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)

  1. The poem “Grief” is just two lines: “In the night I brush / my teeth with a razor”. Where do these two short lines lead you? Does the poem's length affect how you react? Later, Young includes another short poem, also called “Grief”. Do you read the second poem as a continuation of the first? How do these poems make room for what can't be said? How does the speaker's grief clash with the external world's—friends, family, neighbors—responses and reactions to that grief?
  2. One of Young's modes of wordplay is the double entendre, or double meaning. The title “Effects”, for instance, implies results or consequences on the one hand, and personal belongings on the other. “Asylum” similarly fluctuates between implications of sanctuary and illness. What other double meanings are at work in Book of Hours? What purposes do these double meanings serve?
  3. The first section of Book of Hours is titled “Domesday Book.” The Domesday Book is an actual volume from the 11th century detailing an extensive property survey of England and Wales for taxation purposes. “Domesday” (early English for “Doomsday”) is also the Christian Day of Judgment. How are these two concepts of reckoning—one, mundane accounting, the other, eternal judgment—reflected in this section of Young's book? Why do you think he chose that name?
  4. In “Wintering”, Young addresses the difference between mourning and grief: “Mourning, I've learned, is just / a moment, many // grief the long betrothal / beyond.” Do your own experiences of mourning and grief align with Young's?
  5. At the end of “Easter,” describing his final encounter with his father, Young writes: “For once that Easter // I told him”. What did Young say to his father? How do you know? Why doesn't Young tell the reader directly?
  6. The poem “Miscarriage” asks “How to mourn what's just // a growing want?”. What connections do you see between the way Young mourns his father and the way he mourns the miscarriage? Why is there a blank page after this poem?
  7. Young's poems rely on familiar rhythms of change, such as the cycles of days and seasons, and the ordinary and ubiquitous changes of aging. How does sudden, unexpected change interact with these quieter forms of change? Can they be separated? Is Book of Hours more about one kind of change than the other?
  8. As Young interacts with his yet-to-be-born child, successive poems introduce new kinds of information. “Expecting” is an encounter through sound (“You are like hearing / hip-hop for the first time”); “Ultrasound” is a visual encounter (“shadow // boxer, you raise a hand /to shield your face”); and “First Kick” adds the sense of touch. How does Young's relationship with his son evolve through these three poems, with the addition of each new sensory dimension?
  9. In “Nesting”, Young says about the human heart: “Without warning, / the story it tells // to no one ends— / or begins, a shadow // grown beneath the breast.” Why does the heart tell its story “to no one”? How and why does Book of Hours juxtapose birth and death? What effect do these bookends to the human experience have on how you, yourself, live your life?
  10. Reacting to the “machines that trace our breathing in hospitals,” Young states that they “lie— // the heart is no line // crossing the palm, / no jagged green— // just this twin fist opening”. How do the devices and metrics we rely on in modern medicine shape our perception of what the body is, and how human life operates? Have you ever seen yourself differently after an illness, injury, or medical visit?
  11. In “Labor Day”, the anticipation of Young's son's overdue birth overlaps with the baseball game Young is watching, and the two—baseball and birth—seem to merge. Have you ever been so preoccupied with something that you began to see echoes of it in unlikely places? How has anticipation altered an experience you've had, in positive or negative ways?
  12. Reflecting on the recent birth of his son, Young writes: “I believe pregnancy is meant / to teach us patience, / then impatience”. How does Young portray his wife's experience of pregnancy? How much of that experience can they share, and how much of that experience is inaccessible to Young himself? Do you think his wife would draw the same conclusions about the meaning of pregnancy?
  13. Young's poems often address his son directly as “you” or “son”; do you think this urge to talk directly to his son is related to what Young describes as “my dead father's silence”? How is Young's approach to fatherhood shaped by the passing of his own father? How do families carry memories across generations that might never meet one another?
  14. Throughout Book of Hours, physical extremes of birth and death happen to other people, not to Young. Does Young keep his own body confined to the background in the book, or does it also have an important role to play? How does a first-person account of illness, as in “Ruth”, change or deepen Young's position as the “narrator” of the book?
  15. What are other ways in which Young examines the body in this book? How are the sick body, the dead body, the living body, the unborn body, the newborn body, the inhuman/animal/inanimate body—compared, contrasted, and conflated throughout? How does your understanding of your own body change with the experiences—losses, gains, emotional ups and downs—you have in life?
  16. Young's book takes its title from a Christian devotional prayer book. In what ways might these poems be prayers?
  17. Do you agree with Young's assessment that life is “the long disease”? Are there other moments or poems in Book of Hours that contradict that attitude? How do you interpret the final line of the book, “Why not sing”?
  18. Throughout Book of Hours, Young returns to his father's death, each time giving the reader new details or revisiting parts that had been left out. In contrast, Young tells the story of his son's birth in sequence, describing how he comes to term, is born, and begins to grow up. Why does Young use a circular narrative to tell his father's story and a linear narrative to tell his son's? Could Book of Hours have been written in the opposite way?
  19. Does Book of Hours tell a single, unified story? Are there individual poems that wouldn't make sense outside the context of the book? Could Book of Hours have been written as a novel or prose autobiography?

The following Book of Hours discussion questions were adapted from materials on the Academy of American Poets website: 1, 15, and 16.

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