POETRY AND HEALING
Where the Miraculous Slips In: A Tribute to Dean Young, 1955-2022
by David Shaddock
This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.
I DON’T KNOW HOW MANY people like me there are who feel that Dean Young is exactly the poet they were meant to be, if only. Like Frank O’Hara, another bard-crush, his poems lure you out into the deep end before you notice you are wet. But not by cheating, you never feel that he is cutting a corner or stating the obvious. “See that tear in the rational? / That’s where the miraculous slips in” he writes in “My Wolf Is Bigger Than Your Wolf.” Just slips in, amidst the bumpity bump play of close observation and giddy associations.
The one thing Young did appear to cheat was death. Born with a heart defect, he survived a last-ditch heart transplant for eleven years. “The wolf appointed to tear me apart / is sure making slow work of it,” he writes in Shock by Shock, his first post-transplant collection. I love that word appointed. So understatedly accurate of what his lifelong heart-precarity must have felt like. A life lived so close to death that Young’s actual death last year felt both inevitable and shocking. In his poem, “My Wolf Is Bigger Than Your Wolf,” which we will be taking a look at, he describes how Kenneth Patchen wrote poems flat in bed, crippled by back pain, but none of his poems were self-pitying. An example Young took for himself.
Because self-invention is such an American obsession, we demand our poets come up with an original selfhood. Whitman’s ever-expanding self, Dickinson’s self, compressed to the point where it flips to cosmic. What I love about the self Dean Young gives us is the way it is large enough to let both pathos and joy blow through, but sharp enough to catch them mid-flight. We jump so quickly from joy to sadness that they almost blend like the blades of a whirligig:
to watch the youthful flush drub your cheeks
in your galloping dream. Maybe even
death will be a replenishment. Who knows?
he writes in “Easy as Falling Down Stairs” from his collection Fall Higher.
Certainly, this is a product of Young’s voice, light, free, a tad self-deprecating. But it is more than a voice. There is a sense of self here that inspires me, both as a reader and a psychotherapist. It contains, if not Whitmanic multitudes—he resists the bard role—a big swath of the world: pop music, stewardess tricks with fussy babies, Greek mythology. It’s a trick to find a balance between self and other, one that requires constant recalibration. Young seems to manage it effortlessly. His verse is always in motion, a bon mot here, a painful stab there, a bit of word play. It’s a self that is profoundly permeable, not separate from the world. But it is also a container, it holds his feeling life long and still enough for us to enter.
Let’s see him balance pain, humor and a bit of shamanic magic in “My Wolf Is Bigger Than Your Wolf” from Shock by Shock. Wolves are a frequent presence in Young’s work. The wolf here is a daimon, guiding and informing his life and work: “…When my wolf runs off / with my ATM card, she comes back / with the complete works of Kenneth Patchen,” he writes, then associates to Patchen’s having written through terrible back pain. This reference to pain reminds us that this wolf is also his personal predator, making slow work of tearing him apart.
In the meantime, the wolf takes us on a dizzying journey, “flying through the zodiac.” He reveals the mystery of the Sanskrit words the atomic bomb whispered by Robert Oppenheimer as well as instructions for making a living retrieving valuable medicine bottles (!) from the dump. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is the Gita verse Oppenheimer quoted at Trinity, but Dean Young’s wolf could make him laugh. The wolf proceeds to instruct us in how to purify crystals with water and humming and how to get 2014 feminist gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis elected in Texas (good luck with that—she lost to the execrable Greg Abbott.)
Once we notice that we are out in the deep end, we realize that it is no accident that Oppenheimer is near the center of this poem. I had always thought he said “I am the creator and destroyer of worlds,” as he watched the atom bomb ignite, but the recent movie confirms that he only said the destroyer part—the creator part is implied in his quoting from the Gita. Young’s wolf is both the creator and destroyer. The predator that eats him from within and the daimon who guides his poetic vision are one. His wolf is bigger than ours, though few of us would trade places.
I couldn’t find a URL, so here is the poem in full:
My Wolf Is Bigger Than Your Wolf
I bet you don’t share 10 chromosomes
with your wolf. When my wolf runs off
with my ATM card, she comes back
with the complete works of Kenneth Patchen.
Did you know he wrote many of his finest works
flat on his back in excruciating pain?
What was the heaviest rock ever
put on your chest? Now multiply that
and see if you don’t confess
you’re a witch, even though
your cat ignores you, your mileage
sucks and you never once spit in a cauldron.
See how foolish that is now—
whatever was holding you back
from flying through the zodiac?
You could have known exactly where to dig up
old prescription bottles at the dump
people pay good money for.
You could have known what was inside
the locket recovered from the blast.
Maybe even made Oppenheimer laugh
as Sanskrit blistered his forehead
and helped get Wendy Davis elected
to protect the reproductive rights
of women in Texas. You’d have known
to purify crystals you hold them
under cold running water and hum.
See that tear in the rational?
That’s where the miraculous slips in.
Usually it’s so small even protozoa
can’t squeeze through. That’s why
you need a wolf.
You can’t read references to chromosomes and protozoa now without a catch in your throat. We’ll miss you, Dean Young.
David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His recent poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. He is also the author of Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, and two books on relationships and couples therapy. He lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.