William Logan, in a review of Dean Young’s Elegy on Toy Piano, blistered poems that “want[ed] so badly to be loved, after a while you’re willing to buy them a ticket to Lapland just to be rid of their shining, eager faces”. Either Embryoyo, Young’s 2007 follow-up, marks a U-turn, or Logan’s irony meter was in the shop. The quasi-surrealist’s clown frown is deep under the smeared, garish make-up.
Young’s diction in Embryoyo is often as childish as the surface attitude: kerBOOM, boom boom, wussy, Mommie, horsie, thingie, Ka-ching. Childish, but the diction is also nostalgic, the narrator putting himself into a pleasant trance of “bras”, “brassieres”, “nipples”, “breasts”, before the inevitable descent: “wing”, “winged”, and “forewings” are foredoomed, pleasure and escape a mocking and incomplete memory. “Pineapple” makes an appearance in two page-facing poems, without connection. Brain, boredom, wolf, gold, butter, corpuscular, and cat get repeat test drives. One could make some obvious links; one could also get submerged in a Young no-no, that fool’s gold of rational hyperconstruction.
Nods go to Gertrude Stein and Artaud and Mallarme, sneers to Blake and Lowell. Narrative interest sharpens in the first lines – “You’re not going to like this” – only to feel the guillotine in the next. (And the following lines roll in the bucket, too. Young’s poems can’t contain all the mind’s splatter.) It’s not a child’s attention deficit disorder, but a contemporary mimesis of a mind’s shifts and severed strands, or at least a mind influenced and accelerated by modern habits and circumstances. Without extensive quotation, it’s hard to get a sense of this, but Young will often interrupt the interruptions with savvy metaphysical sadness, as in “Bunny Tract”, where “bunny/knows exactly what to do, flee then stop/and disappear but friend, our work is dark/in a darker world of not leaping in the sun/much”.
Though linear argument is destroyed at every turn, Young wants it both ways, as do many of our best absurdists. “The Plural Of Crisis Is” is a terrific political poem, skirting its anger with bewitching, waylaying syntax: “No one’s/shocked except the bless them young/even if all they do is pierce themselves”. And his ars poetica, “Leaves in a Drained Swimming Pool”, is chockablock with zingers – “Irreverence is irrelevant’s revenge” – before it, too, collapses into a sea of hilarious and altered cliches.
In “Sean Penn Anti-Ode”, a manipulated adage – “Life, boys and girls, is ordinary crap” – is a tangled Dream Songs riff from Berryman, and there are quite a few touching inscriptions from Young on the elder’s tombstone. Young’s time-and-death notes are always interesting, sometimes profound.
The harsh criticism of frivolity with unearned and opaque comic tone -- from Logan, Adam Plunkett and others – is puzzling to me, since it speaks to a lack in these otherwise excellent critics to see paradox in light humour. But perhaps it’s an indication that many are simply uncomfortable with poetry that – on its surface, at least – seems perversely wayward. They just haven’t looked deeply enough.
I’d sum up, but that would be an organic boo-boo. If you get the volume, read “Search Party”. It makes my early “best-of” poem for the year. As the bad jokester Young himself might say, “what a find!”