This Valentines Day, Buy a Piece of Dean Young’s Heart
“The heart isn’t grown on a grid. When you slice yourself open, you don’t find a construct. We aren’t equations with hats. Theories about art aren’t art any more than a description of an aphid is an aphid.”
-Dean Young, from “Leaves In a Drained Swimming Pool”
While it’s hard to imagine Dean Young’s heart as anything other than a beautiful boom box he throws over his shoulder before walking into a poem, Young’s heart is currently failing him. Over the past 15 years Young has struggled with a degenerative condition caused by idiopathic hypertropic cardiomyopathy and despite periods of remission, he has worsened drastically in the past two years. His heart is now pumping an estimated 8% of normal volume, which means that for every two tablespoons of blood produced by one healthy heartbeat, his heart produces a teaspoon. After being placed on the transplant list at the Seton Medical Center in Austin, friends of Young have set up a campaign site through the National Foundation for Transplants where donations can be made towards his much needed operation.
Dean Young is a poet in the lineage of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Often cited as a second-generation New York School poet, Young has also been influenced by French surrealist poets such as André Breton and Paul Éluard. Young has published nine books of poetry, including his 2006 collection “Elegy on a Toy Piano,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his 2002 Skid, a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize. His most recent books are The Primitive Mentor and The Art of Recklessness.Young was awarded the Colorado Prize for Poetry for Strike Anywhere, has received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and has been awarded fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Young has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Warren Wilson, and currently teaches and writes from the University of Texas. His newest collection Fall Higher will be released from Copper Canyon Press in early April.
Tony Hoagland wrote in his 2002 review of Skid: “Anyone with a heartbeat knows that Dean Young has become a crucial nucleotide in the DNA of American poetry.” Although Young’s brave imagination has already secured him a place in the contemporary canon, he is a poet who resists definitive classifications, especially in regards to his own work. He has claimed in interviews that his poems are about misunderstanding and that to tie his poems too closely to understanding is to miss the point entirely. Perhaps it is Young’s concern with logic’s murky periphery, met with his wild humor, that has made his work, in the words of the Threepenny Review, “a delight to only two kinds: those who generally read poetry and those who generally don’t.”
Courage is the word that comes to mind when I think of Dean Young’s heart. Courage is also the word at the bottom of the heart’s etymology and this seems appropriate, because with poems that cut corners fast enough to slam the subconscious into the mundane and then marvel at what is born from such collision; Young’s drive to invent seems inseparable from his drive to love. In his poem “Luciferin,” the first poem in his 2007 collection “Embryoyo,” Young begins: “I love the moment when I climb into your warm you-smelling bed-dent” and in the next line he pulls back out into “sunflowers/ once a whole field and I almost crashed” and then: “the next year all pumpkins!” Then, embracing his own zig zag of desire, he sighs: “crop rotation, I love you.” Finally he asks, later in the poem: “What am I but the intersection of these loves?”
By so quickly overlapping various ways of interacting with his environment, Young creates a whole new species of loving, one made up not only conscious and singular attachment, but the movement that occurs as we respond to a world attaching itself to us. David Sewell, in his 2007 review of “Embryoyo,” describes Young’s shuffling through various dimensions of engagement as a “seeming inability to take what is serious seriously” and yet that is precisely what I like best about Young’s work: if he is in fact unable to take anything seriously, than he is also unable to take anything apart.
With such constant shifting of gears working throughout his poems, when small sprouts of romantic love appear, they float up to the poem’s surface, but not in a way that overshadows the lines that have preceded them. Young writes in his poem “Bronzed:” “The swords hilt glints/ the daffodils bow down/ all is temporary as a perfect haircut, a kitten/ in the lap, yet sitting here with you my darling/ waiting for a tuna melt and a side of slaw/ seems all eternity I’ll ever need/ and all eternity needs of me.” In this quiet way, Young’s poem explores big heartedness in the best possible sense; as even his peak expressions of love remain connected to and inseparable from the arch of haircuts and daffodils that surround them.
