Very Like a Hummingbird

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Fall Higher
by Dean Young
Hardcover, $22.00
Copper Canyon Press, 2011

Some things can be fixed by fire,
some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.
— Dean Young, “Elemental”

In her poem “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Anne Carson considers error as a strange yet essential component of life. She writes:

Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.

At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong,
Then it makes sense.

Dean Young, in his ninth full-length collection of poems, hyper-activates this sensation. Instead of “moving along a plane surface / of ordinary meaning,” we are invited into and guided through his collection on a plane surface of bizarre, complex images and language. Young warns us about the collection’s contradictions, its acrobatics, and its horrifying yet refreshing honesty several times before we’re in the thick of it. The title, epigraph, and first poem are more than a simple welcome mat offering a gracious invitation. They confuse and entice us. They remind us abruptly that life, logic, and poetry are not as straightforward as we may like to think, and Young maintains this tone of instability throughout the collection.

The title, Fall Higher, greets us with its simplicity of word and imperative, and a brief but stimulating aural experience: we sink and then rise as we whisper the title to ourselves. It also jolts us to ask ourselves, “How?” How can we fall up, high, higher even? Higher than what? Who is instructing us to fall higher? Only Young? And yet, while asking ourselves these questions, we realize the precision of Young’s title. We recognize the sensation it suggests, and attempt to translate it: transcendence, surrender, helplessness.

Before the table of contents, the epigraph informs the title:

hark, dumbass,

the error is not to fall
but to fall from no height.

It is a playful albeit brash, complex beginning. Young prefaces his poems with this confident statement about error, and leads us to ponder its meaning. His linguistic and imaginative leaps exude confidence, and his disparate associations of image and act establish an understanding of life as a sequence of errors.

Young’s imagination is forever in motion, only ever pausing briefly (or creating the illusion of pausing) like a hummingbird, then pushing onward. The collection deals in seeming paradoxes — suggested by the title — and this remains its greatest asset as well as its most prominent challenge. With “Lucifer,” the first poem, we are entranced by Young’s kinetic imagination:

You can read almost anything
about angels, how they bite off
the heads first, copulate with tigers,
tortured Miles Davis until he stuck
a mute in his trumpet to torture them back.
The pornographic magazines ported
into the redwoods. The sweetened breath
of the starving. The prize livestock
rolls over on her larval young,
the wooden dwarf turning in the cogs
of the clockworks. I would have
a black bra hanging from the shower rod.

At moments in the collection, the strange surface breaks and we glimpse a moment of familiarity or straightforward language. In these moments, Young eases our potential frustration with “not being able to keep up” by providing something concrete or recognizable. By grounding us in lived experience, Young convinces us that we are in this together, that we have secrets and inner lives that aren’t really all that secret, as in his first of two poems titled “Scarecrow on Fire:”

We all think about suddenly disappearing[. . .] We all feel
suspended over a drop into nothingness[. . .] 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.

By swerving back and forth between extreme improvisation of language and image to clear consideration of concrete moments, Young mesmerizes us. We keep reading with our own experiences and understandings of the poems. One of Robert Frost’s thoughts on poetry rings largely true in Young’s work: “[Poetry] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. . . It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” Young magnifies what is tantalizing in poetry with kinetic language and logic, delicately strung by hints of narrative. And instead of vagueness, he offers a frighteningly accurate approximation of our lived experiences without summarizing life. He collages image and action that remind us of our own errors.

These poems feel like puzzle pieces splayed on a coffee table. They go together — we feel them slip into coordination — but first we battle with each piece. We must learn to concentrate, to sift through complications: examine image, thought, and the common moments amid chaotic imagination. When pieced together, Young’s poems display the intricacies of a failing heart, literally the poet’s, but also our own. They elaborate our grand demise, immediate yet intangible. Young invites us to consider our outstanding resilience and frailty.

Error is at the heart of our contradiction for Young. “Selected Recent and New Errors” considers the ontology of error with a series of “drawn-out metaphors” and the speaker admitting, “I don’t know what I’m talking about either.” Young shows us that poetry is human, should involve wandering rumination, even if groping in the dark:

My books are full of mistakes
but not the ones Tony’s always pointing out
as if correct spelling is what could stop the conveyor belt
[. . .] I’ve got these words that mean completely
different things inside myself
and it’s tearing me apart?
My errors are even bigger than that.

And in “Easy as Falling Down Stairs” Young suggests we are always moving on but doing so clumsily, adapting blindly to the next stage of our lives. In our constant motion, we make decisions that work out well (by our estimation) and we make errors.

To always be in motion there is no choice [. . .] No matter
how stalled I seem, some crank in me
tightens the whirly-spring each time I see
your face so thank you for aiming it
my way [. . .] Maybe even
death will be a replenishment. Who knows?
Who has the time, let’s go, the unknown’s
display of emeralds closes in an hour.

Young’s poetry crafts a complexity that is at times strikingly clumsy, and in that way not terribly different from our own lives. His speakers are electric, tempered, humble, odd at times, cynical, independent of one another yet all strangely similar to each other and recognizable to the reader. They offer up their experiences for our examination. Some exemplary occasions include “Optimistic Poem:”

throw back

your shot glass of tears, my dear, wink
into the mirror: you’re still here after all.
Love floats its bone in the throat,
sometimes it hurts to swallow.

and the early lines of “Man Overboard,”

I would like to thank you for my life,
mother, friends, wife, flirtations,
vexations, crazinesses, those vacations
to Stone Harbor with my dad traipsing up
the beach to the bowling alley for pizza burgers.
Of all that time only remain the sand and me

Formally, Young tests the limits of the ways that structure serves content, as well as the reverse. Rhyme frequently buries its face in the folds of poems like “Delphiniums in a Window Box”:

Every sunrise, sometimes strangers’ eyes.
Not necessarily swans, even crows,
even the evening fusillade of bats.
That place where the creek goes underground,
how many weeks before I see you again?
Stacks of books, every page, character’s
rage and poet’s strange contraption
of syntax and song, every song
even when there isn’t one.

only to shout at us in others. For example, in “Fate”:

We may have had a choice just not known it.
The churchgoer says, Oh heck, the agnostic, God damn it.
Spring expresses reluctance
but we feel released on our own recognizance,
of what we’ll be tried and probably convicted
we’ll stay in the dark like lesser angels evicted.

Line length and stanza stretch from single-word brevity to page-width, occasionally verging on prose. His acknowledged awareness of the words creating poetic sequences periodically reminds us that we are indeed living poetry.

Young frequently and explicitly examines his art. In “Non-Apologia” his speaker wonders, “Maybe poetry is all just artifice,” later claiming,

It’s always one way and the other.
Poetry paints nothing but it splashes
color, flushed, swooning, echolocating.

Fall Higher is a feat of poetic prowess, intense observation, and immersed rumination, but, perhaps most essentially, it is a naked, kinetic love poem to life’s vast and tantalizing errors. Young blends the humorous with the dire, the insane with the familiar, and coaxes us to experience our error-ridden lives through the lens of poetry.

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About Wesley Rothman

Wesley Rothman serves as an assistant poetry editor for Narrative and reads for Ploughshares. He helps curate the Breakwater Reading Series, is Emerson College liaison to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and tutors writing at Snowden International School. Rothman holds a BA from the University of San Diego and is completing his MFA at Emerson where he teaches writing.