I don’t think being comic keeps one from being serious,” Kenneth Koch once said. “It keeps one from being solemn.” In this, his fifth collection, Dean Young writes comic poems that eschew solemnity but are in fact terribly serious. Young’s poems convince me that gravity may be a less successful medium through which to express gravity than lightness is, which is to say that this clown’s tears are more rueful than those of any respectably stiff-upper-lipped sonneteer. At their highest moments Young’s poems ignore and gently deride the familiar, anticipated forms of serious poetry—and in so doing they seem to present themselves as less equipped than, say, sonnets, to do their job—and then simultaneously deliver a message of thunderous emotional resonance. The world is so terrifying, yet so goofy (paceBeloved Infidel, Young’s second book); picture Buster Keaton’s devastating, infinitely choreographed pratfalls. Young’s poems are poems of this world. In simplest terms they are equal parts “look at my pathetic hope” and “I hope! I hope!”
Because Young is a funny American guy, it’s dangerously easy to earmark his work simply as New York School–derived. Those charismatic dudes of the 1950s charmed the hell out of America with their uproarious humor-laden widening of the realm in which and of which art could be made. But Young’s earlier forbears are in fact the Dadaists, those earlier revolutionaries whose anti-art deliberately defied reason and whose protest activities were engendered by disgust for bourgeois values and despair over World War I. Young’s protest is less political than aesthetic, but saying even this much risks putting words in his mouth. It is enough to say that his poems’ very existence challenges the aesthetic validity of the complacent literary posturings of mainstream publishing houses and general-interest magazines. It may in fact simply be a sign of the political times—this volume was written before September 11—thatSkid is less confrontational than Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” sculpture, which consisted of a bicycle wheel mounted on the seat of a stool, daring the bourgie war profiteers’ faith in their own utility.
So while Marcel Duchamp’s ghost certainly haunts these poems, Young’s work is not simply Dadaist. While using some antirational strategies—supplanting an expected word with one from a completely different “cognitive set,” assuming a sort of casual artlessness suggestive of automatic writing—Young’s poems are reason-defying but compassionate; the poems don’t alienate the reader but accommodate him. “When you wake / the last time, the forest you’ve been / looking for will turn out to be / right in the middle of your chest.” Again: “When I planted all those daffodils / I didn’t know I was planting them / in the middle of my chest.” Again: “I know almost nothing about this flower / growing from my chest.” Again: “Inside my chest was a helicopter against which / traditional forms of nomenclature flailed.” Amiable, but still Dada-esque; what’s in the speaker’s chest might be the heart, but it’s still not a sure bet.
One way in which Young gently accommodates our hunger for sense is by populating his work with a recognizable cast of characters: the friends at the ballpark, the crows, the buried cat we first saw in Strike Anywhere, Young’s third collection. Animals and inanimate objects frequently enact the unfolding drama of Young’s seriocomic world. “The stranded whale, guided out of the cove / by tugboats, turns and swims back in;” “a coat falls away from the other coats / as if with great effort.” The whale and the coat enthusiastically present themselves as palimpsests. The whale does not invoke Jonah, the Leviathan, or God’s chastisement of Job; the coat doesn’t behave according to the terrifying overcoat in Gogol’s story. And yet despite our unfamiliarity with these new icons the pathos in the whale’s misguided swim and the coat’s heartbreaking defeat by gravity are eminently readable as pathetic and heartbreaking.
Equally remarkable is the way in which Young recycles elements of this seemingly self-invented iconography. Crows, in particular, are everywhere. Their best cameo occurs toward the end of the book. Not mentioned by name, they arrive in the last line, in which “great flocks of machinery muster on near hills” with the whoosh of some magic bird landing. But crows do not always bring the Apocalypse in these poems. Tradition may make of crows a symbol of portentousness, but in Young the crow often betokens nothing more than that clever but awkward outcast of the family—bird or otherwise. Early in the book they are retired generals; a speaker tells us, “of the birds, I loved the crows best, / sitting in their lawn chairs, ranting / about their past campaigns.” In the first piece in the collection, the crow is a disease, a heart, or a self: “. . . inside him / is some sort of crow so unsure of its / crowness, it thinks it’s a stone / just as the stone thinks it’s / a dark joke in the withered fields / and has to be so opaque to keep / all its ketchupy light inside . . .” As expected the binaries are bound up inextricably. Of course they are—love and death make each other possible. “Look at those crows, / they think they’re in on the joke and / they don’t love a thing. They think / they have to be that black to keep / all their radiance inside.”
Crows are scavengers. They eat carrion. In Skid Young crowishly raids the canon instead, alluding throughout to the work of Dead White Males. Riffing on Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” the first piece in the collection opens with “time’s winged whatchamacallit hurrying near.” The lines “A poem should resist the intelligence and Wallace Stevens / almost successfully” parodies the first line of Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing.” And one poem reworks “Ode to a Nightingale” to a certain sad comic effect that takes place all over this book:
Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
to call me back to myself
but let’s check with Dean at the Storm Desk.
