Peering over the Precipice
A Review of Fall Higher by Dean Young
By A. Anupama
By Dean Young
Copper Canyon Press
96 pages; $22
Trying not to be one to judge a book by its cover, I opened Fall Higher to skim the table of contents and immediately laughed. The title of the first poem in the collection is “Lucifer,” which struck me as the opposite direction I was expecting the collection to take, given its title. This first moment, its instant detonation of my assumptions, was a good preface to the rest of the experience of reading this newest collection by Dean Young.
This particular concoction of poetry manifesto, imaginative integration of tradition, and lyric exploration exposes Young’s passion for the art of poetry and his technical skill in this, his ninth collection. But amazingly and tellingly, just days before the book’s publication, Young underwent heart transplant surgery, which was a triumph for the poet after over ten years with a life-threatening degenerative heart condition. Many of the poems in Fall Higher peer over the precipice of that struggle. In the poem “Winged Purposes,” for example, he describes falling higher as “voices hurtling into outer space, Whitman / out past Neptune, Dickinson retreating / yet getting brighter.”
Young is among the very accomplished in contemporary American poetry: he currently serves as the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, and his collection Elegy on Toy Piano (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has been awarded Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, among other honors. Young was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in 1955, and received his MFA from Indiana University. His poetics are self-described as being influenced by the New York School and the French surrealists, and in this most recent collection the influences come from many other corners of the poetic tradition.
Young’s engagement with the themes, devices, and specific works of the Western canon are rendered as a kind of dispersed ode running through the collection. He plays with rhyme in some poems, sometimes embedding them deep within the lines instead of at the ends.
Since the book begins with Lucifer, evoking the traitors of Dante’s Inferno, my first guess was that betrayal would be a major theme in Young’s lyric. This guess, at least, was right on. The poem “Elemental,” is one of those heartbreakers. Young leans toward the pantoum with characteristic four-line stanzas and a heavy dose of repetition, but within the lines and every which way. So the form is evoked for beauty, but the emotion has its willful way within the poem, refusing to acknowledge the form’s rules of repetition:
Walked into the burning woods and burning
walked into me. One day we’ll wade
into the sea and see. Your coming
won’t summarize your leaving
nor waking sleep, sleep our dreams,
fireflies over wet grass, ice
settling in an abandoned glass. Winter
can’t summarize that summer, your body
in my hands won’t summarized be
by your body far from me.
Already you’re in the air
and my hands are nowhere,
my dreams mostly water.
This end won’t summarize our forever.
Some things can be fixed by fire,
some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.
In the poem “Madrigal” Young uses end-rhymed lines throughout, saying
You feel like something fallen from its shelf,
a yo-yo with a busted string, chipped ceramic elf
because all you can think about is not there,
the eyes not there, not there’s hair.
Here, the poem cops an attitude of disregard for contemporary poetry’s aversion to rhyme. But, at the end of the poem, Young pulls the form away and leaves us the unrhymed fragment “detonating with laughter.”
With the poem “Non-Apologia” Young makes a deliberate gesture of defying the craft of poetry by writing a poem about it. He begins “Maybe poetry is all just artifice, / devices, hoax, blood only there / to rhyme with mud.” He goes on to defend the way that meaning and symbol keep escaping back into words, he defends metaphor and the way that poetry offers delight. He ends by saying “Soon shadows are all that’s left, / that’s why poetry is about death.” He’s broken the secret rule about not saying what poetry is about. He’s broken the standard rule of creative writing instructors: “show, don’t tell.” The arc of contradictoriness instead of conclusions, however, makes the poet’s point by showing the way.
In the poem “The Decoration Committee” from the collection Strike Anywhere, Young has this to say about lyric poetry:
I know of no studies concerning and in how many cases
the lyric poem eases heartache by initiating 1.
the beloved’s return, the door flies open,
the bra unstrapped, the moose dappled
with dew and/or 2. a getting-over-it
happiness at just having written/read the poem
which is about misery in the old way
but also in a new way and then noticing
the pretty barmaid…
Young is tracking something more than relief from heartache in his lyric. The odes in Fall Higher have a lyric sensibility in them, especially “Infinitive Ode,” but Young seems to use these poems to explore the disjunctions in the human experience of time and space. “Irrevocable Ode” presents a litany of images of moments that can’t be repaired or taken back and the resulting experience of regret. The poem concludes lyrically, referring to careless betrayers, “maybe you’ll search and petition / and wander until you’re heard from no more.” “Omen Ode” gives the opposite perspective of everything connected: “Maybe a million strings connect / tomorrow to now.” In “Infinitive Ode” the cleverness of using the infinitive itself as the object of praise is immediately tempered by the dark superimposition of imagery: “To see the pile of skulls Cezanne sketched / as practice for his painting of hovering peaches” and “To see in the pantomime of invalids / the corps de ballet.” Theories break down, and the end of the poem illuminates the inquiry:
To preserve the dream under the tongue
all day, not garbling a word. To wash
with cold water. All the way to the ground
the sky comes, just lying down we’re flying.
In Young’s recent book on the craft of poetry, The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf Press, 2011), he writes, “The poet is like one of those cartoon characters who has stepped off the cliff only to remain suspended. But while the cartoon character’s realization of his irrational predicament brings about its fall, for the poet imagination sustains this reckless position over the abyss; it is what extends the view. As readers, we are charmed by the postponement of our plummeting even as we are made aware of its inevitability.” Fall Higher does exactly this, vastly opening up the view.