Nicholas Papaxanthos on Dean Young

Dean Young’s Word Triplets

We could say that there is a narrative to these three words: brick, blood-drop, red feather, which entails the passage from inert material to mortal flesh to a sort of avian/angelic possibility, or we could say that what holds those things together is their redness. I try to be alert to as many possibilities of connectedness as I can simultaneously, even if one may undermine the authority of another. 

— Dean Young

The rule of three, omne trium perfectum: the idea that everything that comes in threes is perfect. Kind of a sloppy generalization, but made less sloppy by tidbits of truth, for instance, that our hearing depends on three ossicles, and our eyes perceive white light as mixtures of three hues, and what about all those famous trios, The Three Musketeers, Charlie’s Angels, and The Bee Gees? What about the Past, Present, and Future? The Earth-Sun-Moon system? BLTs? On the count of three, you say Cheese!, or you jump into the pool, or run for your life; we expect something to happen, or many somethings in synchrony. It’s reason enough for “brick, blood-drop, red feather” to set something off in your head, like a bell clanging for more bells, the impulse to investigate how these seemingly random three objects might work together — and in this case, Dean Young helps us figure it out by suggesting narrative and/or colour. It’s a useful start to understanding how to go about dismantling the various connecting mechanisms Dean Young plays with — not only in similar three-object sets but his poetry as a whole. It’s also, however, a little misleading, as if all connecting mechanisms can be so readily dismantled, as if the bells always go off for a reason and the only fun to be had is in finding that reason, rather than just listening to them.

Here’s another of Dean Young’s strings-of-three, or three-strand braids, or triptychs — whatever you’d like to call them — this time from one of his poems, “Roller Coaster”: “A grape, a girder, the spoon in the back of the knee.” Well, “grape” and “girder” are paired by hard Gs, and maybe the tongue is bowl-shaped like a spoon or back of the knee as it taps them into being. Or maybe a grape is balanced on a girder held by a steel hook in the air, like a tightrope walker before the knees give way. Or a high-school bully flicks a grape off a cafeteria spoon, and after a series of zany ricochets… No doubt you can have fun trying to assemble the parts, as if without instructions, to unknowable ends, but I think you’ll always return to the deranged truth that “one may undermine the authority of another” — that is, each of the three parts may undermine the other two, like rock-paper-scissors, or like the effect of an ambiguous image, a rabbit/duck or Rubin vase but with a third option, rabbit/duck/walrus, and as with any example of multistable perception, only one part can be maintained at a given moment.

Three more triple-things by Dean Young: “Forsythia, salt, eight-foot extension cords”; “Friendship on a deadline, suntans, milk”; “Safety catch, melted crayon, broken string.” In each of these there’s a funny relationship between independence and interdependence, like three siblings who want nothing to do with each other, but by virtue of being family find themselves in the same place — and even re-enacting the crazy antics of their childhood together. It’s a real feel-good moment, and as with any, you had to be there, you can’t explain it. Well, you could try to explain it. One way might be to trace a tradition from Surrealism, Lautrémont’s “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,” through to the first generation of New York School Poets, with Kenneth Koch’s “Bananas, piers, limericks” and Frank O’Hara’s “kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas,” and beyond. But my worry is by doing that you might be missing the point, like familiarizing yourself with the sea by staring at it each day, maybe even talking to it, but never dipping your toe or swimming in it. A better thing to do, I think, would be to look at the gaps between the words. For example, in “Drift of snow, hummingbird, a baby’s birthday balloon,” there’s a remembering and forgetting between each part, snow just enough like and unlike a hummingbird to keep us guessing, generating instead of annulling thought, keeping not only the line afloat like a giddy baby with a balloon but also the poem in which the line appears. As far as I know, Dean Young hasn’t written a poem composed of only word triplets; rather, they’re slipped into poems as independent entities, functioning as crowbars, surprising and jolting the poem apart (sometimes further than it already is), to make space.

To quote Tony Hoagland paraphrasing Louise Glück, “as a poem of omission progresses, the content of the unsaid should become increasingly loud and more precise.*” Although the words “omission” and “unsaid” aren’t exactly right here, as if to suggest that Dean Young is purposely leaving something out between “drift of snow” and “hummingbird,” there is a space between them, and room in that space for an invisible bridge across, one that just might become more visible as the poem progresses. What kind of bridge will it be? A truss bridge? A rickety suspension bridge? Bridge of toothpicks? One last word triplet: “Barometric pressure, prewar shortages, bloused breezes of whiskeyed spring—nothing holds us for long.”

The opening quote is from an interview by Anthony Tognazzini, which you can find here.

Poems from which I took word triplets (in order): “Roller Coaster” and “Pulse” from Dean Young’s collection Skid, “Deadline” from Embryoyo, “The Unattainable” from First Course in Turbulence, Lautrémont’s from Les Chants de Maldoror, Koch’s from “Sun Out,” O’Hara’s from “Today,” and the last two again from Dean Young, “Bell Tower” from Bender, and “The Velvet Underground” from First Course in Turbulence.

*Tony Hoagland paraphrasing Louise Glück from his essay “The Dean Young Effect” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 38, No. 4.

–Nicholas Papaxanthos

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