Bender: New & Selected Poems
By Dean Young. Copper Canyon Press, 280 pages
Choosing a handful of poems from Dean Young’s collection Bender: New & Selected Poems was no easy task. Most poetry collections are hit and miss, but in Dean Young’s case I would have happily thrown a dart at a board and published any of the random results. He’s that good.
The 160 poems in this remarkable, important collection are organized alphabetically, so unlike most compilations, there is no sense of career development when reading Young—a poem might be 2 or 20 years old. It’s impossible to tell because all of the poems in Bender are strong, cohesive, and imaginative. Like Russian nesting dolls, they rest comfortably together, clearly created by a single, original artist, and yet the surprises keep coming the deeper you venture.
Young has a rare gift for melding a twisted sense of humor with deep profundity, and the result is damn entertaining. The poem “Whale Watch,” for instance, bristles with both pathos and wit. There is more wisdom in its four pages than you’ll find in the entire self-help section of your local bookstore…
Do not encourage small children
to play the trombone as the shortness
of their arms may prove quite frustrating,
imprinting a lifelong aversion to music
although in rare cases a sense of unreachability
may inspire operas of delicate auras.
Do not confuse size with scale:
the cathedral may be very small,
the eyelash monumental.
When you are ready to marry,
you will know but if you don’t,
don’t worry. The bullfrog never marries,
ditto the space shuttle
yet each is able to deliver its payload:
i.e., baby bullfrogs and satellites, respectively.
And here are the opening lines of Young’s poem “Speech Therapy”:
In 2011 the poet underwent a heart transplant. Young’s condition was serious, his heart pumping at only 8% of what it should have been. But he survived the experience and now has a second chance because of a heart donated by a 22-year-old student.
“I think that’s one of the jobs of poets: They stare at their own death and through it they still see the world — the world of 10,000 things,” Young told NPR in a radio interview. “Poetry is about time running out, to some extent. You can think of that purely formally — the line ends, the stanza ends and the poem itself ends.”
“I just feel enormous gratitude, …He gave me a heart so I’m still alive. …I’m sure I’m going to think about this person for the rest of my life.”
Plenty of poets write about matters of the heart, but Young’s perspective is unique, and not merely metaphorical. There are hints of his condition throughout his writing, such as in the poem “Scarecrow on Fire”:
Once you get close enough, you see what
one is stitching is a human heart. Another
is vomiting wings. Hell, even now I love life.
Whenever you put your feet on the floor
in the morning, whatever the nightmare,
It’s a miracle or fantastic illusion:
the solidity of the boards, the steadiness
coming into the legs. Where did we get
the idea when we were kids to rub dirt
into the wound or was that just in Pennsylvania?
Maybe the poems are made of breath, the way water,
cajoled to boil, says, This is my soul, freed.
“That’s as good a definition of contemporary poetry as any.”
I Said Yes I Meant No
People are compelled to be together good and bad.
You’ve agreed to shrimp with the geology couple.
If you like one 85% and the other 35%,
that’s not so bad.
You need to like one at least 70%
and like the other not less than 25%
otherwise it’s agonizing and pointless
like being crucified without religious significance.
Averages are misleading:
I like that couple 110% could mean
each is appreciated 55% which will not kill you
but neither will sleeping in your own urine.
One should like oneself between 60 and 80%.
Under 45%, one becomes an undertaking,
prone to eating disorders, public weeping,
useless for gift wrapping and relay races.
Over 85% means you are a self-involved bore
I don’t care about your Nobel Prize in positrons
or your dogsled victories.
Of course there is great variance throughout the day.
You may feel 0% upon first waking
but that is because you do not yet know you exist
which is why baby studies have been a bust.
Then as you venture forth to boil water,
you may feel a sudden surge to 90%,
Hey, I’m GOOD at boiling water!
which may be promptly counteracted by turning on your e-mail.
