Apr/May 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Bender: New and Selected Poems.
Dean Young.
Copper Canyon Press. 2012. 292 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-403-8.

"It's easy," writes Dean Young, in the poem "Scribblers Everywhere":

just stare at a blank page until a unicorn
explodes from your brow.

He has been reflecting on whether teaching poetry is possible—in a more or less inimitable style that keeps the momentary presence of a dripping sarcasm questionable enough that it's all just good fun in the end. In this particular poem, the Cubistic fragments so often utilized in elliptical poetry are a bit more recognizable than most.

Until one has read a good bit of his work (like, say, in this New and Selected Poems) it might seem that all of the poems he writes are pretty much of the same type: irrational, facetious, word-associative play. There would seem to be reasons for this, not the least of which is to avoid the serious or oracular poem so much out of style just now. Of equal concern, in a world dominated by astonishing cinematic effects, a poet must at least surprise and entertain if he or she would have an audience.

The book, Bender, itself, shares these most vital concerns. The contents are ordered alphabetically, by the titles that often bear little relationship to their poems. In this way, the serious, many-volumed poet of a Selected Poems is nowhere in evidence. No progression of the life's work is suggested or revealed. The curious is dominant from the start to finish.

But, with Young, there is more than a reader generally finds in such poems—more than is generally found in the many poets who would imitate him. His poems more often skirt meaning. He has clearly done the reading, as it were, and his considerable talent at having fun arrives, more than occasionally, at a juxtaposition that is a comment on itself and the times it so delightfully describes. Suddenly, among the "rapacious / gardens of stars from which we've fallen," and the stunning vastness which daily makes our lives utterly insignificant, where...

Smaller and smaller, the sea bashes everything
until voilą: sand. It is 10:30 then 10:34
then 40 years later.

There is a laughing anti-reference to Whitman or Eiseley's Star Thrower, Pound's River-merchant's Wife or Botticelli's wistful nudes.

Should a poem somehow threaten to get serious, though, Young is certain to intervene with deflating bathos. Potentially profound observations such as...

Design is the world's prosody,
wreckage and dragonfly, bloom and boom,
its croon.

...are habitually attenuated by "monkeys with droids, / Donkeys with paintbrushes," or even goofier divagations.

Intuitive emotional meaning, on the other hand, pops up unexpectedly everywhere. It's what makes the poetry so much fun, rather than so much word-salad.

No need to make a long list of fuck-ups
and regrets, it'll look like everyone else's.

Couched in our colloquial helter-skelter and contractions, this is recognizably the stuff we struggle with every day—these are the "answers" that "liberate" us. "[W]hat is the rational but / a thing we must break?"

But meaning does "pop up" and the poems exemplified in Bender consist almost entirely of the disorderly, jumbled, flood of daily experience that is the contemporary world from which it pops. It is this flood which is most of what the poems are "about." As in our "real lives" there is barely time to reflect. The poignant blinks in and out and there is barely time to think about it before it is beyond one and the ludicrous is briefly passing in review, or a purported scientific fact that can never be more to the poem than it is to the reader's harried life, interesting trivia (perhaps even true), or "plumbing prattle." All of it being for him what it is for us all: "those times I knew even then / I couldn't inhabit fully enough."

That Dean Young is able to get all this on the page is remarkable in itself but that he so gloriously gets the attraction of it puts his poetry over the top. He...

can't make it any clearer than that
and stay drunk.

It's his drug. It's all of our drug though few can handle it so well, with such unabashed glee. The only thing most addicts do gloriously is crash and burn.

Dean Young spent 20 years as our most contemporary poet. For all that poetry has been an unrelenting attempt at escaping parental control, in order to live in the future, as it were, for half a century now, the genre was only been able to produce one thoroughly contemporary poet until the most recent generation began to take its direction from John Ashbery and from Young himself. (Even Ashbery is resoundingly a product—however trailblazing—of the 1950s.) But this generation (often called "the Elliptical poets"), not having had the advantage of formative years on more or less solid ground, during the ante-diluvian age, has taken the baton now, and the world described by its poets is amoral, exploitive, disintegrated, addicted, emotionally detached, often violent, and their exhilaration with the flood that irresistibly sweeps them along depends upon them accepting that, too, as part of the experience just as Young embraces and celebrates the totality that went before.

While this fact is not the product of Young, or his poetry, or the celebration we fellow addicts share with him—for it seems utterly unwise to oppose the flood, impossible even to consistently want to do so such that plans, no matter how desperate, and probably ill-conceived, might be made—it is difficult not to read Dean Young's Bender without it as subtext. Or, if it's not difficult, it should be.


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