Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Maybe that's how the best poetry is written

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Solar Perplexus.
Dean Young.
Copper Canyon Press. 2019. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1556595721.

"Poetry," writes Dean Young, in the poem "To Poetry," from his most recent book Solar Plexus,

                        I love
you certainly without any irritable
reaching after fact.

The poem is as direct a celebration of his craft as a reader is likely ever find. More quietly, it serves as an example of a poem on one end of the Young-poem spectrum. Of a poem flush with similes that stretch the idea of connection in the most entertaining ways without breaking it.

In an earlier volume, Young advises those who wish to write poetry to "just stare at a blank page until a unicorn / explodes from your brow." Not only is the style of the lines characteristic but the mock lyrical choice of the word "brow." Here, as in those earlier volumes, such lyricism is earned by pages upon pages of such verboten constructions as "fucking gushes, gashes / ...hot flashes, appendages" and tongue twisters to boot as "spinal fire spiral."

Many more such Dionysian yawps of the most ferocious bathos pay for such a couplet as...

The trouble with teaching poetry is
everyone already knows what it is.

Itself helping to pay its own freight with a bathic "is-is" end rhyme, it also surely provokes pained laughter from anyone who has tried to discuss the craft. It, too, is exemplary of a trait of Young's poetry. Funny though the fact is, and wise, it would be received as boring old man whining if it weren't for page after page of anything but boring old man poetry.

Such moments as border upon aphorism or reportage are sprinkled throughout Young's volumes. Because they are infrequent, they attract the attention. This is just one of the many tropes that identify a poetry as his own.

In this volume we are treated to Kafka, Parmenides, Eluard, and Little Red Riding Hood among a host of other historical figures hinting at a deep cultural literacy that the poet namedrops and then assiduously avoids. Of the 14 or so figures whose names are sprinkled about, only Emily Dickinson—arguably the most popular just now—is described in terms that we might call "lyrical" or even coherent.

As always, curious minutiae of science keep the reader delightfully unsure what is real and what sur-real:

I was good at science my teacher said
because I got excited about grasshoppers
having ears in their legs

Real though the facts generally prove to be, they strike us as fantastical. They compose another of a number of tiny stratagems designed collectively to "keep it unreal."

Similes in which two elements bear no relationship to each other, or perhaps just a whiff of one, even moreso tip the poet's sur- here-and-there onto his watercolor wash of the real. The resulting cognitive dissonance—at the distance of poetry—has tickled the brains of so many readers that Young is among the few poets writing today who can be called "popular."

To have read the volumes of Dean Young for decades now is to recognize that these traits have been his stock-and-trade from early on. In Solar Plexus, it seems possible, at first, that the lessons-from-experience trope newly evident in recent volumes has been set aside and he has returned to the anti-fundamentals. Certainly, the poet seems younger. He may have passed through his ruminant phase.

But, no. The surprising number of poems on poetry, in Solar Plexus, with their un-anti-poetical references, no matter how carefully stripped of sentiment, argue otherwise. The "I Too Fucking Hate It" is trying a bit too hard not to be another reference to Marianne Moore. The presence of the poet's dear friend Tomaz Salamun everywhere throughout the volume (notwithstanding the bathos of "hug-rug" and "me-stink" rhyme pairs and "a hard hip-nudge") bespeaks long reflection upon the passage of years however much they were years of idiosyncratic joy.

Maybe it is more precise to say that, having gained full command of the new aspect of his poetry, the lessons are more adroitly camouflaged.

I miss that triangular café
where a homeless guy told me
about the secret submarine passageway to Russia,
where I was passed a sexually explicit note,
where a huge stuffed bear fell on me
and I was given in recompense
a coupon I never used...

The one thing that must be avoided at all costs is to be taken seriously.

Or maybe that's not possible any more. Maybe Solar Plexus indicates that Dean Young is stealthily steering his way towards being a different poet. Whether he wants to or not. Maybe he doesn't even know what kind of different.

There's so much I can't explain
if someone would just give me the chance.

Maybe that's how the best poetry is written.


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