It is important not to let variance become too extreme,
a range of 40% is allowable,
beyond that it is as great storms upon drought-stricken land;
Sugar, retirement plans, impending jail time
all are influential factors.
Generally, most data has been gathered
regarding raising percentages,
the modern world it is argued is plentiful
with opportunities of negative effect.
The tanker splits and the shore birds turn black and lose their ability to float.
Sometimes a good scrub is all that’s needed.
A fresh shirt.
Shock therapy has never been fully discounted
and people have felt significant surges
from backpacking in remote and elevated areas,
a call home.
Yet the very same may backfire,
Thwamp, thwamp, the helicopter lowers the rescue crew,
the phone slammed down.
Each case is profoundly nuanced
like the lock systems of Holland.
Some, frankly, are beyond help,
but if you are a tall woman, wear shoes that make you look taller!
Candy corn, what kind of person doesn’t like candy corn?
Tell that 70/35% rock couple you cannot come,
you forgot your fencing lesson,
your car had a puppy,
your tongue is green,
you are in fact dying.
Elegy on Toy Piano
You don’t need a pony
to connect you to the unseeable
or an airplane to connect you to the sky.
Necessary it is to die
if you are a living thing
which you have no choice about.
Necessary it is to love to live
and there are many manuals
but in all important ways
one is on one’s own.
You need not cut off your hand.
No need to eat a bouquet.
Your head becomes a peach pit.
Your tongue a honeycomb.
Necessary it is to live to love,
to charge into the burning tower
then charge back out
and necessary it is to die .
Even for the grass, even for the pony
connecting you to what can’t be grasped.
The injured gazelle falls behind the
herd. One last wild enjambment.
Because of the sores in his mouth,
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.
His work has enlarged the world
but the world is about to stop including him.
He is the tower the world runs out of.
When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.
Everyone feels they got here from the very far away,
not just the astronauts and divorcées and poets.
Some want to lose the directions how to get back,
for others it’s a long time without cell phone reception.
Nothing here can be drawn with a ruler,
not even rain although even this high up
there are beer trucks. What feels like a hook
pulled from deep inside may be old wisteria vine.
Give it ten years. When twilight comes
from the lake in the lake’s blue mask,
you might think you’ll never have to pretend again,
from now on you’ll know yourself
but that’s only because that self is disappearing.
You’re right, when your mother died,
she did turn into a peregrine. I don’t know how
I can be so cruel to those who love me
or how they can be to me. Sometimes a rock
comes hurtling down the path
but there’s no one above you.
This clam doesn’t have the slightest idea
what’s about to hit it. Well, maybe
it does but approaches life with bemused
becalmed detachment and therefore death
is no big deal, not to be avoided or bewailed
even by boiling. Wide it slowly opens around
its secret vowel. Doubtless there is grace
in resignation as there is a briny sweetness
in this clam. The deliveryrman rings
a second time then turns away. The bee
bounces twice against the florist’s window
then bumbles on. Baby quiets, not getting
what he wants, the rain moves out to sea,
the lava gobbles up the village, villagers
oxcarted to another island sector just as
the old ones did, it’s their cosmology.
Past and future seemingly resigned to
simultaneously, the lovers agree to see
no more each other, leaving behind drinks
undrunk and twisted napkins. The student
moves to the next blank leaving the previous
unfilled. So much life we cannot have or
find or repeat yet so much we had and found.
I’ve made this mistake a hundred times,
one thinks, preparing to make it again.
One day I’ll get rid of these expensive
painful shoes but not now, another says,
scanning her closet. Some things must resign
themselves to becoming something else,
champagne flat, the burning log ash,
after the crash the runner walks with a cane
but some must accept they’ll never change,
stained tablecloth never unstained,
mark permanent on the heart. You pick up
a clod to throw on the coffin lid but can’t
so turn away, dropping it in your pocket.
