Monday, November 03, 2008

Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor

Some Leaves

It’s probably a little under-hand’d to assign to chance the remittances of “the dancing of an attitude” (what Kenneth Burke call’d “symbolic action”), but what happen’d is I went to the Friends of the Library emporium and uncover’d a spanking new polyethylene-wrap’d volume of Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor (University of Pittsburgh, 2008), obviously a discard’d review copy, complete with cover by Dean Young (half-Basquiat, half Ernst of La femme 100 têtes, all mess) and picture of Dean Young (looking a little like a complacently disconsolate cockatoo) on the back. And, at $2, had to drag the thing home. (Oh, maybe I had just the inkling of a plan.) To explain to the world “at large” just why Dean Young is, to coin a jingle: “about as lethal as a flarfist.” Primitive Mentor is, I note, Dean Young’s ninth collection, and he’s copped a number of awards, teaches at Iowa, is widely imitated by squads of careerists and know-nothings, and is, seemingly, if one believes the piece “What Form after Death” with its lines “And Stan Rice, just now / 7 or 8 books no one talks about but / when I reread still frighten me / into delight,” ready himself for a kind of premature post-mortem-style assessment: what those who worry a legacy in lieu of a poetics end up getting.

I want’d to point to the cartoonery of Dean Young—all cause and effect (anvil drop’d off cliff drilling the antagonist deep into an anvil-shaped hole) with no effect (antagonist flatly climbing up out of the jagged hole, reconstituted in a sketch). Which is the way it is, apparently, for certain bairns of the self-satisfy’d late twentieth-century the U.S. seem’d to breed in numbers. Young: “Put some words in the word balloon, hardly / matters what as the cartoon concerns a conversation / between a trashcan and a duck.” Which gets right to it: form (“balloon”) and content (“hardly / matters”). Or there’s the casual (wholly without consequences) mayhem of “me and Fucking Dickhead / running along the forest”:
                            Tyger, tyger, says Dickhead
which he always says when he gets another idea:
cling wrap, smart bomb, mechanical bull,
and because he’s half god, half cartoon,
Fuckhead keeps blowing himself up and putting
himself back together wrong . . .
Replete with obligatory literary nod (just like Warner Bros.—who’d forget the building demolition company named “Edifice Wrecks” in some old Bugs Bunny cartoon?), though, here, rather inert.

My temptation—is it because the poems all seem “of a cut,” all clones of a Dean Young ur-poem?—is to count things. Say, how many times does “off-one’s meds” occur? Here’s someone about to “fall / for a tombstone-filching off-his-meds young gun”; here’s a line address’d to someone whose head apparently just roll’d by: “You haven’t gone off your meds again, have you?” Probably two too many (unless one thinks that that is the equivalent of what comes nowadays “out of the mouths of Polish mothers”). And while one’s looking: is being “off-one’s meds” just a variation of a bigger ploy, that of the “another saga of my personal failures” Young litany of self-deprecations, all, paradoxically, highly-vaunt’d? And there it is—again and again—what the “constant plumbing of the spirit” finds: self-admitted dopey rejects and dullards, unfathomably disinterest’d in anything beyond a world defined by jokey indifference. Read: lines about how “I tried to solve / the why-am-I-so-dumb problem by reading books / I couldn’t understand”; or about “a curious crew, prone to slam-dance depression” (half-concluding that “maybe so / much hilarity is a strain on us”); or a claim how “I like the parts in my brain best / that can look at a puddle of blood / and reach for a mop”; or a poem that begins, “You are toilet head. / No, I am toilet head.” Titles like “Wheelchair Race,” “Gawker,” “Lives of the Orphans,” “My Itty Void.” Here’s an egregiously moronic sample (out of “Admissions Policy”—who says academia’s effect on American poésie is negligible?): “One / of our most promising freshmen didn’t have a skull, / his brains held together by, you guessed it, / duct tape. Duct tape occupies a significant /portion of our curriculum in the school / for people with pieces missing / as does reading original poetry aloud / and being rewarded with grapes.” Catch the “you guessed it”—this is accessibility with a vengeance; not only is the reader swept up in Young’s superior “comic” disdain, that reader is deem’d capable of anticipating it, saying it for himself. (Of course he is: it’s that comfort of the familiar—mimicking the sit-com, the stand-up routine—that makes the work popular and imitable.)

