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Angela Ball

The New York School Diaspora (Part Thirty): Dean Young [by Angela Ball]

Chaos Magic for Beginners

Don’t we all love when the announcer
gets choked up? When the roller coaster
gets stuck, that an octopus can eat
one of its own hearts when stressed enough
and aren’t we all? Don’t you like to know stuff?
Sperm leaves the penis at 28mph,
in many countries being bird-pooped-on
is considered lucky, Goya’s skull is still missing
although the last thing my mother said
no one understood and I’m okay with that.
Let’s try to take pleasure in the contradictory
heavy footfalls on the roof, whatever
the dog’s dug up. Let’s appreciate
the pyramid’s false floors, trap doors,
the detective who’s yet to realize
he’s stalking himself. It’s okay
to be a demon, to be a thrown angel
on the spectrum. Maybe you just feel
too much, too much serotonin so
even swans make you crazy, anyone
talking on their phone in the elevator.
Nothing needs a reason to happen,
the cause of all this has yet to occur
if it ever will. Often it’s like being fed
to raptor hatchlings or trying to get
information from a corpse, possibly
your own. Almost everything doesn’t work.
I like when the lovers can somehow
stay together. I like when the tower
collapses, that sense at the end
that it’s never over

--Dean Young

I think one of the most important lessons and permissions I have tried to absorb from the originals of the New York School is the sense that anything language can do can be in a poem, be it cri de coeur or blunt information, if the poem and the poet's receptivity is open and playful enough. –Dean Young

Dean Young's most recent book is Solar Perplexus.  His poems have appeared a dozen times in Best American Poetry.

The New York School Diaspora (Part Thirty): Dean Young

The title of Dean Young’s “Chaos Magic for Beginners,” is a welter of contradictions—“magic,” as a skill, depends on utmost precision—what is “Chaos Magic” and how begin to impart its principles? Perhaps the way is demonstration, and “Chaos Magic for Beginners” is wonderfully demonstrative.

The poem’s outer subject is expressed in its title, its inner one in the pattern of its imagery: things being blocked or unblocked, expressed. Bird poop turned awkwardly proverbial, a famous skull on the loose. Extractions, ingestions. Its method is not so much “ultra talk” as ultra thought—expression so swift as to almost precede formulation.

The poem begins with schadenfreude prompted by a broadcaster’s fallibility. The late Jon Anderson once said, “The secret of poetry is cruelty.” It may also be the case that chaos is its secret. Who can explain the wonder of reading Young’s list of comic frustrations and striking oddities—the stuck rollercoaster, the heart-eating octopi (that we resemble), the speed of sperm, the great artist’s cranium, ending with the scalding mystery of a mother’s last words--lines that might also be read, as I did at first, as the mother saying, “No one understood. And I’m OK with that.”

With “Let’s try to take pleasure,” the poem turns to its teaching mission:

     Let’s try to take pleasure in the contradictory

     heavy footfalls on the roof, whatever

     the dog’s dug up. Let’s appreciate

     the pyramid’s false floors, trap doors,

     the detective who’s yet to realize   

     he’s stalking himself. It’s okay

     to be a demon, to be a thrown angel 

     on the spectrum.

Chaos is magic, is both question and explanation, and must be appreciated—celebrated, in fact—because it is what we have. Disorientation orders the day. We are reminded, perhaps, of T.S. Eliot’s overly-friendly April hound; and of Oedipus, old swollen-foot, the classic “detective yet to realize.” In a pop-psychology gesture, we learn that it’s ok to be expelled from heaven, afflicted by a malady that allies us with every color. Most of all, we learn the wonders of disorientation—a state celebrated by Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Kenneth Koch, struck smart by a meaningful sign: “One Train May Hide Another.”

Our guide through a series of unpredictable occurrences, the poem primes us to enjoy how contemporary physics interprets the cosmos: the unknown unknown surrounds us. The unseen cat in the box is simultaneously dead and alive. The lines “Nothing needs a reason to happen, / the cause of all this is yet to occur / if it ever will” posit a retrograde world of reversals in which we are neophyte interpreters, and the corpse we interrogate may be our own.

The poem ends with two vastly different enjoyments, both owned by an “I”: The first, homely in its generality, “I like when the lovers can somehow stay together,” invokes pleasure at seeing cinematic and/or real-life romance grow durable. The second springs at us, its generality giving way to the nightmare of the World Trade Center attack, to schadenfreude recombinant with sorrow, its magic a startling kinesthetic image, specific and encompassing: “that sense at the end / that it’s never over” (period omitted).  Dean Young’s “Chaos Magic for Beginners” schools us not just in chaos, but in the tragicomedy and comic tragedy of our unbreakable fall.

--Angela Ball

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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