With a kind of reverence that runs in reverse, Young refuses to glorify abstract concepts and instead brings a focus so intense to even the most mundane and minute subject matters spill their guts to us, often spilling over into the next subject, or sentence. It is this faith inherent in Young’s wordy recklessness that moves me most: the trust he places in the world to stay intact even as he challenges it to fall apart. Much more than some of the potential chaos of his surrealism or his clumsily soft human touch, it is somewhere from this place of courage that Young turns to me in “Paradise Poem” and tells me that he “would rather spend an hour with a dying squirrel than tour a cathedral,” and I believe him, not because he has convinced me logically of anything, but only because for a moment he has rearranged the space inside my chest. He has shown me that it is my own, and that there is space enough inside me for any wish, whether it be for a dying squirrel, a cathedral or a crop rotation.
In his poem “Elegy to A Toy Piano” Young writes: “Necessary it is to love, to live/ and there are many manuals/ but in all important ways/ one is on one’s own.” It is this recognition of our ability to create ourselves that has always drawn me to Young’s and why his work is not yet and will never be finished. At a reading held in honor of Young at the National Arts Club a month ago, Mary Karr perhaps said it best when she stated: “It is not acceptable to live on a planet where there is no Dean Young.” So that’s that. If you love how Dean Young loves, then buy a piece of his heart this Valentine’s Day, so he can keep challenging us to celebrate, explore and expand our own.
I’m sitting with my refraction
in our bar, inexactly, according
to some law in the expiration
of foam in our beer. This is easily
my third heart, its agony a by-product
like diamonds inside coyotes.
My bones are big but my head remains
unlocatable. Simple clutch of daisies?
Scribble with eyes closed? There is a flight
in my fortune cookie, and nudity.
The tuckered-out underlings of our lord
throw down their lightening bolts
onto our pillows, in our tub.
Today my shadow’s a green branch
through my heart. We don’t know
whether to pull it out or let it grow,
let its leaves get covered with soot
Then turn gold and attract femles
Of my species. Maybe it wants to fill
Me with fruit, bitterer and bitterer
Because there’s only one river
where we were born and it stays
strapped to the sky. It hurts
when I walk by the store windows,
unmatched boots walking up a wall,
the grocery with its hanging sausages,
the brain-jumbling laundromat.
And when I try to sing.
Or anyone tries to sing.
“They won’t attack us here in the Indian graveyard.”
I love that moment. And I love the moment
when I climb into your warm you-smelling
bed-dent after you’ve risen. And sunflowers,
once a whole field and I almost crashed,
the next year all pumpkins! Crop rotation,
I love you. Dividing words between syl-
lables! Dachshunds! What am I but the inter-
section of these loves? I spend 35 dollars on a CD
of some guy with 15 different guitars in his shack
with lots of tape delays and loops, a good buy!
Mexican animal crackers! But only to be identified
by what you love is a malformation just as
embryonic chickens grow very strange in zero
gravity. I hate those experiments on animals,
varnished bats, blinded rabbits, cows
with windows in their flanks but obviously
I’m fascinated. Perhaps it was my early exposure
to Frankenstein. I love Frankenstein! Arrgh,
he replies to everything, fire particularly
sets him off, something the villagers quickly
pick up. Fucking villagers. All their shouting’s
making conversation impossible and now
there’s grit in my lettuce which I hate
but kinda like in clams as one bespeaks
poor hygiene and the other the sea.
I hate what we’re doing to the sea,
dragging huge chains across the bottom,
bleaching reefs. Either you’re a rubber/
gasoline salesman or like me, you’d like
to duct tape the vice president’s mouth
to the exhaust pipe of an SUV and I hate
feeling like that. I would rather concentrate
on the rapidity of your ideograms, how
only a biochemical or two keeps me
from becoming the world’s biggest lightning bug.
No Forgiveness Ode
The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt’s stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn’t it
electricity’s blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed like a dumped-out tray
of printer’s type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I’ll never give it back.
The heart needs its thorns
just as the rose needs it profligacy.
Just because you’ve had enough
doesn’t mean you wanted too much.
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