Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2010), and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, forthcoming 2010). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
“Let me show you a/ kind of holy something,” Mike Young writes in the first poem in this consistently enjoyable, consistently impressive, and consistently surprising collection. We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough has wit and verve, but also heart, mashed up on a sleeve, more often, preserved in palpitating wholeness, an organ balanced on a buttoned cuff. “Things that scare me include car dealerships at night/ and the fact that snow cannot live inside my mouth,” says one voice contained here, and “The world is something I will gather for/ you and brush off like I’m cleaning a dryer filter.” This move, from the white-hot metallic glare of nocturnal sedan displays to the plaintive, honest evocation of a “you” threads throughout these pieces. While Young can gambol across a grab-bag spread of language and things, from notions like “gift economy” to ineluctable material realities like “origami frogs” as go-karts barrel after go-karts in the background, he also keeps his poems grounded in a practical, lived instantiation of what he refers to in one poem as “Radical Alterity.” A guiding presence of these poems—invoked via a epigraph—is Martin Buber, who at one point in the text is wrestled by Emmanuel Levinas as Buber wears “a cape he’s sewn of/ Thou and lake sheen.” Indeed, it is “Thou and lake sheen,” or you and car dealerships, that give these poems spine and legs and fire in the belly. After all the “knives and sponges, carnival wristbands and/ chicken grease” comes stunningly immediate emotional content: “You know what I mean. With your legs around my waist,/ dark in the kitchen, redwoods, cilantro, and Otis Redding’s live version/ of tenderness, the right version, the one we quit ourselves to know.”
Ladies and gents, this book is like a box of Crackerjacks that, instead of having some dull joke card or disappointingly half-ass temporary tattoo of a bumblebee or toothless smiling flower, has a real toy inside. The obvious analogy is with the lyrics of certain bands, where rumors of “Laundromat Jesus or those tinfoil shoes/ that divine the weather” segue seamlessly to the high lonesome moan of “Really I just want to be/ quiet for a little while inside your quiet too.” This book is sweet as caramel dipped in honey and rock sugar, but set off by, as Young writes at one point, the whole “range of human salt.”
It’s also worth saying that Young’s book pulls off the impressive feat of lines like “You make me feel like if I gave you a tree frog, it would die/ on Monday but receive abundant mention in your MySpace survey” and titles like “My Heart is a Small Yellow Emoticon Wearing a Cowboy Hat in the Snow” while avoiding all trace of twee gimmickry. There’s no easy shuffling here, no fridge magnet poems; when Young gives us a dream, from Dunkin’ Donuts, of a beard driving a taxi, it rings true, and when, in the poem “Sunday Morning Prayer to the God of Emo Wood Nymphs” he rattles off vernacular dialogue, it functions as more than merely humor: “I dropped my phone. Who cares?/ I didn’t want to look for it./ I had friends who were like come on!/ I was like phones are so 1743.” This book is a product of serious skill, enthusiasm and relish paired with knack and craft, an ear from the poignant (“I’m not useless./ This is just where we’re at right now.”) and a deep empathy, a recognition of the core value of empathy for a poet (“I’m thinking in terms of infinite level design,/ like where each Non Player Character has this agenda/ dreamed up by some minor programmer and advertised/ on the box: The People You’re Shooting Also Have/ Schedules!”). It’s funny, too, this book, of course, and at points it will simply take your breath away, always by surprise, sliding from one register to another, as:
You plead and cavort and joke and affirm
and lecture and mewl and bray and slip in
and warn and cheer and clarify and say
good night which means I want to be alive
more and I want part of that life to be with
At another point, speaking through the page at another irreducible “you,” Young writes, “This is your medal./ This is also a heretofore uncharted/ mood named Kitten in a Cedar, named/ Chicory and Whiskey. Three moods, I/ guess: cruel, nervous, and love poem.”
Perhaps that is the best label for the gorgeous little pieces in this collection—love poems, deliciously considered, showing us a new kind of holy. “Remember,” Young writes, “when you told me I should fuck that girl/ then wrote ‘make love’ in your poem? So did I. Amen.”
Official Mike Young Web Site
Official Publishing Genius Web Site