Book Review: ‘Fall Higher’ by Dean Young
Copper Canyon Press: 105 pp., $22
“All the new thinking is about loss,” Robert Hass begins his 1979 poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Structuralism had put poets in a bind by arguing that words are meaningless symbols assigned random significance by culture. “A word is elegy to what it signifies,” Hass muses, insisting on making connections where theory argues there are none.
In “Fall Higher,” his 13th collection of poetry, Dean Young uses a different tactic: “All the new thinking / was about collision,” he writes with a wink to Hass.
Throughout his career, Young’s poetry has been one of strange collisions. His disassociate style has created “legions of little Dean Youngs,” according to poet Tony Hoagland. Young’s 2005 collection “elegy on toy piano” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he has received awards from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is on faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.
While Hass presents poetry as an alternative to the speed and cynicism of contemporary culture, Young writes poetry thoroughly of the moment. It imitates the velocity of the electronic age with jump cuts, vernacular asides, and pop culture references. In “Dragonfly,” an image of homeless people in marching band uniforms lurches into an argument between the speaker and his mother about suffering and beauty. And then the poem shifts again with the lines: “The guy who hoses the slaughterhouse floor / goes home and makes angels out of toothpicks.”
Young’s poetry imitates the randomness he sees in American culture:
That Ravel’s “Bolero” was used in the naked
Bo Derek seduction scene in 10
and the pageant buildup to the monster-slaughter
in “Conan the Barbarian” should tell us
something of our predicament.
It’s a pleasure to have a ringside seat to the speaker’s acrobatic logic, although the speed can make finding an emotional foothold difficult. Young seems to acknowledge the limits of quick-takes in poetry in “Changing Genres.” He writes, “I was satisfied with haiku until I met you/ … but now I want a Russian novel, / a 50-page description of you sleeping.” However, the strength of Young’s style is that its speed supports outburst of wonder, joy and delight. In “Non-Apologia,” he writes:
Poetry paints nothing but it splashes
color, flushed, swooning, echolocating
and often associated with flight.
Poetry here is more Pollock than Renoir; the composition is instinctual and improvisational and beyond ecstatic. “How extraordinary that other people / even exist!” he writes in “Vacationland.” Or, in “Red Glove Thrown in Rosebush,” he declares: “If only bodies weren’t so beautiful.” That poem concludes with the line, “If only my body wasn’t borrowed from dust!” — a painful reminder that Young has had a degenerative heart condition for more than a decade and is awaiting a transplant.
The human heart as a failing, clumsy mechanism makes multiple appearances. Young writes that when his heart “swelled idio / pathically” he realized the challenge was to “go out … with a soft thank-you.” This book reads like a long, breathless thank-you for life’s seemingly random jumble of beauty, strangeness, tenderness and joy.
Hoover’s work has appeared in the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Poets & Writers magazine.
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