Another thing to count: references to the “other”—something beyond the usual American detritus, a “world out there.” Mmm: Caravaggio “skipping rent” through a hole knock’d in the ceiling (“explains the light source of those late works”); in “My Outlook on Life”—“people must always be allowed avenues / of escape that can be perked up with colorful names. Rue of Laughing Livers. Boulevard Rimbaud / where Rimbaud was beaten and arrested”—and, “Chinese handcuffs, bullwhips, / qat to chew”; in “Liverwurst”—“czars and czarinas / are sitting down to a giant swine dinner / and wolves chase troikas on the steppes / and idiots play flag football in the mists”; somewhere there’s a reference to how “you’ll want to go to Mexico, / get so drunk that you think what you’re doing is a dance.” If everything becomes material for stock-mockery and caricature, is there any reason to trust a turn that apparently intends to address present predicaments? Here’s “Triage”:
Fatally, the boy picks up a what he thought
on the occupier / insurgent fractioned
road. Fatally, the man goes out for popsicles
in the storm not for himself for his two
days later from the mudslide pulled he’s
given a kind of super power, drive a nail
into his chest he won’t care or notice.
The deluge greens the hills, the world
is full of wailing, concussions, unnerved
stillness, hushed discussion, then more
wailing but a birdsong still fits through
two quick notes sailing then what to do
how what needs stopping stop, speed what
needs now not? Check trickling through
the mail, joining an envelope-gush fed
into a machine that slits them open
counting. Groups of same-thinkers praying
which seems okay unless you study history
where such behavior’s often preparatory
to raving, attack, more slaughter. Somehow
a bicyclist fits through, bell on handlebars.
Then mother comes home, syntax stays intact,
a lie begins to wither. The man can’t fit
through barbed wire but his poems do, hidden
in his breath. Laughter fitting through at first
seems monstrous. “She’d be your age by now.”
Time fitting through a fruit tree, an owl.
A string quartet of kids, a room with a
chocolate on the pillow. Outside, an un-
frozen river for those still alive.
“A lie begins to wither.” I don’t trust “Triage”—I don’t trust its ratatoille’d syntactical mush at the beginning; I don’t trust the clarity “un- / frozen” of its conclusion. Nor its aimless talk of “fitting through.” First its “two quick notes” of “birdsong” and, somewhat later, “poems, hidden in [a man’s] breath.” Splendid: truth’ll out, &c., &c. Except: what’s the “Check trickling through / the mail” doing there? (Unwitting sign of one’s most basic concern?) Is that a “fitting through”? Is there a triage evident here, a sorting according to degrees of urgency, of who or what’s salvageable? The details range from the perverse (“a room with a chocolate on the pillow”) to the confusing (“Time fitting through”) to the incoherent (“‘She’d be your age by now.’”) The upshot is that “Triage” seems a mere topical exercise, or, more cynically, a kind of poetic résumé-builder, some sign of Young’s tackling the big subjects. (I say that largely because of the paucity of such address elsewhere.)

American surrealism’s always been a mostly giggly affair, big silly hijinx and high penetrable hyuk-hyuk-ing shenanigans, works of surface bedazzle all seemingly new without the concomitant fundamental change that the new requires. Usurp’d by advertising, it’s become pervasive in American life; we all indulge in it now effortlessly (and with none of the primary or tertiary claims of, say, Blaise Cendrars’s call for the “naked, new, total”). The problem with such effortlessness is miasma and discharge: strings of impartial details, conglomerate fuzziness. So, one begins “Wheelchair Race” in fine Dean Young self-styled dodo-bird (or “blockhead”) style:
You can’t understand how everyone else
walks around in flames, how they get through
the vapor locks, the persistent mazes
and partitions between you and the flowers
and the ideals and sprays of life
and goodness exhibits.
It feels like there’s a gray box on your head.
It is your head.
And goes through sentimental narratives (“You leave a gasp on the hotel pillow”) and canned jokes (“your fundamental experience was a hybrid / of boredom and dread you wouldn’t get / to the bathroom on time”) and bonhomie’d asides to the knowing reader (“If only you had one of those penlights / that’s also a penknife”) to end with:
Right now the only place air gets in
is where your mother kissed your head
when it was still soft as mucilage,
and she still a shiny dragonfly.
Remarkable enough lines, and completely unwarrant’d, a ditzy gratuity to lift the poem out of its slog.

Dean Young


Ambient sound: water running into a jug. A little kid asking what “contested” means. The clipped, nearly human chatter (in bursts) of keyboarding. Water is a mercy in the desert. “A blatantly illegal and immoral example of state terrorism.” Rain gearing up for a night of it. And the immemorial rat-tat-tat of half-thinking, that clip-fed Browning (funny how one associates an automatic rifle with random particle movement, Brownian) hammering throughout the day: Where’d Dina Lisha go after leaving the rue Marguerite near the ineffable Parc Monceau? Is the unfinish’d a “field mark” of the Romantic? And loud bells parrying the slowing orchestral slurry, becoming the punctae into which the strings “submerge,” belling out wildly themselves. All the Donna mi pregha apparatchiki. The mesh and commingling of thinking and ambience, and how writing tongues each indifferently, here, there, slow with pressure, high-fluttering in a hint-barrage of saying the unsayable, curtain’d off by fever-noise, or amalgamates of desire, linsey-woolsey, a sound like a pinafore, a kneecap with a crookedly-askew Band-Aid smirk, and muddy: improbably equal to the fleet harriers thinking noiselessly runs with.