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With history as his muse, a poet finds new voices

It's puzzling to find two guitar-strumming African-American men in cowboy hats and boots on the cover of a book titled "For the Confederate Dead" -- and that's just the effect that author Kevin Young intended.

"I wanted to complicate the notion of honoring the soldiers," says Young, who in his title poem explores the legacy of the Confederacy with more sympathy than bitterness or mockery.

Complications in history animate the new book of poems by Young, 36, a Belmont resident and author of four previous collections of poetry. In "For the Confederate Dead," published by Knopf, he re-imagines the past through the voices of newly freed slaves after the Civil War, a travelogue by Booker T. Washington, and an homage to 18th-century Boston poet Phillis Wheatley.

As a poet retelling history, Young follows in a tradition that dates back to Homer. His use of language and willingness to weave together seemingly unrelated stories take him far outside the neat time lines of textbooks -- a perspective especially relevant in a post-9/11 world, with people struggling to understand the context for war and terrorism.

"Poetry tries to take the long view, seeing beyond the moment," says Young, who divides his time between the Boston area and Emory University in Atlanta, where he is a professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.

Writing about history presents a different challenge for Young, whose three previous books have focused more on other forms of art. He riffed on film noir in "Black Maria," blues in "Jelly Roll" (a finalist for the National Book Award), and the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat in "To Repel Ghosts." He has also edited anthologies of blues and jazz poems, plus "Giant Steps: The New Generation of African-American Writers."

"Black Maria," which tells the story of a down-and-out private eye and a femme fatale cabaret singer, is being turned into a stage play premiering Feb. 1 at the Providence Black Repertory Company . Director Donald W. King took an immediate interest in adapting the book after he read the first few poems while standing in the aisle of the bookstore at Brown University.

"The poetry is brilliant -- filled with double entendres and a depth of meaning," King says. "It's wonderful to be working with this kind of language on a daily basis." King adds Young managed to create fully realized, emotionally charged characters. The script's first reading moved some audience members to tears.

"For the Confederate Dead" gives Young a chance to create characters from history -- including an assassin he decided to name Jim Crow. "Nativity" explains: "Known by four score/& seven names, Jim Crow/was born/with a silver bullet/in his hand." This "bitter ballad" gives a chilling perspective on the laws that once ruled race relations in the South.

"When you give voice to people, you get inside history," Young says. "Individual moments and personal experiences become larger than themselves."

Nicodemus, a real Kansas settlement for newly freed slaves after the Civil War, gave Young the setting for another series of poems by a fictional narrator. In "Earth," he says: "That first year heaven/must have hated us, sent/grasshoppers, drought,/then ice & snow that glazed/our one tree, flat-footed light/glaring back."

In writing these poems, Young says, "I had to think about what it takes for someone to move to a place they have never seen -- mostly on a hunch and a dream, and a plot of land. It links to the American dream of people making it on their own."

The author does not confine himself to America in "For the Confederate Dead." In the poem "Guernica," he travels to Spain, where he reinterprets Picasso's painting in light of news about a lynching. Another section of the book takes him to Africa, where he grieves the untimely death of his friend, Philippe Wamba.

Young spent much of his childhood in Kansas but lived briefly in Boston during the Blizzard of '78. He returned to Boston to attend Harvard University, left again, and resettled here two years ago when he married Kate Tuttle , an academic editor. The couple's son, Mack, is 4 months old. Young's mother, Azzie Young, now lives in Boston, too, and is president and CEO of the Mattapan Community Health Center .

Young's home is lined with early editions of books by eminent African-American authors, including James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks (subject of an elegy in his book), and Ralph Ellison. The 75,000-volume Danowski Poetry Library, where he is curator, "is like a playground for me," he jokes. That collection includes original first editions of books by William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, plus the papers of authors, including Lucille Clifton , who selected Young's first book for publication.

Young hasn't yet named a theme for his next collection. Instead he is looking forward to his book tour and to seeing "Black Maria" on stage. "It's fun to see your characters come to life," he says.