C. Dale Young’s fourth book of poetry, The Halo, revolves, most simply, around a young man who has a spinal injury accident that puts him in the hospital with a medical device around his head which he perceives as a halo. This young man also sprouts possibly imaginary wings and meditates on the nature of memory, lust and love, the fickleness of the Gods, and the inconsistencies of comic book mythology. If you’re familiar with Young’s work from previous books, you’ll recognize some of his themes: the limits of medicine, memory and an intense struggle with faith.
The collection showcases Young’s skill with forms and repetition – the obsessions of the book are as tightly wound as clock springs onto these poems, the same kind of constraints and limits that a young man recovering from a spinal injury might feel as he watches the world from his hospital bed. The poems return to the same images, the same problems, and the same questions relentlessly, refusing to allow the reader, like the speaker, to escape the cage of the speaker’s damaged body and anguished mind. From “What Doesn’t Kill You:”
“See, you have to be bad to the bone to survive
such an accident, to make up this way. The good
get damaged, and the good stay damaged. The good
carry sunshine and hope. They die. They don’t get
stronger. They die. Rise from fire, rise from
broken glass and detritus, you monster…”
You could read the entire book as a kind of single parable, as the speaker remains constant and the narration circles around the same subject matter – an accident, a hospitalization, a monstrous appearance of wings that also disappear, the halo that holds his head in place and signals a kind of divinity. Themes of magic, faith, and science interweave the poems, invoking multiple mythologies to explain the speaker’s predicament.
One of the repeated touchstones in this book are Ovid’s stories of transformation from The Metamorphoses, and Young points out in several poems the lack of responsibility on the part of the Gods and the lack of power on the part of mortals.
In “The Gods Among Us,” the narrator tells us:
“When people challenge a god, the gods curse them
with the label of madness. It is all very convenient…
…Who among us could have spoken up
against the gods?…They granted wishes and punishments
much the way they always had. Very few noticed them
casually taking the shape of one thing or another.”
Later, in “In Pursuit,” a retelling of the tale of Daphne and Apollo, the narrator observes “So few of these transformations is ever a blessing…The gods have little use for us once we have been changed.” The speaker’s own transformations, into a human with wings, into a human held in place with surgery and medical apparatus, inspire this wisdom and bitterness about the nature of man and monster, mortal and god.
Another repeated theme is the speaker’s sense of alienation from not only his body in its state of brokenness, but his mind, mistaking dreams for memories and vice versa. The poems describing his anguish at the magical wings he perceives in himself as “monstrous” and his attempts to hide his true form from the world around him echo his frustration with a flawed and damaged body in the hospital, trying to walk and falling, unable to do something as simple as scratch an itch.
“Who on earth wants a man more monster than angel?” he asks in “Hush.” The speaker’s shame in his body extends to his shame in his bodily frailty, his shame in his sexuality, a shame in being noticed as different, in being read as not-human, in some way. In “Human Wishes” the speaker says “I wanted most of all to be a man,/ an ordinary man.” To stand out, the speaker fears, is to become a victim, to be in danger. So in many ways the speaker seeks to hide himself and his hybridity, his specialness, and rewrites his memories of kisses, accidents, and mutations.
The speaker of The Halo seeks a story that fits his own in the realms of martial arts movies (“Enter the Dragon”), Biblical imagery (“Wrestling with the Angel”) and comic books (“The Ninth Metal”). Comparing himself to Hawkman in “The Ninth Metal,” though the speaker feels some kinship with this singular winged superhero Hawkman, he also feels jealousy and anger at Hawkman’s ability to use a special metal, along with his wings, to defy gravity, unlike the speaker who “did not triumph over gravity.” His continued experience of limitation – in terms of flight in some poems, or any movement at all in others – is charted throughout the book, ending in his poem “The Halo,” where he describes himself as “not a man made divine but more human.”
On the first reading, you’ll be entranced by the stories the narrator tells about his strange disappearing wings and the recovery from his car accident. But it’s Young’s skill with forms and the lyric beauty of his writing even in poems describing intense pain that will make you return to this book.