—/ heaven our home—// we compass/ our helpless bones." Stanzaic poems at the start and the end of the volume follow the Amistad Africans in America and after their return, giving voice to perhaps a dozen characters: "My calling is to vanish," says the free black translator James Covey, "finish/ the thoughts others don't know/ they own." The famous story becomes a microcosm of everything wrong with American, and Atlantic, history. As with Young's previous ambitious book-length projects (such as a verse life of Jean-Michel Basquiat), the book taken as a whole is more powerful than some of the individual poems. That whole is impressive indeed. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Suffering, salvation, hope, despair: these motifs come alive in National Book Award finalist Young's latest collection, which chronicles the slave mutiny aboard the schooner Amistad in 1839. This three-part book focuses on the 53 Africans who rebelled against their would-be slave owners. Young expertly blends cultural and social history as well as religion to dramatize the lives of the rebels. His evocative use of language—punctuated with stunning metaphors—keeps the historical context clear while moving the gripping true story forward. The Africans planned to return home to Sierra Leone, but when their ship was secretly rerouted, they found themselves in a Connecticut prison with only a group of misguided abolitionists to help them. Young fuses the broken English of the captives with allusions to Scripture, Roman Catholic prayers, and rituals, as well as references to school subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic. VERDICT Writing in blues rhythms, Young achieves a hypnotic effect with repetition, puns, shifts in syntax, ellipsis, and use of the vernacular. Ultimately, his retelling becomes an eloquent examination of slavery as it's felt in the human soul. Highly recommended.—Diane Scharper, Towson Univ., MD
Elizabeth Lund
Despite its flaws, Ardency is compelling and hints at the scope and depth of Young's future efforts.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307267641
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/25/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Young is the author of six previous collections of poetry. Jelly Roll was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Paterson Poetry Prize; For the Confederate Dead won the 2007 Quill Award for poetry. Young is currently the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Book-Keeping

Lomboko, Sierra Leone

1. Expenses Out.

Cost of Tecora, a 90-ton schooner $ 3,700 00

Fitting out, sails, carpenter and cooper's bill 2,500 00

Provisions for crew and slaves 1,115 00

Wages advanced to 18 men before the mast 900 00

" " to captain, mates, boatswain, steward, cook 440 00

200,000 cigars and 500 doubloons, cargo 10,900 00

Clearance and hush-money 200 00

2. Expenses Home & In Havana.

Captain's head-money, at $8 a head $ 1,746 00

Mate's ", Captain and Crew's wages 3,811 00

Government officers, at $8 per head 1,736 00

My commission on 217 slaves, expenses off 5,565 00

Consignee's commissions 3,873 00

217 slave dresses, at $2 each 434 00

Extra expenses of all kinds, say 1,200 00

3. Returns.

Value of vessels at auction $ 3,950 00

Proceeds of 217 slaves 77,469 00

Total returns $ 81,419 00

"expenses 38,120 00

Net profit $ 43,299 00

BUZZARD.

And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened

the window of the ark which he had made:

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until

the waters were dried up from the earth.

--Genesis 8:6-7

Exodus

Gabriel, Escalastio, Desiderio,-in the seas beneath

the States, names new & Christian fell around you

like the lash. Before slavery, ten suns from water open

as a wound, you say you belonged to nothing

but home. Your back bore only spirit's teeth, scars

that meant manhood. Such rites of passage

protected little:-with in one moon you fared

no better than a slaver's shifting cargo of looking

glasses, olives. Out of boredom or freedom

of movement, the crew took a poker from under bitter

plaintains,-carved Captain's f into Cabin Boy's shoulder.

Parched as you were, would you have sipped the rum

& gunpowder smeared in that wound to make sure

it would brand? A few mad, swollen tongues caught

the saltwater Cabin Boy's good arm tossed. Was it

sanity drove cousin Fu-li to edge over the casket

of fresh water, lend it his own throat? Catching

him wet-lipped, Captain's men fed home

the whip:-even now you can hear his skin part,

can tell how much his body was water, how much

spine was book, just asking to be opened, read.