How I Get My Ideas
Sometimes you just have to wait
15 seconds then beat the prevailing nuance
from the air. If that doesn’t work,
try to remember how many times
you’ve wakened in the body of an animal,
two arms, two legs, willowy antennae.
Try thinking what it would be like
to never see your dearest again.
Stroke her gloves, sniff his overcoat.
If that’s a no-go, call Joe
who’s never home but keeps changing
the melody of his message.
Cactus at night emits its own light,
the river flows under the sea.
Dear face I always recognize but never
know, everything has a purpose
from which it must be freed,
maybe with crowbars, maybe the gentlest breeze.
Always turn in the direction of the skid.
If it’s raining, use the rain
to lash windowpanes or,
in a calmer mode, deepen the new greens
nearly to a violet. I can’t live
without violet although it’s red
I most often resort to.
Sometimes people become angelic when they cry,
sometimes only ravaged.
Technically, Mary still owes me a letter.,
last was just porcupine quills and tears,
tears that left a whitish residue
on black construction paper.
Sometimes I look at used art books at Moe’s
just to see women without their clothes.
How can someone so rich,
who can have fish whenever he wants,
go to baseball games,
still feel such desperation?
I’m afraid I must insist
on desperation. By the fourth week
the embryo has nearly turned itself
inside out. If that doesn’t help,
you’ll just have to wait which
may involve sleeping which may involve
dreaming and sometimes dreaming works.
Father, why have you returned,
dirt on your morning vest?
You cannot control your laughter.
You cannot control your love.
You know not to hit the brakes on ice
but do anyway. You bend the nail
but keep hammering because
hammering makes the world.
Hello Old Friend
Darkness, how persistent you are,
unflapped by a full moon on snow,
a TV in a room before dawn, floodlights
on a car wreck. And how inventive,
making the world seem like the inside
of a potato, a closed refrigerator,
insisting we are living in outer space
weightless as laughing sleepwalkers
moving toward you with minds on fire,
flashlights, knives, ladders, mouthfuls
of whiskey intending to kiss or spit
on you, never to report back. Are you
a distraction or the main agreement?
You rule lightning bugs, owls, the under-
world, the geological impetus of
volcanos, my mother and father
and theirs all the way back. I’m happy
I didn’t fear you much when you lurked
under the bed or growled in the attic.
I fear more hornets at midday. There,
there, you say when I’m stung. There,
there when I could lose everything I love.
When they stapled me together
under the brightest lights,
some of you stayed inside me so now
when I talk to myself, I talk to you.
You take days away. No dreams,
no tunnel or luminous angel or guard,
just you in the sooty, soothing nowhere.
No more flying rocks, no more bird sunk
into the ground. No more living
on an upside-down mountain.
About Dean Young
Strongly influenced by the New York School poets, and Surrealists such as Andre Breton, Young’s poetry is full of wild leaps of illogic, extravagant imagery, and mercurial shifts in tone. Using surrealist techniques like collage, Young’s poems often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination, creating a poetry that is enormously, almost disruptively, inclusive. In an interview with the journal Jubilat, Young admitted of his poetry: “I want to put everything in.” And speaking to the centrality of misunderstanding in his poetry: “I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point.”
Upon presenting him with the Academy Award in Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters noted, “Dean Young’s poems are as entertaining as a three-ring circus and as imaginative as a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch.” Young, writes critic Seth Abramson, is “a fully satisfying troubadour for this frenetic, gleeful, flashy, and sometimes soul-wearying Age. A single Dean Young poem implicitly encapsulates the life experience of at least two generations of younger Americans: nostalgic but intrepid; wonder-filled but self-deprecatingly sardonic; spry but war-wearied; demotic but profound; capacious but incapable (or, at other times, closed-off but capable). Young’s work is heavy and light, soft and sharp, slow and quick, lagging and ready.”
Young has also been awarded a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His poems have been featured in Best American Poetry numerous times. Young has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and the University of Texas-Austin where he holds the William Livingston Chair of Poetry.