|Oct/Nov 2011 Reviews & Interviews|
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 108 pp.
Well before the release of Dean Young's most recent volume of poetry, Fall Higher, he was the subject of a compelling news story. Young, it turns out, was quietly diagnosed years ago with idiopathic hypertropic cardiomyopathy, a severe genetic disorder which causes a portion of the heart wall to thicken seriously reducing its capability to pump blood. Medications helped him lead a more normal life during those years while he wrote some of the most popular and influential poetry of the time, but the condition deteriorated to the point that without a heart transplant he would be totally disabled and soon die.
In a now famous open letter, to the poetry community, fellow poet Tony Hoagland described the situation:
Over the past 10 or 15 years, Dean has lived with a degenerative heart condition—congestive heart failure due to idiopathic hypotropic cardiomyopathy. After periods of more-or-less remission, in which his heart was stabilized and improved with the help of medications, the function of his heart has worsened. Now, radically. For the last two years he has had periods in which he cannot walk a block without resting. Medications which once worked have lost their efficacy. He is in and out of the hospital, unable to breathe without discomfort, etc. Currently, Dean's heart is pumping at an estimated 8% of normal volume.
As Fall Higher went through the process of publication Young was waiting to learn if he would be matched with a donor. Shortly after the volume was released, he underwent a transplant. He is presently in the process of learning to live a more normal life with a more normal heart. His prognosis would seem to be excellent.
Whether the poet's totally understandable preoccupation with his mortality is the explanation for the first 40 pages of Fall Higher, who can tell—who can even wish to mention it, given the poet and the circumstances? Few of the pages directly address the subject presumably foremost in his mind. But there they are, a persistently mediocre collection of imitations of the poetry of Dean Young.
Whatever the reason, most of the poems in this volume—the many that resoundingly succeed as well as those that may seem "mediocre imitations"—suggest that Young felt the need to say more than he has in past volumes. If the poems of the first 40 pages can be characterized, they are uncharacteristically discursive. Young's delightful mania is muted, controlled, called upon to do yeoman's work in the service of very definite messages. While occasional poems on the subject of romantic love (and even mortality) have, in past volumes, diverged from the edge-of-chaos quality of the bulk of the poems, their rarity was an essential part of their beauty.
While they are generally exceptional, on the other hand, the mania of the poems of the second half of the volume continues to be comparatively muted. In Fall Higher the failure of life to cohere, our often comical need to pretend that it does, no longer provides the all-pervasive context it once did in Young's earlier volumes. Pathos and the wisdom of age have snuck in. It is a volume that could prove to be transitional, however much its new tone may have originated in a desire to say a few last things, and, given the poems in the second half of the book, the transition promises to be a rapid and particularly successful one.
To use a particularly apt baseball analogy, Dean Young is a great "junk-ball pitcher". The term recognizes the fact that he has no life-is-but-a-walking-shadow fast ball with which to overpower the reader/hitter at the key moment. Instead, he "goes to the breaking ball" in key situations: the curve-ball, slider, etc. Should his breaking ball fail to break—should he no longer be able to "pull the string" such that the ball unexpectedly "breaks" just as it reaches the expectant batter/reader—he has little to fall back upon but long experience and present persistence.
Beginning, in a small way, with the poem "Infinitive Ode," on page 46, his patience (and the reader's) pays off:
The ocean waits patiently,
I used to think I'd never drown.
The most delightfully idiosyncratic flow-of-consciousness poet in our poetry today is once again able (fitfully, at first) to pull the string:
One must have a mind of many breezes
to fly a kite, to be a kite tangled
in the high-tension wires like an ideogram—
Next come the exemplary poems "Easy as Falling Down Stairs" and "Undertow," in the former of which life rushes by in a manner we all recognize but perhaps none of us can so artfully artlessly express:
whoosh we're halfway through our lives,
fish markets flying by, Connecticut,
glut then scarcity, hurried haircuts,
smell of pencils sharpened, striving,
falling short, surviving because we ducked
This brief catalogue is just eccentric enough that it remains utterly recognizable while it avoids all of our clichés (a trademark Dean Young effect). Suddenly the curve-ball is back. Again and again Young pulls the string and the reader is left to smile as he delivers pitch after pitch dancing with Gerty Stein tropes, telling puns, (only slightly less) rapid transitions and awkward quotidian images that highlight how persistently life tends to be un-poetic.
Now, however, those sometimes bumbling and always entertaining images periodically arrive at a recognizable bit of overarching wisdom. It tends to be the kind of observation that an Oscar Wilde might have made immortal by means of a lashing wit but that the poet-as-character—like rest of us, as it were—can only struggle to express in a life that no longer provides the necessary training or audience for such precision:
somewhere is the end of everything
but only the mountains are comfortable
with the idea. The rest of us paddle,
paddle between what we can't get
away from and where we don't want to go.
In the process, a carefully chosen line-break may quietly transform "what we can't get" into "what we can't get away from," quietly deepening the pathos, and raising a tiny little question that perhaps a few readers will feel tempted to explore. Or, more rarely, (as in the poem "Winged Purposes") the poet may unobtrusively quote a once well-known line on aging from Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Amongst the paddling, time and again, he, like us, somehow manages the ordinary extraordinary moments that are the stock from which our better poets draw:
We weren't exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Even in these consistently remarkable poems of the second half of Fall Higher Young is more concerned than in the past with meaning: meaning founded upon a pathos that he once assiduously avoided (another Dean Young trademark).
As a result of all of this, those occasions when Young returns to the themes of his earlier work they take on a different tenor. Sometimes they are contemporary proverbs that have the advantage of a colloquial language and quirky delivery honed in previous volumes:
Now for the narrative.
Sorry there isn't one
just time making it feel like we're moving
to a point where everything comes together
to vanish and be sorted out
what you overheard in the stockroom that hurt
the herding habits of bats
where all this pink lint is coming from.
Sometimes they are old post-modernist saws. What they unfailingly are is the text of a question that Dean Young must answer in the many books that hopefully lie ahead. Will he choose to continue writing book after book endlessly never repeating himself? Or has he begun on the first step toward the later poems, as it were, of Dean Young?
"If only my body wasn't borrowed from dust!" Dean Young writes in one of those first forty pages of Fall Higher. Where there is no narrative it is impossible to say there is no narrative. It is difficult to believe that he does not know as much. This volume strikes off in a challenging new direction for the poet and his readers.