Why I Chose Fall Higher


Rumpus Poetry Club Board Member Camille Dungy on why she chose Dean Young’s Fall Higher as the April selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club:


Dean Young’s newest collection, Fall Higher, is a compendium of failure.  Love’s failure, human failure, poetry’s failures, the heart’s failure, reason’s failure, the body’s failure, failed ambitions.  Each associatively-driven poem reminds us of how gorgeous the practice of failure can be. As Young writes in the poem “Late Valentine”:

…even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones…

These are not self pitying poems.  They find potential even in the face of destruction.

So much corruption, but also such a light, humourous touch.  Young has built his literary career creating poems that are, as the Academy of American Arts and Letters calls them, “entertaining as a three-ring circus.”  Just as you want to feel pity for the poor tiger, out he lopes with his hat on sideways and a genuine grin on his mug.  The poems won’t sit still.  They don’t linger on one emotion, image, or sound for very long before they are up and moving again, careening even, on to the next new thing.  What amasses is an associative blur that implies more than it means.  And this seems right for Fall Higher.  Young is circling around concepts that are quite difficult to get a handle on: mortality, heart break, corruption, and loss.  I’m reminded of the child, in Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia,” who won’t look, won’t look, won’t look at the dead body before her.  Young’s poems map out the landscape of loss, pulling everything into their tumble.

The heart figures prominently in so many of these poems.  The tangible heart and the intangible one.  Many of us who are plugged into the poetry conversation have been hearing about Dean Young these days, about the fund set up to help cover the enormous medical expenses he faces while he awaits a necessary heart transplant. We’ve been hearing about Dean Young as a survivor.  The poems in Fall Higher grapple with the enormous cost of tending for the heart in all its contexts:

…We all feel
suspended over a drop into nothingness.
Once you get close enough, you see what
one is stitching is the human heart. Another
is vomiting wings.  Hell, even now I love life.
(Scarecrow on Fire)

The magnificence and mortality of the body combine in these poems in a dizzying whirl of hope and resignation.

Fall Higher revels in the grand gesture.  The poems take the biggest leaps they can, and then leap even further, preferring the experience of consequences to no experience at all.  In “Non-Apologia,” Young considers the limitations and potential of poetry:

Maybe poetry is all just artifice
devices, hoax, blood only there
to rhyme with mud….
A thing is never only itself.
Sometimes it rhymes.
Soon shadows are all that’s left,
that’s why poetry is about death.

Rhyming is key in these poems.  Both sonic rhymes and conceptual rhymes.  This idea leads to that idea leads to another, and with each new association, our condition grows more and more stark.

These are true post-lapsarian poems.  Hundreds of fallen angels inhabit this book, looking for ways to make their mistakes better each time. Young has taken his epigraph seriously:

hark, dumbass

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

Consider this list of titles:  “Selected Recent and New Errors,” “Fucked-Up Ode,” “Irrevocable Ode,” “Omen Ode,” “The True Apology Takes Years,” “Optimistic Ode,” “Is This Why Love Almost Rhymes with Dumb,” “My Brief Careers,” “Teetering Lullaby.”  Corruption and in all its wonderful varieties is at the center of so many of these poems.  And yet, there is such a light touch, so much pathos and humour, that I for one, did not want to turn away.  I wanted to watch the body as it dove from greater and greater heights into depths Young explores along with me.



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Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as assistant editor on Gathering Ground: Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006). She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy's work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Essays, the Pushcart Anthology and more than 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Literary Hub, Paris Review, and Poets.org. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award Nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter (and down the street from her parents, who followed her this time around). Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. More from this author →