That thing that happens when you’re so deeply familiar with a poet’s work that you think you know what the work is, what it’s doing, and then the poet comes out with a new book and you realize that not only is the poetry glorious and precisely what you wanted but also somehow, amazingly, still surprising as well, still sustaining—and, in fact, you don’t quite know what the work is, and never will. I’m not sure what that is. We’ve all got our lists of writers who are able to do this. Mine includes Bob Hicok, Jorie Graham, Maureen McLane, Jericho Brown, Charles Wright, Terrance Hayes, Jennifer Boyden, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Matt Hart, Dean Young, etc. (Any art can offer this, of course, from a new Tarantino movie to a new Run the Jewels or Jolie Holland album.)
This is overtly regarding the new Dean Young book, Shock by Shock, though to talk about Dean Young and his phenomenally generative art it’s maybe useful to pause here and address the notion of taking something for granted. The phrase is tricky: one takes a tremendous amount of stuff for granted, from emotional support offered by spouses to the red lights that flip to green before ambering their way inevitably back to green to dirt beneath feet. Fine. But there’s a way I’m realizing as I edge into middle age that I have, without being too aware of it, taken the poets above deeply for granted. And not their productivity, the fact of their art continuing to be made, but the ideas and spirit animating the art—I take their art for granted, what it does and has done for me.
Say it’s a busy day, and you’re driving your children to daycare, and you’re stopping at the bread outlet store (double stamp Wednesdays, after all), and a car cuts you off as you attempt to get into the parking lot. Simple enough. The older daughter knows enough from your mumbling to helpfully intone “Oh, man” from behind, which is the phrase you’ve forced yourself to say instead of motherfucker or asshole or all the old sobriquets you deployed in a childless vehicle. But so the kids says that, and you do the adult seethe, our little pantomimes of powerlessness, but then maybe you’re lucky enough to somehow almost be set free—you think of an old line, something to offer whatever succor’s available through the blissful or diminishing moments of the day. Again, we’ve all got these. Maybe music, maybe film, art, religion (certainly the worst human experience is feeling Totally Alone in such scenarios, locked tight into one’s anger, unable to find any out). Mine happen more often than not to be poetry.
And more often than not, the lines that at these junctures pop into my head are Dean Young lines, for a host of reasons: he’s one of the first two poets I cared so much about I carried around his early books like kids do Moleskines, and his stuff (in ways deeply akin to Bob Hicok’s stuff, another guy whose work I’ve got deeper down than I can estimate, and whose lines come up with alarming frequency) is wise in quick, darting, sentence-level ways. Much as I like Graham, or Gilbert, or Harvey, or Wright, or Hass, or Szybist, their stuff’s almost always concussive in its full breadth; Hicok and Young (I’m brutally simplifying all this, obviously) have lines that just walk up and wreck you. These lines I’m trying to address are basically nuggets of wisdom—more often than not, the lines I come back to could/should be put on cards, posters, cell phone covers, printed on those license plate brackets.
So when I find myself dodging traffic, if I’m able to take a breath and get emotionally squared away (driving’s the vector of most of my adult frustrations, as I can’t imagine is unique), I often find myself hearing old lines in my head. Hicok’s I’m not good at waiting, which means I’m not good at being alive—I’d sell my knowledge of a dozen poets’ whole oeuvres to guarantee retention of that line till my termination. Young’s stuff for me comes mostly from First Course in Turbulence, which I still believe to be one of the most beautiful and compelling books of poetry ever, and which contains one of my all-time favorite lines of poetry: the heart is a fearless seething. I was in St. Paul, MN when I read that line, must’ve been 2001, and I remember throwing the book, tossing it away in agitated astonishment, and my buzz came from the fire of the line: to say something is a verb? I still get charged, just typing the line (the other Young line I get to, more often than not, is Throw something down hard enough, you discover its laws which is from “Skipping the Reception”/Elegy on Toy Piano).
Maybe you don’t buy that lines like these can offer something like succor, relief, momentary salvations. Maybe you don’t need such things. Maybe I’m all wrong. Maybe I’m pre-modern and scratching in the dark for a wisdom everybody else at the party’s smart enough to’ve realized is a sham, a fool’s game. Maybe my faith that the profoundest feeling we’re offered by art that really hits us deep in is a setting free, a series of screens or horizons obliterated somehow lovingly.
Maybe this isn’t the right way to start.
