Even More Taboo Than Love

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C. Dale Young uses this third book to address injustices, the divisions caused by pain, prejudice, and a fractured spirit.

I have been trying to pinpoint exactly what made me so much more alert and yes, affectionate towards C. Dale Young’s third book, Torn, and its charms, compared to his first two books. I have always thought of him as an accomplished and intelligent writer (full disclosure: AND I’ve been reading his blog for years, not just his poetry,) but the tone and language of this third book seemed more welcoming to me – more casual, relaxed, looser somehow. The sense of humor is dark, perhaps, but prominent throughout the collection that is at the same time serious in its subjects and intents. His meditations on his Catholic faith and his training in medicine are especially interesting. The title poem, “Torn,” the last in the book, a familiar enough story of violence that Young examines from the viewpoint of caretaker of both the victim and the criminal, is worth the cost of admission all by itself. When I heard the poem out loud, I felt I had been punched in the chest. In a good way.

The poems in the first section of the book have a bit of lighter feel, poems about growing up, about language and love. “The Bridge” is especially playful, focusing on the idea of forbidden words in poetry and expanding the speaker’s mundane loves… ice cream, fountain pens:

And I love fountain pens. I mean
I just love them. Cleaning them,
filling them with ink, fills me
with a kind of joy, even if joy

is so 1950. I know, no one talks about
joy anymore. It is even more taboo
than love. And so, of course, I love joy.

The first two sections also introduce meditations on God and the Devil, sin and confession. I have to admit being more than a little fascinated with the way he addresses God in these poems; his irreverence and approach to usually “difficult” or suppressed issues in religion, such as sex and suffering, made me feel as if I was eavesdropping on someone’s actual intimate prayers. His previous poems about his Catholic upbringing don’t necessarily prepare us for his surprising revelations about God here. “From Paying Attention:”

… What can I say
to explain my God? He has little tolerance
for hatred. He expects undying love
and affection. He leaves large red

imprints of his fist against my back,
sometimes flowering on my face. He showers
me with expectations. He lifts me up
to remind me of my foolish fear of heights.

In an interview with Lambda Literary, C. Dale notes that “I am endlessly fascinated by the fact the human animal is capable of incredible tenderness and care while in the next moment it is capable of unthinkable brutality.” This version of God – dangerous, erotically charged, impossibly powerful and possibly abusive – is tied in theme to poems about trying to “fix” humanity (well, the physical parts, anyway) in medical practice. Young’s approaches to his day job (as a physician) often sound a more melancholy note in his work, his frustration at his own limitations and the limitations of the bodies in his care. From “Sepsis:”

…I have placed
my bodily needs first, left nurses to do
what I should have done. And so, the antibiotics

sat on the counter…No needle was placed
in the woman’s arm. No IV was started…

How could I have known that I would never forget…that the image
of her body clothed in sweat would find me?

The horror of being responsible for other people’s lives becomes so vivid in this poem, the fear of letting others down, of having the personal interfere with the professional duties. In another poem, “The Personal,” he describes being shamed by a teacher in medical school who repeatedly questions him about his personal life: “she announced to everyone that you were the best/ minority student she ever had…But even in that praise, there was venom.” Here, the author’s awareness of his professor’s attitudes towards his racial and sexual identity makes every act of learning, every exchange a potential minefield. The stresses of caring for others are heightened by the extra awareness of others’ hostility towards him.

In the final poem of the book, “Torn,” Young manages to capture simultaneously fear, worry, compassion, and resignation in the story of how he, as a young practicing doctor, attends to the victim of a hate crime while considering how he will attend also to the perpetrators when they come into the ER. The background tension of the poem is the hate seething around the young doctor, how he will care for the attackers even though they may try to do him the same kind of harm they have done to his head-wound patient, whom the attending doctor refers to in a disturbingly casual fashion as the “faggot in Bed 6,” revealing that the young doctor and his patient are subject to prejudice even in a hospital, supposedly devoted to safety and healing. “Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe/ in that town. There would always be…a fool willing to tear me open/ to see the dirty faggot inside.” The ending of the poem focuses on the author’s act of trying to heal both his own wounds, the wounds of the attacked and the attacker: “I sat there and sutured. / I sat there like an old woman and sewed them up.”

Young uses this third book to address injustices, the divisions caused by pain, prejudice, and a fractured spirit. In Torn, his poems represent his repeated attempts to create sutures from separations – between God and man, man and his fellows, self and the shadow.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6. More from this author →