Dean? Well, Dean, as you can see from the radar,
there’s a hairy super cell fronting a real dick
of low pressure, repressing the unstable
air mass which is life and as these isobars
make clear, now is no time to be setting out . . .
To some degree the success or failure of Young’s parodic moments depends upon the reader’s familiarity with the material that he is playing with, which is to say that I think Young is writing for an audience familiar with the Norton Anthology. The work engages with the tradition in a playfully agonized fashion, fully aware of its belated position within that grand tradition; the poems sample and defuse the lasting, representative poetical accomplishments of the Renaissance (Marvell) and the Romantic and Modern eras (Keats and Stevens), ambivalently acknowledging these verbal monuments as just another strain of discourse (equating them with a TV weather report, etc.). Nonetheless, Young insists upon perpetuating that tradition, contributing to it, and transforming it— even if into a diminished form.
Young himself appears to favor not the lofty melodies of tradition’s songbirds but the crows’ familiar caw caw. Young is not concerned with familiar poetical sound effects or rhythmical or structural patterning. When they appear, rhymed, rhythmic units are modestly hobbled by linebreaks (“. . . and I don’t know / about you, but that sort of hooey makes me blue”), and the typical Young poem is written not in stanzas (although there are exceptions) but in irregular verse paragraphs, or even more commonly, in a single unbroken verse paragraph. These formal qualities contribute to a sense of the work’s artlessness, which again speaks to the suggestion of automatic writing, but it is a stance like any other, with its own limitations and fealties. Lines of reasoning are picked up and abandoned without leading or aspiring to fruition or epiphany, but in so doing mime or endeavor to mime the collapse of ordinary reverie: “It’s an unstable world babe. / Always an inner avalanche.” These are all elements of Young’s poetic arsenal.
Another favorite Youngian technique is a kind of call-and-response system between the theorist and the empiricist, between abstract idea and concrete example, used to such moving end in Strike Anywhere: “First you must fall in love with what you do not understand. / The baby ram butts the shiny tractor.” In Skid we have: “The most vibrant forms are emergent forms. / In winter, walk across the frozen lake / and listen to it boom and you will know / something of what I mean.”
Another technique: the use of leaps or disjoints to show off the tones of various lines or pieces of a poem. Robert Graves wrote in his essay on prosody “Harp, Anvil, Oar” that all poetic lines in long poems are made either from pearl or mother-of-pearl—that is, they are either gem or necessary surrounding lines that, while not gemlike themselves, are necessary to provide the proper perspective on the true pearls. In Skid, as in Graves’s inlaid jewelry, crazy and calm lines show off the tonality of each. Eerie quiet leans up against pure rock-and-roll bravado. In one piece, thanks to the muscular little pump throbbing away inside him, the speaker’s all but dead: “Not bad for a guy who bleeds / so fast, half his sandwich is blood.” This line comes from “Dead Dean,” one of the most desperate pieces in the book—desperate sadness followed immediately by desperate joy and then just plain desperation: “Hey na yeah yah go go uh oh dead Dean!”
Young includes fragments of his credo in some of these poems—joyfully, never pedantically. In “Blue Garden,” the speaker instructs: “A poem should be a window / and breaking the window behind which / the mannequins are made of springs.” Here Young first invokes our anticipation of the poem as the frame or medium through which we might perceive sense, then sets up a simple binary of a transparent but broken window in which the poem both allows and disallows our perception of sense, and then finally adds to the metaphor a piece of unprocessable data—the spring-loaded mannequins—that waylays our original attempt to make sense of the lines. It’s a credo-eschewing credo! Another example, from “Torn Red Interior”: “In Paris, people say things, things / even a rhinoceros couldn’t understand / because their lips are reenacting / the coronation of Louis the 1/16th.” At first the lines make sense; then they make another kind of sense; then they suddenly make no sense at all—except that the message, that poems can be funny and sad and irrational simultaneously, comes in loud and clear.
We collect still another fragment of Young’s ars poetica in “Whale Watch”: “Do not steal tombstones but if you do, / do not return them as this is sentimental / and the sentimental is a larval feeling / that bloats and bloats but never pupates.” Sentimentality and solemnity seem opposite sides of the same unlucky coin that Young avoids picking up at any cost. The presumption both attitudes have of their ability to communicate sense with familiar, eminently clear tools seems pompous next to Young’s much dicier brand-new iconography. In Young’s poems, whales do not frighten and then eat us; they approach shyly and then swim away, victims of their own pathetic misunderstanding.
In a later piece the speaker asks: “Is man composed solely of yearning? // Nope, there’s a lot of cinder in there.” Is man only waiting to burst into flame? No, because so much of him is already burned. Death and love, beauty and dread, flowers and crows coexist in these poems without a surfeit of drama or sentiment. “This man reminds us that there is nothing more serious than a joke,” Charles Simic wrote of Young in 1995. Young’s amiable Dadaism kindly and gently shows us the desperation and oblivion visible in good poetry. For all his comedic effects, there’s some serious work being done here. Young’s work withstands and encourages such serious treatment.