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New Voices, Old Themes

Emerging lit from African-American writers.

A private dick irrigated with booze falls for a dangerous dame in Kevin Young's new book, "Black Maria" (Knopf, $24.95), a noir in verse that will give Raymond Chandler a run for his money. The action starts, as always in noirs, with a woman asking for a light. A.K.A. Jones, the book's hard-luck narrator, cheekily quips he can give Delilah Redbone dark instead of light. When she accepts, we're off to the races, the dog track, the moody night, the shadowy interrogations, the velvet betrayals and the hung-over mornings. Many a night ends with Jones alone, bent over a diner table asking for "Two eggs/over queasy." Then it's back to his apartment and his "Murphy bed like a booby/trap."

Like Young's last book, "Jelly's Blues," his latest is essentially a homage to film noir, a form so well-worn it's become a cliché. Turning phrases left and right, spangling his story with the occasional rhyming couplet, Young manages to evoke its conventions without simply duplicating contours. Like many PIs, Jones is a drunk, but in Young's voice he has a "bachelors in Bourbon," and an aching heart. "If despair had a sound," he drawls, "it would be: DO NOT DISTURB." And yet he presses on, "Wisdom this tooth/aching I want removed." It's a testament to Young's narrative gusto that we practically reach inside this delicious read to supply the pliers. — John Freeman

Wanda Phipps' first full-length poetry collection, "Wake-Up Calls: 66 Morning Poems" (Soft Skull Press, $13.95), is an experiment in jotting down a "morning poem" first thing every day. It's fresh, but perhaps not the best read for those of us who crave more layers. Subtleties of craft are sacrificed for quick release, but it is always a noble intention to produce something dewy each day in order to record the passing parade of a year. What results is ephemera, such as in "Morning Poem #44": Black cat Tristana/sits on angel's computer/wagging tail back/and forth across the screen — a fuzzy/windshield wiper/keeping time/to Haydn(sic)/on the radio.

This kind of enterprise is a fine way to prime the pump of one's own creative energy, but the poems could have more of the dark-blue velvet of the nights, which preceded Phipps' mornings. And are these really "wake-up calls"? For such a dramatic title, urgency may be lacking between her covers. These poems give the same experience as that of flipping through someone's very cool sketchbook. Written directly, this book will appeal, especially to those new to poetry. For those new to writing: Try Phipps' method. The "Dear Diary" of her book is appealing. Had she revised her verses with more compression and skill, she might have had poems that are truly moving, but they probably wouldn't be as much fun. — Susan Hankla

A black boy born big and quiet on the tough side of Phoenix aspires to become a great boxer so he can leave the streets for good.

That's the story of "Night Journey" (Simon & Schuster, $23), by Murad Kalam. But this isn't a book about boxing. It's the tale of a boy whose adolescence runs backward, who befriends a prostitute at age 10 and gets nervous talking to girls at age 18. A boy who sees his friends, his first love, his mentor, his brother fall like comets to the irresistible seductions of street life and somehow holds on to his innocence.

Kalam is an immensely gifted writer who precisely captures the sounds and even the smells of Eddie's life — sweaty glove leather on his hands, Newport smoke and watermelon-flavored gum on the breath of his first woman. Even his page-long sentences possess a lilting rhythm that reflects the tumble of street life and compels the reader to follow along.

"Night Journey" is densely populated with people, each memorable and vividly realized. As the book draws to an end, however, the narrative accelerates, and many of these characters, once fleshed out, are abruptly abandoned. Crooked boxing promoters, members of the Nation of Islam and high school girlfriends all enter Eddie's life and then disappear, leaving the reader unsure exactly how they fit into his story.

This book will pound your head a bit, but you trust Kalam to carry you through to the conclusion of this wild ride. And he does. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

A new kind of detective story is a rare thing, and if Judy Candis' novel "All Things Hidden" (Walk Worthy Press, $13.95) doesn't entirely work in this battle-weary genre, it's partially redeemed by the story woven into the mystery.

Candis explores the Christian experience through the tale of a black female detective investigating a string of murders in Dadesville County, Fla. Detective Jael Reynolds is hard, the sidekick is plucky, the ex-husband is vindictive, the streets are strewn with ragged drug addicts and surly cops. For fans of the genre, this book will please with its adherence to type.

As its own genre, Christian literature presents its characters dealing with life's struggles through an evolving relationship with Christ and by learning the lessons of the Bible. What makes "All Things Hidden" interesting is that it bridges the detective tale and the Christian inspiration story—presenting Detective Reynolds sorting out her faith against a backdrop of serial murders, the challenges of being a single mother and a blossoming romance. Candis succeeds in drawing us into this world and giving us an interesting character in Detective Reynolds. The faults of the detective narrative take a backseat to the more interesting story of her personal and spiritual struggles. — Brandon Reynolds

Also of note:

"The African-American Bookshelf: 50 Must Reads" by Clifford Mason (Citadel, $14.95) proves to be a thorough road map to the most influential works by African-Americans from the Civil War to today. Cheryl Clarke's feminist look at African-American poetry from 1968 to 1978 in "After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement" (Rutgers University Press, $21.95) is a necessity for anyone interested in the development of race and gender in poetry and its impact on America's history of social

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