Apr/May 2016  •   Reviews & Interviews

A heart transplant, it seems, can change a poet

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Shock by Shock.
Dean Young.
Copper Canyon Press. 2015. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-431-1.


Does having a heart transplant change a poet? I am aware of only one subject available for study—Dean Young—and Shock by Shock is his first volume since the operation. His previous volume—Bender: New and Selected Poems—was prepared for the press shortly before Young went under the knife. The idea of a selected poems might itself suggest a putting in order. The alphabetical order (by title) of the poems in Bender might suggest haste even but the poet has so persistently sought ways to frustrate a reader's expectations that that trait alone could explain the matter. All of this said, the new poems, in the New and Selected Poems, did seem to linger over the topic of mortality a bit more than usual.

The volumeShock by Shock, however, is neither as rushed nor as reserved about matters of the heart (as it were). The alphabetical arrangement of the previous volume may even be the subject of the following lines in the poem "How I Got Through My Last Day on the Transplant List":

Someone needed to do
some serious alphabetizing here.

All of this might seem far from any legitimate point. Surely Young's surrealistic style is adopted, in part, in order to avoid overt autobiography, the confessional mode. But, throughout his work, he has chosen the tools of his craft such that they allow brief, generally self-deprecatory anecdotes from his life. The reader is aware of a whimsical distortion, usually for comic effect as much as concealment. The poet's imagination is warped, so delightfully so that the poetry is among our most popular.

For all that Dean Young might be skeptical of any such broad characterization, a change under such circumstances might even be described as "growth." He has the habit of deflating big themes such as growth. A reader looking for the theme per se will once again fail to find it. There has always been the question as to whether the anti-style Dean Young has chosen forecloses growth. That anti-style has been almost unaltered from the first volume to the last. At best one could say that he had gotten better at handling it. Much better.

But, for all he avoids big themes, they too have peeked out, all along, from within the bathos so much the signature trait of the poetry of Dean Young.

Still the great pulse of pointlessness
drives me forward although I don't know
what qualifies as forward.

He even hints at a highly evolved concept of God. These lines from the poem "Crash-Test Dummies of an Imperfect God" (a great title, by the bye), are not just good comedy, they are legitimate theology.

God created paradise
to tell us Get out! Which is why we probably
created God who doesn't much like being created
by such ilk as us.

Or maybe it is simply a coincidence. The poet who lives by playful evasion dies by playful evasion. Whether several surprising appearances of God in recent volumes implies that the prospect of death has shaken his lack of faith, each reader will have to decide for themselves.

Regardless of all of this, a reviewer is called upon to review the poetry and not the life. In Shock by Shock, a reader will find all they they are used to. It's an ambivalent observation but true.

It bears saying, that readers of Dean Young are used to better and more than they are used to in other poets. There is the pervasive sense that people are generally out of their depth but inherently good. The process of living is what little point there may be to life. There is a lingering sense of things falling apart just a bit (inasmuch as they ever fit together).

In the meantime, and it's always meantime,
a lot of trash piles up.

There is even a bit of harshness implied in life.

...we all come to this world through a wound.

But nothing is pursued to a conclusion. Presumably, a reader has enough conclusions forced upon them in her or his own life and doesn't need to endure them in their poetry. What they need is irony, bathos, a sense that sense is a construct that should not be taken too seriously. The experience is liberating in the strangest of ways, or perhaps it is just fun (or both).

Among the disarranged fun, the nightingale's song is "singed." The ugly duckling never turns beautiful. Instead, ugly is the new beautiful.

The ugly duckling remained ugly
its whole life but found others
as ugly as itself.

People "look bug-wise" at the narrator, who may or may not be the same narrator who informs us:

When I listen to rain, I give up,
especially the early acoustic stuff.

The world as a crazy, beautiful, irrational place, and Shock by Shock is proof that one can't make the point too often. Who needs to ruin it all with big abstractions like "growth."

All of this would be true (and fun) enough (as far as it goes) if it weren't for the fact that the evidence shows that open heart surgery has changed Dean Young. Of course it could only begin with a self-deprecating joke in order to keep it connected with what has gone before (and may be expected to continue).

Tell him about your heart
transplant and he'll say, Didn't know
you had a heart.

This change—this growth—does not renounce anything that went before. But it cannot be denied that

you're waiting for a new heart,
you're waiting for someone to die.

Suddenly things get serious. So serious, in fact,—and so mysterious—that even a surrealist might feel the need to wax rhapsodic:

How absurd
to still have a body in this rainbow-gored,
crickety world and how ridiculous to be given one
in the first place, to be an object
like an orchid is an object, or a stone,
so bruisable and plummeting, arms
waving from the evening-ignited lake,
head dinging in the furnace feral and sweet,
tears that make the face grotesque,
tears that make it pure.

A heart transplant, it seems, can change a poet. There are passages from half a dozen poems in Shock by Shock of an unabashed (quasi-surrealistic) lyric beauty, and deep humanity, that his new life has brought to his poetry. They are all the more stunning for the fact that they fit perfectly in a book otherwise exactly what a reader expects from Dean Young. For all they are the best passages in the book (perhaps the best in all of his books), a careless reader might not even mark them out amongst all the fun.


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