THE BLOG
02/15/2013 12:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

Ulterior Hands: The Poetry of Dean Young

When people talk about Dean Young, they talk about how his poems are loved by a.) poets and b.) everyone else. I don't know if that's true, I haven't conducted a survey, but after reading Bender: New and Selected Poems, a book that plays by its own rules at all times, I hope that it is.

It's strange, in a way, that I hadn't read too much of Young before Bender -- his reputation has only grown since his first book came out 25 years ago, becoming a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and probably the most influential poet of his generation. But it also isn't so strange in the sense that his poems, as Bender has reminded me, are not actually easy to read. Reading Dean Young's poetry can feel like holding a fish you think you've caught, only to watch it slip out of your hands and back into the ocean. "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" should give you a good idea of what I mean:

"The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish"

After they told me the CT showed
there was nothing wrong with my stomach
but my heart was falling, I plunked
one of those weird 2 dollar tea balls
I bought in Chinatown and it bobbed
and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted
like feet and I had at this huge
chocolate bar I bought at Trader Joe's
and didn't answer the door even though
I could see it was UPS and I thought
of that picture Patti took of me
in an oval frame. Sweat itself
is odorless, composed of water,
sodium chloride, potassium salts,
and lactic acid, it's bacteria growing
on dead skin cells that provides the stink.
The average lifespan of a human taste bud
is 7 to 10 days. Nerve pulses
can travel up to 170 miles per hour.
All information is useless.
The typical lightning bolt
is one inch wide and five miles long.

"The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" originally appeared in 2011's Fall Higher, the first book of Young's I did read. It's one of the shorter poems included in Bender and it's probably one of the "easier" poems as well. Yet something that happens mid-poem is typical of every poem in Bender - there's a break. The first half of the poem is an account of the speaker's reaction to learning of his "falling" heart - it's amusing, sad and charming ("it bobbed / and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted / like feet") - but then, beginning with the line "Sweat itself / is odorless...," the poem takes off, entering into an array of non-sequiturs:

.....Sweat itself
is odorless, composed of water,
sodium chloride, potassium salts,
and lactic acid, it's bacteria growing
on dead skin cells that provides the stink.
The average lifespan of a human taste bud
is 7 to 10 days. Nerve pulses
can travel up to 170 miles per hour.
All information is useless.
The typical lightning bolt
is one inch wide and five miles long.

This might be where you began to ask yourself the same question I asked myself, "Wait a minute, what the hell is going on now?" Why Young made the poem move in this direction is immediately unclear and by the end, it's difficult to know what's come of "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish." The "useless" information in the second half of the poem has more or less to do with the "lifespan" of things - skin cells, taste buds, lightning - but it threatens to abstract an otherwise intelligible poem. As odd as this may sound, it's exactly what Dean Young is good at and Bender attests to his enduring commitment to risk and mutability throughout his career.

When we take some time away from "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish," we can, I believe, arrive at an understanding of why Young took what seemed like a perfectly poignant poem and turned it upside-down. The speaker himself flat-lines - he can say no more, after learning "there was nothing wrong with my stomach / but my heart was falling" and coming home in shock. The poem departs and detaches to rattle off "useless" information at its most intimate moment: "I thought / of that picture Patti took of me / in an oval frame." The lines that follow this image, as strange as they may appear, are the poet's way of coping with the fear and uncertainty of being sick - they are a way of protecting himself from facing his own mortality. And yet, despite his best attempts at detachment, everything he thinks about has to do with measurements, limits, ends, lifespan. With this, the poem comes full circle. If we can get here - and it takes some patience and interest on our part - it's moments like these that reward readers of Dean Young's poetry, assuring us that we were in good, if ulterior, hands all along.

While American poetry is incredibly vast in style and sensibility, the poems that might read like the first half of "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" - and there are a lot of them today - are likely to go no further. The drive to write readable, "accessible" poetry has often robbed the American poem of its poetry - the flourishing of language, like the brushstrokes of a painter, that gives the poem its very spirit. As we have already witnessed, Young has made it a point to go further, ideally without losing us, but actively trying to stretch our imagination (and his own) as wildly and freely as possible. I don't want to make it sound like it's always a surefire success in Bender, but I also want to propose that it doesn't have to be one either. Sometimes the half of the poem that is lit makes up for the rest of it in darkness. "Bivouacked & Garrisoned Capitol" is a poem I'm still trying to follow from Bender - its movements are jaunty, its lines can feel like dead-ends and yet it manages to recover and lead us to valleys, alleyways and rivers of promise:

"Bivouacked & Garrisoned Capitol"

Be assured.
April snow vanishes
like footprints of the immaculate
crushing the daffodils.
Be assured.
The advisors come out arm in arm
to declare their resolve into the flashbulbs,
the x-rays are put up on the screen,
the boxes are tied down in the back of the truck.
Because of the ash from last year's fires,
good zinfandels in the valley. Be assured.
The strategy of the moon is to match
its period of rotation to revolution
and thus preserve its dark side
which is the strategy of many beautiful
and terrible things. The dream
confabulates, triangulates
our fears and desires until
the flood comes loose
in the baby-crying room, your fault
your fault, key to the lighthouse lost,
ten-foot gap. How can love survive?
Stifled laughter of waiters,
clutter of cloud, vast something
in the vaster nothing.
It is the strategy of life to provide
waking until death which generally
it hides until the last when interposes
a fly. Be assured, a brush is always poised
with its dab of scarlet. A pulse
at the fontanel, a fumarole, a veronica.
Agate, coral, grenadine,
alleys leading to the sea, a letter
read in a grove of apricot trees,
the woman nearly falls to her knees.
A man sews a button onto a shirt,
the sky kicks over its bucket of stars.
Be assured,
the crows are never out of focus,
the ice breaks into pills the river swallows.

Because you've got to corral these poems, reading Bender in one sitting is not easily done; it probably isn't even possible. There will be poems hard to keep the faith in and poems equally hard to leave. Longtime readers of Young's poetry have probably discovered that it's best to read a couple poems at a time -- perhaps just one, letting them slowly unfold as they will. It took me some time to realize this myself, and the organization of the book itself doesn't quite help, either -- instead of a chronological, book-by-book selection of poems, Bender is arranged alphabetically. Its purpose is to make every poem as valuable and potentially related as the next, which is at least a refreshing take on a Selected Poems. (Usually a poet's early work is relegated to the bleachers of poetic achievement, included to show just how far the poet's come to be sitting courtside 25 years later.) The index of last lines as opposed to first lines is something I can't help you with -- a playful decision to honor the playfulness of the poet it's celebrating, but other than that it seems pretty fruitless.

None of these things really matter, of course. The poems themselves are what matter. Like a mid-career retrospective for an artist, a New and Selected Poems has always been an opportunity to take in a poet's greatest hits over the years. It's an argument for the poet's place within history -- Young's will continue to rise -- but for most readers, it's a great way to get to know a poet. Getting to know Dean Young's work in Bender: New and Selected Poems is something you probably will never forget. If the fish slipping out of your hands wasn't vivid enough, it's like falling in love with someone who always wants to travel. Sometimes you have to just wait it out with open arms.