Here’s the fourth poem in Shock by Shock:
Crash-Test Dummies of an Imperfect God
Because we’re so stupid,
the prizes in Cracker Jack are now paper
so they can be swallowed. No getting
within a hundred feet of Stonehenge because
everyone wants to hack off a souvenir
and the way home is clogged to one lane
so whoever wants to can stare into a pothole
until coming up with a grievance. I’d vote
the greatest accomplishment of mankind
is the pickle spear. God created paradise
to tell us Get out! which is why we probably
created God who doesn’t much like being created
by such ilk as us. No wonder it’s pediatrics
every morning and toxicology by happy hour.
Is it all just in the mind, the dirty dirty mind?
Maybe God tried to turn you into a dumpster
so you could be lifted by the truck’s hydraulic
arm and banged empty. Maybe a snow cone
so you could be sticky-sweet and dropped.
Maybe a genital-faced bivalve to be dashed
with Tobasco and eaten whole
or to his glory, produce a pearl.
If you’ve read his stuff this poem clicks along at basically exactly Dean Young miles/hour. The hallmarks—the speed and wit, the dour wisecracks, the engagement with something bigger, the astonishing endings that, to me, impart a feeling of breathlessness—are here, just as they’ve often been. So the sales pitch, at the most basic level, is simply this: Dean Young makes amazing shit, and you should buy this book (as you should have [already] purchased all his other books [though if you haven’t, this one’s just as fine a place to start as any]), and etc. over and over amen.
There is, however, at least for me, this weird question or aspect of progression. I hesistate to even write about this, because it sounds so snooty and pre-modern. Plus who gives a shit about progression, right? Isn’t the work enough? Is Run the Jewels 2 better than the original, and does the third have to be better than 2? I end up thinking about this stuff a lot. Maybe you do too. Another example: I like Paul Westerberg, and whenever he comes out with new work, I almost inevitably find myself adoring it and then immediately thereafter trying to figure out how it fits. Is his work now, twenty-plus years into his solo career, still advancing? Is it even fair to ask that question? Is that fair to ask of anyone’s art—that they’re chronically moving forward, whatever that means?
I’m of course asking but cannot answer these questions in anything like good faith; this whole notion seems to me calamitously dicey (even when you find someone whose work seems advancing—Terrance Hayes, say—you don’t want to imply his older stuff is not as good, plus there are just as many artists whose work isn’t progressing [at least not in any way you can trace] and it’s not like, by not advancing, their work’s somehow suspect or less substantial).
For the record: this idea that Young’s progressing has already been made (crudely) here, with the tl;dr establishing that, basically, Young’s precarious health (he’s recently had a heart transplant) has led to a diminishment of the Wild Play of surrealism he’s used for so long and so well, and that (it’s in the fucking title, after all) Young had, with Bender and Fall Higher, finally grown up (Young goes fairly clearly on the record in response with his poem “Why I Haven’t ‘Outgrown Surrealism’ No Matter What That Moron Reviewer Wrote”) and gotten more serious—less crazed joking, more dedicated connectedness (that’s a hard reduction). This idea feels, to me, to miss too much to be useful, and I’d like to here posit that what Adam Plunkett’s missing in his critical piece is what he presumes has been outgrown.
Here’s a perpendicular way of addressing this, maybe. A story. Supposedly in the day-to-day process of writing Coming into the Country, the great McPhee belted himself to a chair. Apocryphal or not. Belted himself in and promised that, if he finished the damn thing, he’d allow himself never to write again. That’s how bad it was. This is covered in some interview I can’t find. Then there’s also this: McPhee, in his Art of Nonfiction in the Paris Review (which came out in 2010, somehow, meaning: what the hell were they doing since ’65 in *not* interviewing the best American writer?), notes that he finishes everything he starts. Not quite, of course: he doesn’t say every single thing he starts, but it’s close (or anyway it reads that way to me). Think of that discipline. If you’ve read McPhee, if his work’s given you energy and lift, I’d posit that one of the reasons for such lift is his dedication. He just keeps fucking plugging. Keeps finding a way to bring his own act and effort into contact with topics to create (to me) some of the best American writing in history.
Which is what we find with Dean Young as well (and Hicok, and Wright, and Graham, and and and…). Young has not and will likely never outgrow surrealism: why would he? What he’s doing, again and again, book after book, is showing how art, poetry, surrealism, effort, dedication—all these edgeless abstractions—how all these things are able to continually surprise and offer succor. “Ever since I lost consciousness, / I keep finding it in the oddest places:” he writes in “Bender,” toward the end of Shock. Why read Dean Young? Because he’s looking for and finding art; because he’s willing to risk silliness to say the truth as he today finds it. Tell me what more you could possible demand.