Dean Young: A Poet’s (Transplanted) Heart

Joy Jacobson is CHMP’s poet-in-residence. Follow her on Twitter: @joyjaco

Last week the poet Dean Young got a new heart. He had been on the organ-transplant waiting list for four months, having lived for years with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart condition. (The waiting list is a crowded place; this morning, 3,143 people were waiting to receive a donor heart.) Young’s friend Joe Di Prisco wrote to me on Sunday that “all the early reports from the docs are encouraging. He has a long and arduous path ahead, and the needs are great, but his heart is now beating on its own.” Di Prisco is the head of a national fundraising campaign set up to help offset the enormous costs of Young’s heart transplantation.

“Let us suppose that everyone in the world wakes up today and tries to write a poem.” So Dean Young begins The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. The book extols the mess of the artistic impulse, that kinetic force beneath all creative works, great and small. It’s a gutsy way to start a book on poetics—imagining that every one of us might permit poetry, this “wild democracy of language,” a place of primacy in our daily lives.

Young’s latest book of poems, Fall Higher, is being released this week. The following poem shows both his craft and his daring in the face of illness (reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press):

Red Glove Thrown in Rose Bush

If only bodies weren’t so beautiful.
Even rabbits are made of firecrackers
so tiny they tickle your hand.
If only the infirmities,
blocked neural pathways, leg braces
and bandages didn’t make everyone
look like they’re dancing.
Breathing will destroy us, hearts
like ninja stars stuck in the sternums
of granite caesars. Should I worry
people have stopped saying how skinny
and pale I am. Paul may destroy the kitchen
but he’s the best cook I know.
Seared tuna, pesto risotto—where
did he get those tomatoes?—what a war
must be fought for simplicity!
Even the alligator, flipped over,
is soft as an eyelid. Hans, the trapezist,
got everyone high on New Year’s Eve
with a single joint, the girl he was with
a sequin it was impossible not to want
to try to catch without a net.
Across the bay, fireworks punched
luminous bruises in the fog.
If only my body wasn’t borrowed from dust!

The poem begins and ends with a sigh—“If only”—and in between the poet contemplates our central affliction, the temporality of life, and the primal beauty we stand to lose. But he won’t permit himself the easy luxuries of self-pity. This meditation on the fact that “[b]reathing will destroy us” necessarily involves fireworks, a vulnerable alligator, a trapeze artist, a risotto, a hinted-at whiff of a celebratory (and analgesic?) shared joint. Stars and sternums all threaten to return to dust by poem’s end, and the simple measures by which we sustain the body—imagined in the title as a glove discarded into a bush of roses (and thorns)—provide nutriment even as they fail us.

We’re more than halfway through National Poetry Month, and I haven’t written a poem yet. Have you? If you’re not in the mood for quite that much recklessness, perhaps you might want to join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, a reading group from one of the better literary blogs out there, in reading Dean Young’s Fall Higher, its April selection.

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