NEA Big Read
Book of Hours

Book of Hours

by Kevin Young

Not the storm/but the calm/that slays me.

Kevin Young (photo: Melanie Dunea / CPi)

"We don't often talk about grief and loss in our culture. Poems are a powerful way to do that" — Kevin Young in Emory Magazine

For many of us, the loss of a loved one and the birth of a child are our most profound experiences, and our most intimate. In his eighth book of poems, Book of Hours, Kevin Young poignantly chronicles the day-to-day unfolding of these events: first the grief following the sudden death of his father in 2004, and later, the sense of joy and renewal he experiences with the birth of his son. The collection was published by Knopf in 2014. "It seemed symbolic and important to me," said Young, referring to his dad, "that the book come out on the 10-year anniversary of his death" (Chicago Tribune).

Structured like a diary or a daybook—the title Book of Hours alludes to a book of daily prayer—Young says he set out to capture the "literal meaning of hours and days and moments in the process of grief and joy" (National Public Radio). In his direct, affecting poems, Young shares the most personal observations and details of his sorrow, the particular ways in which the intensity of death and birth colors how he sees the world and his everyday routines. These are feelings "you can recognize from a distance, even in the happiest of times" (The Stranger).

Poems in the first portion of the book show Young plunging into the necessary and heartbreaking tasks after his father's death: authorizing the donation of his father's organs, finding homes for his father's dogs, trying to complete what was left unfinished. Underlying the task of locating his father's dry cleaning and deciding where to donate it, as described in his poem "Charity," is the comprehension that while his father's articles can still be located, his father cannot. And as Young attempts to cope, he also struggles with jarring daily reminders of his loss, as when he receives a call from a telemarketer who leaves a message acting as though she has spoken with Young's father just that day. People experience grief differently, he indicates in his introduction to the anthology The Art of Losing (Bloomsbury, 2010); poetry can bridge the gap between us and bring us together.

As the book continues, it shifts into poems about the entry of Young's son into the world, signaling a kind of rebirth for Young, with titles such as "Starting to Show," "First Kick," "Breaking Water," "Teething," and "Blessings." His poem titled "Crowning" was in part a reference to the prevalence of crowns in the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, how Basquiat crowns "those he loves" ( In "Expecting," Young describes hearing his son's heartbeat for the first time.

Named one of ten essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal, Book of Hours won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets as well as the Donald Justice Award, and was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award. "Sometimes, if you're looking straight at something, you can't see it as well," said Young. "It's like looking at an eclipse. You've got to have that mirror to see it right" (Guernica). His poems are "almost all composed of very short lines choked with dashes and ampersands, like someone gasping for breath between bone-deep wails. But together, they form a narrative, a memoir of what it's like to come through to the other side" (The Stranger).

NEA Big Read
Get involved with NEA Big Read!
Learn More

© Arts Midwest