POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 18:: Ben Wiessner on Dean Young
Before Fall Higher’s table of contents Dean Young booms out a call to action:
the error is not to fall
but to fall from no height
As soon as I came across those lines I snapped a grainy picture on my prehistoric flip-phone and sent them to the person who knows most clearly my errors, how much of that dumbass I can be.
This book belonged in my apartment. It was meant to be poured over on a couch, read with dinner. His words and I line-danced toward and from each other, catching promising glimpses between partner switches:
When you finally admit you’re broken,
Can I come back up now? asks the chair
with its leg snapped in the basement
and Don’t even get me started, says the sky.
– (“Irrevocable Ode”)
Dean Young yields his poetry to the power of momentum as impetus. He follows the diction that he frees himself to pursuit. He doggedly catalogues the whole of situations. In that, his words often create new ways to celebrate something less than heaven.
To see the pile of skulls Cézanne sketched
as practice for his painting of hovering peaches.
To see the hovering not as inept perspective.
To see in the pantomime of invalids
the corps de ballet. The ocean waits patiently,
I used to think I’d never drown.
To see my hand on fire touching your breast,
to gain altitude so fast the nose bleeds
and the nosebleed scarlet as your kiss.
To be lucky to be man and woman,
Not tar paper and a giraffe, not paper clip
and race car. The man meeting the woman
getting off her train is called To Leap Magnolias.
The woman waiting for the man at the hotel bar
is called To Be a Thief of Fire. Hello, waterfall.
Hello, cricket, your singing is bigger than the house.
To take two bites and be full
and to be utterly insatiable.
One must have a mind of many breezes
to fly a kite, to be a kite tangled
in the high tension wires like an ideogram—
what does it say? A sword pierces a cloud
like a smile blown from a face.
To be the busted umbrella scuttled
down the storm-addled street.
The radio goes further and further back,
past Lou Reed, past the Kingston Trio
and there it is: the blues.
To be purified by the memory
of touching the arch of your foot.
Fragile are the bones of a bat.
Fragile even the suspension bridge.
To preserve the dream under the tongue
all day, not garbling a word. To wash
with cold water. All the way to the ground
the sky comes, just lying down we’re flying.
As I read and reread Fall Higher I kept coming back to those first two lines. I was personally moved to try and fall higher. For me, “the error is not to fall/ but to fall from no height” became my own call to action. We live the biographies we will leave behind. Young’s work shows the audience our own accountability for that initiative. I appreciate that Young’s poetry emphasizes the real work being done in each poem.
There is a message not of Hallmark™ HOPE but of authentic perseverance. His rigorous dedication to honesty as the imperative resonates throughout his work. With each new poem the reader gains palpable fluency in the language of Dean Young. He is able to train the reader to follow the exact course of each poem. The reader learns the cloud patterns of Young’s poetry, knows both the storm and sunshine of the sky, “All the way to the ground…”
Below is a poem I wrote with the momentum of diction as impetus, honesty the imperative.
Slow Dancing Answers, Banter
She says, not the meaning but the sound
my footsteps make on the marble leaving her
to her own devices cherished among her belongings
the capable phone clutched in that tiny purse
like lips whistling with more wind than melody
the note held in fingers blurring fresh ink with sweat
stained shirts my old roommate’s collar colored yellow
yolks run down the sandwich, down my hand
shaking trying to light a match to light a cigarette
ashes and coffee grounds augured over mornings
spent trying to find the right word, to say what
I want to hear glaciers falling down mountains
Tenzing Norgay dreamed about, imaginary summits
his picture perfect top of the world to come
back again to climb only to the same height again—
to reach the top, find the limits, and feel the bars of the cage.
[Ben Wiessner is Poetry Co-Editor of Exit Strata. He appreciates a well placed em dash, still listens to that song by Petey Pablo and believes in the untapped culinary power of country ham. Ben values sensible footwear. He always keeps a tent in his trunk. And, he was raised to witness the emancipatory power of storytelling. These are all source texts for his aesthetics.]
[Lynne wishes to add: last spring, Dean Young successfully recovered from heart transplant surgery — much to the relief and gratitude of the poetry community, his colleagues, friends, and students. Fall Higher hit the shelves just days after the procedure, and this nodal point was documented by NPR in this classic and important interview with this ordinarily out-of-the-spotlight poet, which includes readings from Young done during that period.]