Elegy on Toy Piano, Dean Young
[University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95]
I wanted to start by saying this is the best damn book I've ever read: 'This book,' I was going to say, 'bisects Maslow's hierarchy of needs at the base - before shelter and food.' But then I got self-conscious and that seemed like a really stupid thing to say, implying not only that I am prone to flattery, but that I probably haven't read many books. No-one's going to sit through a lecture that begins that way. Suffice to say, I really liked Elegy on Toy Piano. Turn to page one of the hand-out.
When Blind Donkey comes upon the bathing geishas
he shouts, Exterior brides of nothingness!
No adjunct to the bleeping diadem.
Let them eat fakery.
The electric guitar parts confiscated by elevators.
The naked parts intercepted by disclaimers WHAM.
Why bother lyrics.
You write like you don't know the meaning of a single word.
(from 'Learn by Doing')
I can't find the anvil
but then "Go find the anvil"
turns out to be some kind of joke
at the peach farm.
(from 'Peach Farm')
Why isn't there an event where we see
who can swallow the most pool water?
How about putting things up your nose?
Just sitting in a chair? Isn't it obvious
how difficult that is, how lousy
most people are at it?
(from 'Lives of the Olympians')
Young pays heed to the oft ignored rule: Collage is a method rather than an end in itself. 'No adjunct to the bleeping diadem' is a satisfying phrase. 'The electric guitar parts confiscated by elevators' is a satisfying idea. The overall effect is similar to that of a really good abstract expressionist painting. (Or, indeed, a really good collage.) Furthermore, I like to imagine Blind Donkey shouting all of these phrases at the bathing geishas. That's why it works: the bundle of surreal fragments is tethered to a single, vivid event. Hell, even if the surreal fragments weren't tethered to anything they'd still be good - because they're good surreal fragments - interesting, funny and striking. And that's the great thing about Young - he's a defiantly experimental poet who never plays the 'Look mom, no syntax!' card. Which is a relief: I don't need anyone else telling me how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to them all the uses of this world using only punctuation and the letter K or a thousand words ending in -ATION. Snore.
I love this. I wish it were mine. The rest of the poem is about the peach farm. 'The young peaches clung to the limbs / like sag resistant muscles.' If you don't love 'Peach Farm' you're an idiot. I have nothing in common with you. Get out of the lecture theatre.
This is Young as pissed-off stand-up comic, riffing on athletics. His asides are often in this register - mordant, witty, the kind of thing you might steal and slip into conversation to impress someone pretty.
Okay, pages two to eight of the hand-out are just bad pencil-drawings of cats. I've left the whiskers off - so you can add them yourself if you get bored. However, this is unlikely as Young doesn't pull any punches in his sixth collection. The brilliant 'Whoz Side U On, Anyway?' is one in the eye for the Sunday Marxists and Existential party-poopers bickering as if an aesthetic decision were automatically a moral one ('How dare you even suggest such a thing?' / 'How dare you even suggest otherwise?', etc.) I've come across heavy-weight poet-critics who don't like Dean Young - and I suspect this is because Dean Young has a sense of humour. Plus, you know, people could feasibly enjoy reading his work - and that's like so bourgeois.
messes up a bunch of packing instructions
and that's pretty avant garde.
'May Deaths', a rumination on mortality, describes a catalogue of people in the poet's acquaintance who died in May, concluding in sombre lyricism:
Horrible to make a tally,
so much to fear, maybe too much to bother with.
funerals on the side of hot hills,
it seems the pall bearers will stumble,
their polished shoes streaked with clay.
A memorial, his new books on a table,
ending with a Chopin nocturne,
momentarily we're floating
like needles on water.
Indeed, there is great variety in the three movements of Young's elegy. On the other end of the scale, we get 'True/False' - a neat process poem comprising a list of 100 numbered statements (like a true/false test), including:
14. I intentionally miss belt loops so no one thinks I'm too involved in appearances.
But whatever the tone, these are all recognisably Dean Young poems - he has such presence in his work; an articulate and eccentric voice, the train of thought ridden to the end of the line:
This is not the river,
it's an explanation of the river
that replaced the river.
You may think you're breaking a window
but you're breaking an explanation of a window
with the explanation of a rock.
(from 'Halflives of the Youngonium')
There's something so uplifting about this work - both cerebral and generous, playful and angry. It engages you on a number of levels, making for an invigorating intellectual work-out. And Young writes great concluding lines like:
you enter the ballerina's lair.
My agony is no sillier than yours.
I'm through being even-handed. Liking Dean Young's poetry is not a matter of taste. If you don't like it, you don't have any. In the face of bellicose factions, each one more boring than the last, vying for publicity and putting down any poet who can make you laugh, Elegy on Toy Piano is a subversive triumph of the imagination.
© Luke Kennard 2005