Wednesday, March 30

To Kill or Not To Kill

Review by Martin Stannard

Ready-Made Bouquet by Dean Young (Stride, £8.50)

I have a bee in my bonnet at the moment about reading poems too fast, and I shall try and make this the last time I mention reading poems too fast anywhere. At the same time I shall refrain from talking about reading poems slowly, which is the same thing in a different frock. The reason it occurs to me again now is that I have been reading (for the second time) Dean Young’s “Ready-Made Bouquet”, and the first time I read it was one Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago. I suspect I even had Sky Sports on the TV at the same time to keep an eye on the football scores. I am ashamed to admit to this, but you have to admire my honesty. Anyway, this time I just read the first two poems, and then I stopped, because it occurred to me what I already knew but had not previously thought about enough –

these are damn good poems, and they deserve more attention than I’m giving them. Then I wondered if this isn’t a danger with all this kind of poetry, by which I mean this fast-moving, discursive, seeming sometimes flippant and wise-cracking smart brained wide-ranging poetry of which I am, I admit, somewhat fond. There is, after all, a necessary pace to things like this:

In the beginning, everything is mingled
and joined, all the halves hooked up,
nothing reft or twain, no missing buttons,
no single baby shoes lying by the off-ramps.
In the beginning everything’s combined
smaller than a grapefruit and that’s the first
happiness which makes all the later happinesses
like threads snagged from a tapestry.
So fine: everything’s all smashed together…..

(from “Myth Mix”)

and unless one stops a moment to take a breath there is a risk, because everything is all smashed together, of too quickly skimming over that lovely “reft or twain”, of missing the eye in the delightful mystery of those single baby shoes. Or even, perhaps, just letting “and that’s the first happiness which makes all the later happinesses like threads snagged from a tapestry” go by too quick, because there’s surely something equally readable a little ways up ahead. And there is, of course:

but then along comes coyote and pisses on it….

In a poem not in this book, Young has written “A poem should be/ a noise then it should shut up” and when asked in an interview if he considers a poem to be a kind of “psychic burst” he says “we spend so much of our time like dumb animals. Our psychology is a little bit flat, and we're consumed with the materiality of life: maintaining our bodies, getting things done, going here, going there. But then, when these portals of almost clairvoyant empathy open up for us, they're amazing. That's what we look for in art—the moment when something comes rushing in. All you have to do is make yourself available, accessible, perhaps in ways you haven't done before. Of course, you can't live in that state. There are also long periods when you can't find it, and they're terrible. They’re like being in a desert. Everything you read just plays across your eyeballs.” In a marvellous poem called “Lives of the Poets” he says

…. the life of a poet
is always passing from one world to another, dream
to dream…..

And later in the same poem:

It’s hard to believe how strong silk is
considering it comes from a bug’s butt
and often it’s quite constructive to try
ripping some parachute, some net, some flouncy
party dress, to try and break these ties
that bind us o my lord. Imfuckingpossible.

I’m very wary of even daring to think about the possibility of suggesting there is a remote sliver of a slim chance that one could perhaps just possibly by some stretch of the imagination read this passage as a metaphor for “the poem”, except perhaps…. But things do come “rushing in” in these poems, and the ties that bind them are very strong. I don’t suggest, particularly, that you spend a lot of time trying to work out what those ties are, and how these poems are constructed, but I do suggest that time spent with a poem like “Lives of the Poets”, more time than the time a mere reading of it from beginning to end entails, is time well spent.

Dean Young is an American poet more than one of my American friends have said they thought I’d like. They were right. This book contains selections from Young's last two collections, “First Course in Turbulence” and “Skid”, plus a bunch of “new poems”. The poems from the first book set off brilliantly as they mean to go on. “If Thou Dislik’st What Thou First Light’st On” is a composite of well-known and not-so-well-known first lines from a variety of poems and poets, and probably, although I’m not sure, some stuff of Young’s own.

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
I had dreamed of the perfect gray pants,
I have a life that did not become,
a young sister made of glass.
I have done it again….

As a first poem in a book it’s one of those that had me wondering if there was any hope the rest could be as good as this. They pretty much are. “Skid”, with its first poem starting out with

When Dean Young vacuums he hears
not just time’s winged whatchamacallit
hurrying near but some sort of music
that isn’t the motor

(from “Sunflower”)

seems to signal a subtle shift toward poems that are slightly more prepared to foreground the poet’s whatchamacallit? Personal circumstances? Actually, I don’t even know if this is able to be demonstrated scientifically or empirically. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter much, because the poems are continuing delights, and here are some lines to prove that Dean Young leads an ordinary and dull life:

In the distance Valhalla is burning
and the old gods calmly await their pupation
in unprotected crevices. There is a part
of the spirit that can not be destroyed.

(from “Changing Your Bulb”)

These poems are so full of overflowing experiences and the sparkling of things and the boiling pots of the imagination they absolutely refuse to be pinned down and described. I suggest you approach them with your coat flung open and, I think, don’t wear a hat. I had this idea that having said how the poems in “Skid” did a somewhat more personal thing, compared to the poems in the first book, which did a kind of impersonal thing, then the new poems kind of brought the two strands together and

But then I figured I wasn’t sure if it was true, how it was probably all a misconceived hypothesis of the critical kind, and then my mum phoned, after which I couldn’t be bothered to say anything, and anyway come to think of it and hang it all, it was hardly the most important thing reading the poems made me think about. So what was it the poems made you think about? you ask, almost as one. Well, aside from a really irritating “Shit, I wish I’d written that! And that!” which kept pushing itself into my head, and which I had to get over with so much difficulty I absolutely hurt my back as if it had been a gigantic wall I’d been clambering over, it was this: I will only agree to kill Dean Young if he gives me his recipe for writing poems first. Then he can go.

To where? Into solar flares? An angel’s hair?
The next one over there who’s not yet
an embryo?

(from “Inverness Gray”)


ps. Sometimes it’s good to read these poems fast. Not slow. Read them both ways. Either way works. Live life to the full. Oh, and it occurs to me if I kill Dean Young then he won't be able to write any more terrific poems. Okay. I won't kill him.

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