What we see in Fall Higher by Dean Young is a book that delivers much of what we expect from Dean Young – witty, sly, musical, and reckless poetry. After all, he did write a book on poetics entitled The Art of Recklessness. But ultimately, Falling Higher delivers something different, in that even for Dean Young poems, these poems make no excuses for themselves; sometimes, they soar, and sometimes, they crash. This book ushers in a new turn in Dean Young’s poetry; a transition into a more calculated recklessness.
While it is often frowned upon to relate poets to their poems, in the case of Fall Higher, it is impossible not to connect Young’s shift in style, tone, and subject matter to the very real crisis he faced. His heart was failing. He needed a heart transplant. It wasn’t clear, for a long time, that he would get that heart transplant. The word “heart” shows up in most of the poems in this collection, and many of the poems deal with issues related to mortality.
As always, Young is deft with his craft. Most of the poems in the collection contain a music that is firmly enmeshed in the lines through deft use of sonority, close, near, and off rhymes, and rhythm. One poem that shows off Young’s musical moves is “Man Overboard”; this poem combines Young’s stream of consciousness style, with a trip-along rhythm, pleasing near rhymes embedded within lines, and rolling metaphors. It begins: “I would like to thank you for my life, / mother, friends wife, flirtations, / vexations, crazinesses, those vacations…” and threads words like “fly”, “kill”, and “life” to create a visual and audio montage that both moves readers and leaves them breathless.
However, Young sometimes, perhaps recklessly, overindulges his fascination with rhyme. This is most evident in “My Current Favorite Disease”, which begins with these lines:
“is one where you have sex while asleep
and remember not a jot
thereby making the unconscious hours
most worthy of contemplation hot.”
Thankfully, this poem comes rather late in the collection, so we know the collection as a whole has strong, well-crafted poems. But a poem that begins with a cliché-ridden, forced rhymed quatrain one might expect from an undergraduate? It’s jarring, and almost pushes the reader away.
Young’s use of "you" and "we", as well as his reliance on questions, engages the reader in an exploration of the human urge to keep trying even though we know we may ultimately fail -- whether we’re attempting true, lasting connections or fighting for our lives. We resort to cliches, rhymes, and "comfort food" language to express ourselves; we think back on the mistakes we've made. It’s human nature, and Young celebrates it, pokes fun at it, and teases us with it.
“But don’t despair. / There are designs that seem like chaos / only because you’re too close.” (41). Perhaps these final lines of “Tangle” provide some real insight into how to approach the Young’s poems. Up close, they tangle the synapses, perhaps even frustrate. Stand back a few steps, and the language washes over, creates an overall impression. This collection is a collage, a hinge upon which his future collections will turn. “You expected an affordable daydream / but got an unhinged psalm…” he writes in “Optimistic Poem”; as in the psalms, the reader pauses, to consider. Selah.