Dean Young is an easy poet for me to like. His congenital, sometimes twisted, joie de vivre leaps off the page. He’s a prankster, a Dadaist, a writer whose words and images juke, jab, dash, pirouette, and jump—just when you think you know where one of his poems is going, it changes course like a dare.
He’s one of the few writers who can surprise with each phrase, if not each word, tossing coarseness into a highbrow thought, switching from the sanguine to the lugubrious in a snap of the fingers. He rarely settles for a single note in his poems, in fact, but allows a playful, discordant, dreamy contention of words to define his universe.
You could read Young’s poems as a series of ornery winks, but he’s really trying to find a way to balance himself in this precarious universe, these precarious systems of meanings, whether he’s grasping on to Lorca or Love. His poems, which can be erudite, don’t lend themselves to academic essays—they’re not supposed to be illuminating as much as they are meant to be felt (and yet they are illuminating).
A friend of mine says that Young needs to edit himself more, to pause a bit, not trust his instincts so much. That could be true, but I think of what is lost with such restraint rather than what is gained with his recklessness. I don’t think Young is questing after the perfect poem, after all. He doesn’t want to be anthologized, even if he was nominated for the Pulitzer a couple years back.
Within all of Young’s shim sham—within all of his posturing even—there is a fundamental sadness, a fundamental pondering that grounds everything, as he asks ye’ olde question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ As he puts it in “Sleep Cycle”:
But we can do no more than pass through
these rooms and their sudden chills
where once a plea was entered almost
unintentionally that seemed at last
to reveal ourselves to ourselves,
immaculate, bereft, deserving to be found.
His opening quote for Skid gives a macabre, yet humorous tone to all that follows: “The main thing is not to be dead.” True, but Young’s poetry makes me think there’s more. Young is a romantic who has no business trusting romanticism. He’s somehow a buoyant tragedian, a believer who’s trying to figure out why he believes. It’s the “trying to figure out” that seems much more important than the “not being dead” in the end.
As he says in “Whale Watch”:
Haiku should not be stored with sestinas
just as one should never randomly mix
the liquids and powders beneath the kitchen sink.
Sand is both the problem and the solution for the beach.
To impress his teacher, Pan-Shan lopped off
his own hand, but to the western mind, this seems rather extreme.
Neatly typed, on-time themes
strongly spelled are generally enough.
Some suggest concentrating on one thing
for a whole life but narrowing down
seems less alluring than opening up
except in the case of the blue pencil
with which to make lines on one side
of the triangle so it appears to speed through the firmament.
Still, someone should read everything
Galsworthy wrote. Everyone knows
it’s a race but no one’s sure of the finish line.