Solar Perplexus (Copper Canyon Press) is the most recent collection of poetry by Dean Young.
That is to say: it’s a bouquet of wildflowers wrapped in a Jack Kirby comic book, left beside the mailbox (n.b. in Dean Young’s world, “all flowers eat meat”).
It’s a love letter from the sun, postmarked the moon.
Postmarked the future.
It’s free verse like “Marriage Poem,” which begins:
Yes, I’ve made some mistakes
but I know now when hydrogen
or a cricket gets into the bedroom
or a tire keeps leaking or a dog
whines or the cork is black or
an aardvark walks into a bar,
you can’t swallow shadow
like vodka even though they taste
the same. Like the ashes of ice.
Like the role you play in someone else’s
dream. Like laughter in the periphery
of a Kandinsky.
Reading Solar Perplexus is a bit like that first pleasant, disorienting drink at a new friend’s house. You are nervous but happy. Dancing and misunderstanding seem equally possible.
of the martini glass—is it to emphasize
our tipsiness or provide sufficient reflecting
surface so we can see we’re sipping sky?
Trick question. Either/or is a false
dichotomy. Extra credit if you answered
all the above. If you can’t swim,
dancing furiously in the deep end
will keep you afloat.
(from “Wheelbarrow with Wings”)
There will be dancing. There will be misunderstanding.
In Jubilat, Dean Young once famously described his life’s work this way: “I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point.”
In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder suggests we can love poems the same way we love people: without fully understanding them.
This is how Dean Young seems to feel about life itself.
The first poem in this collection ends with the line, “see if you can make sense of it.”
This might be Young presenting an object (his birth certificate) or maybe this book itself to us, but it also feels like a poet tentatively putting an arm around our shoulders and looking out at the world as we nod softly.
Solar Perplexus is a series of beautiful movements, a poet spinning like a dervish in an enclosed space—no poem longer than two pages—in which we see beautiful fragments quite clearly just before they blur into “the world of ten thousand things.” It’s a book of intimate monologues that combine Federico Lorca’s oneiric longing with Tony Hoagland’s giggling tenderness.
To take a different religious image, Young’s poems are zen koans–bright with illogic but nevertheless as full of meaning as the echo of a bell. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The rude answer might be a slap in the face—a gentler one would be a Dean Young poem, each one of which is a merry expression of confusion and wonder, as elaborate and meaningful as the gesture of a Balinese dancer or a hand tentatively waving at you across an airport lobby.
If you are looking for something as Instagrammable as Rupi Kaur, you will be disappointed. Dean Young has a way of saying things perfectly but which is difficult to memorize. It’s hard to remember the order of all the words. You might say his poems like dreams an hour after you wake up, but dreams are often meaningless. The poems in this book are experiences; your brain starts to vibrate with a combination of logic and its opposite. Your hand flutters out in excitement, tapping the person next to you in bed, but then your listener gives you a look of frustrated WTF?
As Dean Young himself describes poetry in “Wheelbarrow with Wings,”
It’s like trying to be a cube of light
undissolved in a bigger cube of light,
like holding your own brain
and wringing it out.
You might know that Dean Young had a heart transplant in 2011, and if you know that, then certain lines like “being a ghost where birds / dive through your chest” or “staples in my sternum” start to tell you a story—but in the end, the story is not about Dean Young.
In reading a Dean Young poem, you are constructing at least half the meaning. You are the poet.
Dean Young himself has said he doesn’t see a progression to his poems. In fact, he organized his collected poems (Bender, Copper Canyon Press, 2012) alphabetically instead of chronologically, so it’s demonstrable that he isn’t interested in traditional storytelling, cause and effect, or autobiography. Years ago, writing about “that bottom line of the periodic table / where elements last only nanoseconds,” the author of Solar Perplexus acknowledged: “Nothing breaks down quicker than Dean Youngium.”
In short, there is a lot of dancing in this book, but it’s not a drugged or drunken pounding—it’s a delicate, flirtatious, gleeful movement simultaneously aware that “we are all flowers,” and that air is moving in the poet’s open chest.
Reading Solar Perplexus, the poet is you. The chest is yours.
You read this book and Dean Young’s love of life is contagious. The sound of one hand clapping over and over is a kind of applause.
So, to answer the essential question:
Is it any good?
One of my favorite Twitter exchanges of all time was when Patricia Lockwood asked The Paris Review: “So, is Paris any good or not?” and the magazine replied:
It’s pretty good!