The Heart Of Dean Young's Pre-Transplant Poetry

Originally published on June 26, 2017 3:45 pm

Poet Dean Young has dealt with impermanence a lot in his career, but it's a particularly poignant theme in Young's latest collection, Fall Higher. The new collection was published in April, just days after the poet received a life-saving heart transplant after about a decade of living with a degenerative heart condition.

Young, whose work is often frank and rich with twisted humor, tells NPR's Renee Montagne that as he recovers from surgery, he's also slowly returning to his everyday writing habits.

"I'm getting back to it," Young says. "Not with the sort of concentration and sort of gusto that I look forward to in the future, but I am blackening some pages."

And on those blackened pages you'll find poems like "How Grasp Green," which carries themes of springtime and rebirth. It's one of the first poems Young has written since his transplant.

'The Outlook Wasn't Good'

It's easy to spot clues to Young's dire health situation in the lines of his poetry.

Fall Higher's "Vintage" opens with, "Because I will die soon, I fall asleep/during the lecture on the ongoing/emergency." And the poem "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" — published in The New Yorker in February — opens with the CT scan that revealed Young's heart condition:

After they told me the CT showed
there was nothing wrong with my stomach
but my heart was failing, I plunked
one of those weird two-dollar tea balls
I bought in Chinatown and it bobbed
and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted
like feet and I had at this huge
chocolate bar I got at Trader Joe's
and didn't answer the door even though
I could see it was UPS ...

Young says "Rhythms" was written about the beginning of his illness.

"I had been having a lot of abdominal pain so that I could hardly walk a block. I got sent to a gastroenterologist and he did a bunch of tests, and then the tests came back to me and it was all heart related," he says. "And the outlook wasn't good."

Matters Of The Heart

Hearts tend to come up a lot in poetry, and that's especially true of Young's work, which has clearly been influenced by the troubles of his own anatomical heart.

"A lot of times, it's not just a metaphor," Young says. "For me, it's an actual concern because I've been living with this diagnosis for over 10 years. My father died when he was 49 of heart problems, so it's been a sort of shadowy concern for me my whole life."

But Young's poems also deal with more abstract matters of the heart. He wrote Fall Higher's "Late Valentine" for his wife. It reads,

We weren't exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,
even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire's done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones,
ashy furrows like the folds in the brain
that signal the switchbacks and reversals
of our thought and just as brief. Your lips
were song, your hair everywhere.
Oh unknowable, fidgeting self, how little
bother you were then, no more
than a tangerine rind. Oh unknowable
other, how I loved your smell.

"[We've been married] since late November and most of it has been spent in the hospital," Young says of his marriage to poet Laurie Saurborn Young. "She says ['Late Valentine' is] very sweet."

Staring Down Death, And The Randomness Of Life

Today, Young says, his friends can't help but comment on how pink his cheeks have become — the result of a new heart and better circulation. But Young wrote the poems of Fall Higher before the transplant, at a time when, at its weakest point, his old heart was pumping at 8 percent of what it should have been.

He was staring death in the face — but he was still able to look at his life and see art in it.

"I think that's one of the jobs of poets: They stare at their own death and through it they still see the world — the world of 10,000 things," Young says. "Poetry is about time running out, to some extent. You can think of that purely formally — the line ends, the stanza ends and the poem itself ends."

He says he finds something pleasurable and reassuring about seeing on the page where a poem will end — and that something gets lost when a poem is read aloud.

Young's work also touches on themes of randomness and fate — two factors that contributed to him getting a second chance in the form of a new heart from a 22-year-old student.

"Everything in life is molecules bouncing against molecules," Young says, and having a successful transplant is no different. "Somebody had to die; it had to be a fit; my blood and his blood had to not have an argument; the heart had to be transported; I had to get it."

There were, in short, an amazing number of variables that led to Young being here today.

"I just feel enormous gratitude," he says of his donor. "He gave me a heart so I'm still alive. ... I'm sure I'm going to think about this person for the rest of my life."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We're going to hear from a poet now: Dean Young. His poetry is frank, and often has a twisted humor. And many of his poems dwell on impermanence.

DEAN YOUNG: (Reading) Because I will die soon, I fall asleep during the lecture on the ongoing emergency. Because they will die soon, the young couple has another baby. She's not yet out, but it's late enough to see her struggle, like a dancer in a big bubble. Because the puppy will die soon, he learns not to pee on the carpet.

MONTAGNE: That's Dean Young, reading from his newest collection, "Fall Higher." His columns can be found in Poetry magazine and The New Yorker. But there is a particular poignancy to these poems, as they deal with mortality, because this book came out last month, just days after the poet received a heart transplant.

