Approaching a book of poems from a biographical perspective is not generally my best tactic for a book review. But in the case of Shock by Shock, the eleventh book by poet Dean Young, the events the poet underwent are of such monumental proportions, they can’t easily be stowed in the back seat. Shock by Shock is Young’s first completely new collection since the transplant of a new heart.
There probably aren’t too many people in the new-heart club, although Columbia University Medical Center says “approximately 2,200 are performed every year” in the U.S. Maybe some of them are poets or readers of poetry. I feel a close affinity to Young’s situation, though my open heart surgery (and a Pacemaker inserted) this year did not involve a new heart, and to Young’s four months in the hospital, can only offer up my two weeks. This is a vast difference in experience, and yet, I think my familiarity gives me a special empathy and insight into Shock by Shock.
Although “[Young hasn’t ] ‘Outgrown Surrealism’ No Matter What That Moron Reviewer Wrote,” and there are plenty of poems here whose homage to Breton and the surrealist manifesto that announced “absence of any control exercised by reason,” prove Young’s determination to stop making sense, he also discusses details of his difficulties and of the actual transplant. And though there is no coy pretense of a “speaker” and we never believe in a suffering persona, these aspects are not spilled in a confessional manner, and Young’s touch with his own suffering is truly light. Still, he lets you know how serious a matter getting a new heart is:
is a vessel of flame-flicker
and even in dreams I say my lover’s
name so picture me for verisimilitude
made entirely of sunflowers but keep
the long scar in the center of my chest,
under it a grim doctrine frolics
on a dissecting table. I who have been
restored by cardiac shocks, dropped
into morning wanton and struck.
This, I think, quite lovely passage is actually a good example of both Young’s surrealism and, I’ll say, his realism as well. And he can definitely pull on the reader’s heartstrings, not necessarily talking about himself but making us remember “…When / you are waiting for a new heart / you are waiting for someone to die.” (”How I got Through My Last Day on the Transplant List”)
These—the poems that remind us that we’re dealing with death and life, but definitely life, are the poems that for me rise through the bravado and the charm and the wit, poems like “This is the Other Road,” containing the lines from which Young takes the his title.
…not because the god is hungry
or vengeful or horny or particularly
interested in me or you but because
he likes the theater, the gowns and masks
the rib-cage splitter and ceremonial
reaching into the chest
and a stranger, a boy really,
the heart of a reckless, generous boy
lifted from its cooler
and sutured into a carnal afterlife,
rose by rose, ladder by ladder,
shock by shock by shock.
Young has other obsessions, of course. They include, from my reading here, his dog, his wife, monkeys, wolves, and the phenomenon of bioluminescence, the latter coming up at least four times. Here’s one: “…Nearly 80% of the denizens/of the deep can produce their own light/but up here, we make our own darkness.” (“Folklore”)
But you can’t go through a heart transplant, an operation where you actually die, without the experience changing you. I think Young will be forever shackled to this moment. The enormity of the event must create a massive shadow, that will always loom. It’s no accident that the word shadow appears 15 times by my count, as in “…Feeding stray shadows / only attracts more shadows. …” (“Folklore”)
My favorite poem in Shock by Shock is a somewhat humorous poem, that starts with a call from a friend or neighbor, one of those types who don’t really pay attention to anything or anyone other than themselves, as witnessed by his not even asking about Young’s transplant and not being much concerned when he is told about it, focusing instead on why “…no birds are nesting / in [his] birdhouses.” Young’s response—he can’t get any sympathy from this guy—follows:
Birds, like the rest of us like clean starts
and as I spoke I felt my heart roost deeper
in my chest, fluffing out its blue breast, looking
for something to peck and this is how mercy
and poetry move through the world. (“Gizzard Song”)
As a first collection since his transplant, Shock by Shock is an outstanding “clean start.”