Denis Donoghue, in his essay “The American Style of Failure,” writes of how “American Literature rarely proceeds from happiness. On the contrary it is more likely to issue from conditions representing a radical separation of imagination and reality, a rift between consciousness and experience, a desperate metaphysics arising from the failure of the imagination to find answerable substance in the given world.” Dean Young’s latest collection of poetry, Fall Higher, explores rifts and shifts in consciousness in an effort to “find answerable substance,” not only “in the given world” but also in the “brain commanding/its grit to become ruby.”
Command: to direct authoritatively. Command: to overlook or dominate from or as if from a strategic position. Throughout this book, one has the sense that Young is trying to get out of, or above, the usual sense of sense, to find a different sense, another logic, one able to reconcile opposites, extraneous details, disjunctive moods, the lack of transitions from one thing along to the next, and the feeling of being “yanked from one derangement/into another.” While at times this reach for a different logic seems intensely desperate, at other times it appears to be a form of giving in to whatever comes along. In “The Fox,” for instance, he seems to agree with Debussy who, “when he felt his opera going nowhere/let it.” Young both succeeds and fails in these poems, but the efforts remain nonetheless entertaining, his “tyrannosaurus skull still/trying to poke through a mouse hole in the cosmos.”
His efforts to command “the grit”—what one poem refers to as “the hard things inside/each of us like gravel”—take the form of a syntax that feels at times as though he were trying to unlock logic in order to find what has been missed. His underlying assumption seems to be that our efforts to understand, or even interpret, are usually incorrect, or incomplete, possibly because everything “is a piece of something else.” “Inside each thing,” he claims, “is also something other,/strange, counter.” There is a “shadow of an airplane//inside the raincoat, chessman in the otter,/pirouette in the luncheonette,” and all of these “un-unusually” things leave us this “frolicking despair of repeating decimals because [nothing] comes out even.” After all, “Forever/and forever the checkbook [remains] unbalanced.”
In such a world, what kind of mind can we possibly have? What kind of mind are we left with? What kind of mind can aid in approaching existence? With a nod toward Stevens’ snow man, Young says, “One must have a mind of many breezes,” seemingly allowing for almost anything to enter or to leave. And his poems enact this reality from line to line, perhaps because doing so offers such stunning surprises (“the unknown’s/display of emeralds”), and these poems certainly offer amazing, aphoristic lines almost at every turn. “Every word is a euphemism,” one poem states. “Autobiography is a story the fireplace/tells to a swimming pool,” another says. “The most misunderstood airplane/is a coffin,” yet another offers. Possibly these moments of aphoristic clarity are the grit Young has forced into rubies and emeralds, little nuggets of perception that make being alive in one’s own impending disappearance half-way bearable.
Still, the poems are about the mind in motion, a la Stevens again. In “Song,” “The mind is no evergreen steadily green/among extremes of temperature, it’s more squid/flushed with mood, one second smooch, next/a puff of opaque ick…/of one way/then quick reversal.” In Young’s view, there may be no overarching narrative other than these reversals. Perhaps “the given world” is now so accustomed to flux, to motion, to one thing becoming another thing— as if existence were now just one big free-association assignment—that no other mind can exist except the one that values quick transitions and transformations. After all, “children skip/into the park come out middle-aged,” faces are “comets,” and even the world of commerce mirrors the flash of inconsistency, with the “factory/boarded up then turned into bowling lanes.”
Young is also writing with an eye toward Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Luganitus,” with its famous lines about loss:
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The loss that pervades this book is the potential loss of selfhood, one that, despite an ailing heart, mind-leaps above the void and attempts to find among all the passing signs an order to the chaos. These attempts Young calls “winged purposes” (as the book’s penultimate poem is aptly titled). For Young, though, the formula has changed. In “Bay Arena,” two-thirds of the way into the poem he says, “All the new thinking/was about collision then string then collision again.” There is no narrative, only collisions between disparate things, all the while “time making it feel like we are moving/to a point where everything comes together/foreshortened/to vanish and be sorted out.”
The problem, though, lies in figuring out how to sort out so many shifting revelations and “radiant traces.” Many readers will likely enter Young’s dissonance and not understand that “[o]nce you get close enough, you see what/one is stitching is a human heart.” That heart is Young’s heart—possibly the collapsing empire’s heart, possibly Meaning’s heart (if such a concept can exist, and in Young’s poems the likelihood is certainly there)—trying to reinvent itself in case it runs out of time. Poem after poem is about the heart, the body, the mind, or the soul, all of them colliding to create a profoundly moving record of coming to terms with every every that existence offers, much of which is half here or half there, known or unknown, one thing and another, far-flung and/or contradictory. Like the dictionary in one poem, Young seems to be saying, “I’ve got these words that mean completely/different things inside myself;” and despite the center not holding at times, nonetheless he finds a “fledgling pledge” to share with his readers, one that reminds us that “just lying down” (an image suggestive of death) “we’re flying.”