Student Portal: “Cousins” by Kevin Young

by Kevin Young
Kevin Young (b. 1970), the current poetry editor of The New Yorker and Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has written multiple books of poetry and nonfiction and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. He studied at Harvard University where he became a member of the Dark Room Collective, a group of young poets dedicated to forming a community of established and emerging African American writers. He attended the 1994 conference as a member of the group and participated in Saturday’s Fisted Reading centered on the Collective. Before beginning his reading, Young publicly thanked Lucille Clifton for selecting his soon-to-be-released collection of poetry, Most Way Home, for the National Poetry Series. In following Rita Dove’s advice to “make yourself a little uncomfortable,” Young chose to read “Cousins,” a poem centered on his relationship with his family.

Kevin Young reads “Cousins”


This is for Tonia who learned to ride
a boy’s bike at four, filling its basket
with a Chihuahua smart enough to open
doors – this is for Angela who taught me
to kiss but denies even remembering it – 
for Big Red, born the color of Louisiana 
dust, the rusty dirt we blew up
come Christmas when fireworks stands
slanted like makeshift roadside mangers. 

This is for two sides of one family,
two towns full of folks I’m related to
or soon will be, summers finding girls
cute till someone says That’s your cousin,
boy, then not looking again – this is for
all those names, Kiris & Makarios, 
Omar & Cheryl, even for Jarvis
who broke toys I was too old to own,
then asked Who broke dat car?

to throw me off his trail. For Nikki
who cried whenever I did, sad
for the world’s aches, mine, who worried
aloud in the movie that Indiana
Jones would get deaded till I explained
he can’t, he’s the hero. This is for Keith
in that unsunned room he hanged

himself like the paintings he masterpieced 
& my grandmother’s wood-paneled 
walls still keep up – for his little sister Jamie
pigtailed & crying at his grave, begging 
her brother back – Jamie who once refused
to sit by me, the older cousin never seen
before – Jamie who wouldn’t eat

crawfish until I peeled some & she warmed
& laughed & ate & informed a roomful of family
Kevin’s my cousin – yes Jamie, I am yours
& Phyllis’s & her baby Brittany’s
who ain’t a baby no more, just a womanish 
four-year-old going on forty – I am cousin 
to her little brother who carries Keith’s name,
carries this word, cousin, that once

rested on our tongues before the story of ships, 
before words new as worlds, tribes
turned to regret – you can hear it – the steady hum
of cuz, say it till it buzzes the blood, gathers
like the wasps who kept returning, pressing
against screens in my grandmother’s gaping house
no matter how often we let them out. 

Reader Response Questions

1. What does “family” mean to you?

2. Is there anyone in your family who you feel especially close to? Write at least two sentences about them.

3. How do you feel the events of your life have shaped you?

4. Do you feel that there are qualities and characteristics of your personality that can be attributed to your family? Which ones and how?

History and Culture

1. Throughout the poem, Young reveals information about his cousins through dedications, indirectly revealing information about himself. How does Young use these dedications to represent the impact that his family has had on him?

2. “Cousins” places a high value on familial relationships. What does this reveal about the values of the community Young was raised with?

3. How does Young’s poem emphasize the importance of family and community in coping with loss?

Poet’s Craft and Structure

1. Allusion is a literary device designed to reference an idea or concept without explicitly stating it. What allusions can you find within the poem? Write the words down and explain the allusion.

2. Look at Young’s use of commas, em dashes (–), and periods. Go through the poem and change the punctuation. Does this change the story? How?

3. What do you think is the significance of Young’s decision to use these forms of punctuation? What is the significance of their placement?

4. Repetition is a literary device that repeats the same words or phrases to help readers recognize and understand an idea or theme within the poem. Young’s use of the phrases “This is for” and “For” is an example of repetition. What do you think is the purpose of Young’s use of repetition?

5. How does the repetition of phrases throughout the poem create a sense of intimacy?

Reading and Writing Connections

1. Using the repetition and structure of “Cousins,” name and describe at least five family members or friends. Write three or more stanzas with at least seven lines each.


2. Write a letter to a family member or friend. Use allusions, repetition, and the different forms of punctuation discussed above to thank them for the role they play in your life.