Dean Young joined us from his home in Austin Texas, where he's recovering from his surgery.

Thank you very much for joining us.

YOUNG: Thank you very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: I gather that you're known for writing every day, but using an old typewriter.

YOUNG: Right. First, I write by hand, and then I work on a 1955 Remington Quiet Writer.

MONTAGNE: Are you writing, still, every day?

YOUNG: I'm getting back to it - not with the sort of concentration and gusto that I look forward to in the future. But I am blackening some pages.

MONTAGNE: Before you received a transplant, a poem came out in "The New Yorker" called "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish." Would you read that for us?

YOUNG: (Reading) After they told me the CT showed there was nothing wrong with my stomach, but my heart was failing, I plunked one of those weird $2 tea balls I bought in Chinatown, and it bobbed and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted like feet. And I had at this huge chocolate bar I got at Trader Joe's, and didn't answer the door, even though I could see it was UPS.

And that poem goes on - not endlessly, I hope.

MONTAGNE: When did you write that poem?

YOUNG: Well, it came from the actual beginning, where I'd been having a lot of abdominal pain so that I could hardly walk a block. And I got sent to a gastroenterologist, and he did a bunch of tests. And then the tests came back to me, and it was all heart-related. So then it seemed like, yes, this thing that was hanging over me for quite some time was really, you know, asserting itself. And my heart was, indeed, failing and something would have to be done, or the outlook wasn't good.

MONTAGNE: There's a letter that circulated amongst your friends and colleagues. It was about your illness. And there was one particular detail, that your heart was pumping only at about the 8 percent level.

YOUNG: Yeah, that was at its lowest. It was pretty, pretty dreary. Now, whenever anybody sees me, they comment about how pink I look.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Yeah, nice flood to the cheeks.

YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah. And who knows what the effect of having all this blood in my brain, if it will change my poetry. I hope it makes it better.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's often said of you - and this could be said of many poets - but I wonder how you take this one: That hearts comes up a lot in your poems.

YOUNG: Yeah. And, you know, a lot of times, it's not just a metaphor. It's - for me, it's an actual concern, because I've been living with this diagnosis for over 10 years. And my father died when he was 49 of heart problems. So it's been a sort of shadowy concern for me my whole life.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is another poem - speaking of hearts. Can I have you read "Late Valentine"?

YOUNG: (Reading) We weren't exactly children again, too many divorces, too many blood panels. But your leaning into me was a sleeping bird. Sure, there was no way to be careful enough. Even lightning can go wrong, but when the smoke blows off, we can admire the work the fire has done, ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones, ashy furrows like the folds in the brain that signal the switchbacks and reversals of our thought, and just as brief. Your lips were song, your hair everywhere. Oh, unknowable, fidgeting self, how little bother you were then, no more than a tangerine rind. Oh, unknowable other, how I loved your smell.

MONTAGNE: And that is a love poem to your wife.

YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Your bride, really. Right?

YOUNG: Yes, my bride.

MONTAGNE: Married...

YOUNG: Since November, late November. And most of it has been spent in the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: What does she think of this poem?

YOUNG: I think she likes it. Hey, baby. What do you think of "Late Valentine"?

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

YOUNG: She says it's very sweet.

MONTAGNE: Huh. Now, poetry, of course, isn't all memoir. Much comes from the imagination. But also much comes from real events. You are in a particular situation this last time, while you've been on this list of people in need of new hearts. How did you manage to observe your life, or somehow we use your life artistically, even as you're staring, really, at your own possible death?

YOUNG: Well, I think that's one of the jobs of poets, is they stare at their own death, and through it, they still see the world - the world of 10,000 things.

I: the line ends, the stanza ends, and the poem itself ends. And I think one of the things that's so pleasurable about reading poetry, rather than hearing it, is that you immediately know where the poem's going to end. You can see it just in glancing at it, and there's something that may be reassuring about that.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. The poems also deal with ideas of randomness and fate. I wonder if you could speak to those ideas, as they relate in particular to receiving a new heart. Do you think about the 22-year-old student whose heart you now have?

YOUNG: Recovering from the surgery was such an undertaking. I'm just now sort of coming back into my head. You know, I just feel enormous gratitude. I mean, he gave me a heart, so I am still alive. But I gave his heart a life, so it's still alive. And, you know, it's not a fair deal. I've been given this extraordinary gift.

So, you know, we'll just see. I'm going to - I'm sure I'm going to think about this person for the rest of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Dean Young, thank you very much for joining us.

YOUNG: It was a real pleasure.

MONTAGNE: His new collection from Copper Canyon Press is "Fall Higher." And on our website, npr.org, we're publishing, for the first time, a poem Dean Young wrote with his new heart.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR news. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.