Bender: New & Selected Poems

By Dean Young. Copper Canyon Press, 280 pages

Dean Young-Bender-Click to Purchase

Choosing a handful of poems from Dean Young’s collection Bender: New & Selected Poems was no easy task. Most poetry collections are hit and miss, but in Dean Young’s case I would have happily thrown a dart at a board and published any of the random results. He’s that good.

The 160 poems in this remarkable, important collection are organized alphabetically, so unlike most compilations, there is no sense of career development when reading Young—a poem might be 2 or 20 years old. It’s impossible to tell because all of the poems in Bender are strong, cohesive, and imaginative. Like Russian nesting dolls, they rest comfortably together, clearly created by a single, original artist, and yet the surprises keep coming the deeper you venture.

Young has a rare gift for melding a twisted sense of humor with deep profundity, and the result is damn entertaining. The poem “Whale Watch,” for instance, bristles with both pathos and wit. There is more wisdom in its four pages than you’ll find in the entire self-help section of your local bookstore…

Do not encourage small children
to play the trombone as the shortness
of their arms may prove quite frustrating,
imprinting a lifelong aversion to music
although in rare cases a sense of unreachability
may inspire operas of delicate auras.

Do not confuse size with scale:
the cathedral may be very small,
the eyelash monumental.

When you are ready to marry,
you will know but if you don’t,
don’t worry. The bullfrog never marries,
ditto the space shuttle
yet each is able to deliver its payload:
i.e., baby bullfrogs and satellites, respectively.

And here are the opening lines of Young’s poem “Speech Therapy”:

The ugly duckling remained ugly
its whole life but found others
as ugly as itself, I guess that’s the message.

In 2011 the poet underwent a heart transplant. Young’s condition was serious, his heart pumping at only 8% of what it should have been. But he survived the experience and now has a second chance because of a heart donated by a 22-year-old student.

“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 told NPR in a radio interview. “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.”

“I just feel enormous gratitude, …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.”

Plenty of poets write about matters of the heart, but Young’s perspective is unique, and not merely metaphorical. There are hints of his condition throughout his writing, such as in the poem “Scarecrow on Fire”:

Once you get