Covey

Hijacked on The War Road, my birth

name, each sun I walked in Africa

was a forgetting, each step a bird

song gone. Three men stole me:-a boy,

a bad dice roll, a debt traded for guns

& doubloons. I was to be like you, a slave

bowing to fields of sugar, a rebel raising

cane,-only a man-o-war turned my slaver

around, set me to work in Freetown

a servant. Anglicans christened me a small riot

of guineas,-half-Brit, half-bird, as Covey I served

Her Majesty's Buzzard, feeding off ships caught

& replanted, as I'd been. New World, eagle shore,

your abolitionists found me by counting:-one

versed in classics scoured the docks, parroted eta,

fili, wafura to every black face. Other hands laughed,-

to me those words held home, meant one, two, five,

free. From the wings I emerged:-step right up ladies

& Africans, feast your eyes on this Most Divine

Two-Tongue Man! Once Kaw-we-li, now Scavenger

of the Word, voice covering yours, I circle above.

Misericordia

Havana, Cuba

I hear you can buy a man

there easy as a name,-just check

the bottoms for red, telling

sores, examine teeth for words

like runaway, no. Your titles may

already bring you Spanish wine, or

quadroons in New Orleans gambling

halls, but Havana holds too many

Dons & men named for saints to take

such currency. Far off in the dark

continent, bars translate into goods,

a man's height in cotton, even kegs

of rum only fit for those negro backs

that taste the cat. This island speaks

only silver. One fifteen-dollar-a-head hand-

shake with Governor General can turn all

of Africa into ladinos, slaves born in Cuba

decades ago. The right signature

can make the youngest girl nineteen,

Christian, yours:-anything but white

or willing.

Cut-Up

Stop me if you've heard this one

before:-on a low, long, big black

boat, hunger follows you like sharks

along the Middle Passage. Oceans trail

blood & overboard brothers. You know

little about men who live at sea,

these white termites hoarding crumbs

for winters which never arrive. You

are the grasshopper men, locusts kept legless,

silent. Sold. Three days from Cuba, some body

steals over to Celestino, the rationing potato-

headed Cook, asks what does this routine of chains

mean? The griffin looks about for his master

& father, then leans closer to let you in

on some thing. Get this:-you'll be sliced, salted

& canned like laughter. His finger runs slow

across his neck, his body suddenly a tongue

even you can understand,-a joke on no body

but you. Here's a killer:-know why cannibals

don't eat clowns? Taste too funny. Your faces

never break, stay black as comedy.

Advent

You tell me you never answer to lion

or boy, tho the papers have called

you Jinqua, Singbe, Cinquez,

Sinner. You stay cold as ever

in your naked cell, refusing the grey

robes this Union wished you in.

I have seen enough heads read lately

to know yours will make even fools

famous, hands translating your body

in lectures, from podiums, where such

an African skull, well-formed, is seldom

to be seen-doubtless in other circumstances

an honor to his race. At sea, your masters

must have dreamt that crown would buy

them islands. They named you Joseph, step-

father to the Lord, slept & saw you bring Mary,

laboring, on a mule. How could they have known

your son across the sea whose name you confide

means God? They woke to the sounds of Xmas,

your cane knife opening the heads of lords

& mulattoes, like wisdom, molasses beneath stars.

Questioning

Who among you knew the Crew

split after seeing Captain's head

spill open? Who heard the lashings

come undone, or saw the gripe

unhooked, the lifeboat slip silent

over the side? While you knived

who saw the scar their cutter

made in water, slashing a wake

toward horizon, unseeable

shore? Who beheld the Christ

in your master's mouths as they watched

the night grow arms & strike? Did you

swab the sticky deck? Count casualties

like the black stars drown in?

Did you expect to meet ardency,

that wanting of wind? Who supposed

the stern would slow, your seizing

break, or guessed your masters,

while you slept, sailed for Providence?

And who let your dead launch

overboard, thrown like a voice?

Friendship

During the mutiny your Masters must have heard

Captain & his mulatto Messboy go down the way

such family should, fighting, each splash the black wax

sealing an envelope. If it may please the court:-tho hidden

behind hungry barrels, the traders still ordered that boy,

Antonio, to toss you bread & allegiance. You found

your owners scared as stowaways on that boat baptized

Friendship,-bound them in chains to give a taste

of a slave's thirst. For days the fools refused to believe

property could be so bold. It was as if the beds they'd made

love to, their favorite muskets, grew blue with waiting

& woke. Unvexed, they wrote strange script to hand

any ships chanced upon; you sunk such letters

of death, unswayed. You say you sent anchors over

the same way, hoping to cease your drift, then turn round

toward family. When your sunburnt enemy called the sea

too deep to stop, you dove down far as lungs & doubt allowed,

emerged only with handfuls of blind, angelic fish. Little choice

but spare the cretins to navigate by scorpion, twin:-let them

steer your fellowship of thieves, give them all the water

they please, free them from irons, only thing ever they shared.

Sightings

Having freed yourselves you wandered

like a Jew:-least that's how them Spaniards

saw you,-liable, bloodied, & without Christ

to save. By day, under watch, the Dons

steered sunward; nights they reversed west

& lied, left your inquisitions unmoored

no matter what your threat. You saw

horizon & hoped it home, landed to fill

your casks,-even then sensing this shore unsafe.

Nosing north, hungry, you ate from the hold

raisins & jaundice & wine. Some ate only angels,

died. Ships with names like lovers,-Emmeline,

Blossom-sighted & tried boarding your bandaged

ship, balked at the muskets, the black you brandished.

Rumors like scurvy spread:-up & down the coast,

Custom Collectors warn of your ghost ship,-

The Flying African. One night you spotted a halo,

corposant, ringing the broken mast. San Elmo,

the Spaniards whispered, crossing themselves double:-

a sign. After, in halcyon, yellowed, even you began

to believe,-your eyes grown wide & without white.

Washington

You harbored the ship like a criminal, stole

ashore hungry. Even eastward of Providence

reports had drifted of the strange spook

ship:-most thot you pirates, skin

the flag you never flew,-black covering skulls

& bones, crossed. When you signed for food,

dogs, folks drew water polite as blinds, then

called the pigs. Only Green, freelance captain,

would trade you goods. Wanted to turn you in

to gold,-stopped since you promised more

on board. While he haggled, the Washington found

your ship flagless, drunk with sea moss,-

covered in rent bags & one recent corpse.

Lieutenant added it up:-slaves & a fortune

in salvage. He sent you to the 3-ft. hold where Cinque

filled his belt with gold, leapt over the side. Sank. Swam out

of reach, an hour, while the brig searched. Drowning

the necklaces, surrendered himself. Reeled in, manacled,

Cinque pictures the necktie party the G-men got planned,-

I shall be hanged, I think, every day,-tongue flapping

a weather-beaten banner, pants full of freedom, soilt.

Experiment

Lieutenant swore you in on board

the Experiment, reading your Spanish names

like charges against you:-Paschal, Santaria,

Saturnio, Hipiloto. The right to remain

et cetera. Anything you say is in Mendi, mute

to them. I can only imagine & read what

the Spaniards you'd saved, sworn in, said:-

These chattel were born in Cuba, bozales bred

to be sold, not stolen. Recollect

who struck me but not the man saved me.

Had no wish to kill any of them, Lieutenant,

prevented them from killing each other. Asleep

I saw the whole thing. Did not know how many

days we were out. We kept no reckoning.

Soon you Mendi will holler with speech

of your own, saved like a dollar

or a soul:-Can I get a witness? Hands

on stacks of Bibles, you'll plea bargain

God. Leaping like faith,

O how you'll testify:-

Chariot, swing low, my, my.

Greeting

When we meet you grip my hand

as you drown,-say you never knew skin

even brown, could be so pale, polite.

You feel & fear you'll be turned in

side out. Jail's a far cry from those moons,

thirsting, you burnt up on ocean:-here

days dole sun stead of water.

Before stolen & set sail I never knew

any hue but the one you still wear,

that carbon some fools once tried

scrubbing off me at sea. I've since grown

used to being a shipman:-sea dog,

first mate, the chaste black sheep.

Shed more of me than you could

know. Boys, I been so long

upon the moors I've begun to feel

like one,-some poor painted Shake-

speare speaking tongues

not his own. If ever you read

my mind, or palm, you'd know this

shade hides a hot place, eclipsed.

Blackmarket

In the square vendors hawk your tale:-

the Africans are the lions of the day,

well-fed. Men fence colored etchings

of blacks opening the Captain's head.

In that market called flea, you fetch

a handsome fee,-ready to frame. Your names

hit The Bowery stage before you take

the stand, actors in cork putting on the mutiny

as musical:-Zemba Cingues, the savage

noble; Cudjo, a deformed Dumb Negro;

the fair damsel Inez, necessary, invented.

The Black Schooner rakes in thousands

while you wait captive as an audience

of assassins. In this market called free

you cost one-shilling to see. The whole county flocks

to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting

the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds

for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail

go well:-They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars

in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares

how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.

Tank

The abolitionists seek to school you

like fish. One cell over the girls weep,

share their grave-narrow bed. This Jail

Cinque wants to say, is almost worst

than the Drink. Solitary is one tank

without the think, his body

only evidence. The other men unwell,

sick as home. Days later, let out with sun,

they roll cartwheels in the yard

to tell they're alive. In the pen, still

fettered, Cinque stays under surveillance

as if water,-the kind that gathers

on the brain. He's going down a third time

but no one sees him wave.

Who wouldn't want to join Davey Jones,-

he musta been black with a name

like that-little wonder he went overboard,

locked up drum-tight. Still, it hushed us all

when Foone followed suit:-a strong swimmer

by all accounts, he waded out with his weighted-

down heart, never saw our shore again.

Eyetooth

Seems like every day another curator

or ivied student comes to draw

the captives like blood, render them

in profile,-varnished, unreadable coins.

Today the leech doctors decide Konoma

isn't cannibal, that his bucked out

& filed teeth crave nothing besides

English. New Haven dailies report:-

one said to belong to the man-eating

Caronmanche tribe denies, as well

as we could understand, ever tasting

human flesh. His quick tongue, not Mendi,

confuses even me. He points out diamonds

tattooed to his fore head, makes me know

he keeps many names. I exchange that

a specialist can pull his jaw, will rein

his incisors for nothing. There certainly is

far more destructiveness in the look

of his protruding mouth than caught up

in his brain. The one we call Nazha-u-lu

smiles, refuses, turns the other tooth.

Findings

Before bed I read out the book that bares

news of Cinque's skull:-The captive appears

to have twenty-six years of age, a temperament

sanguine and bilious; the bilious predominates.

His head is over two feet from nose's root

to the Meatus Auditorius, a hand's width

at destructiveness. Fletcher, phrenologist

to the Queen, hunts Cinque's head like lice,

finding his faculties hope, esteem, firmness,-

very large. No shrink asks me to bow like prayer

to search me for genus,-my smart box hidden by hair

& hand kerchief. Caution, combat, adhesion, order,

philoprogenitiveness, individuality, eventuality, causality,

secrecy, language,-average. Better to be read badly

or remain undiscovered? Veneration, form, wonder,

comparison, inhabitiveness, benevolence,-large. I fear,

unlike Fletcher, I may never touch genius or learn

what men's heads hold. Acquisition, imitation,

ideals, mirth, number, size, weight, time, tune,

color,-moderate, small. Could this be my fate,

my invisible art, to translate an opaque race?

Easter

Father:-I regret not having

sent word sooner. Here the Mendi

have begun to crack my knuckles

in greeting, to trust my words

like birds settling back on the branch

of my tongue,-forked, divining.

They write & learn things

quick as death. This makes me good,

reminds me how you adopted

& raised me like the dead, learning me

to say pardon to every passing

soul. Still, my interpretations loom less

necessary daily. Every letter they send

a sail, drawing home near.

I fear most the waking, watching them

leave to discover their own sun

& country. My sir, must we stand

to bring up what deserts us? Too soon,

it seems, I must close. May my words

reach you in manners I never can, crossing

boundless blue between. Yours, I remain,-

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