A swirling life dance
A review of Mark Young, 'Songs to Come for the Salamander'
Mark Young is a poet drawn to prodigious production as much as he is to the idiosyncrasies of living creatures. Songs to Come for the Salamander: Poems 2013–2021 represents a near-decade’s worth of poems, picking up roughly from where Pelican Dreaming: Poems 1959–2008 left off.
Of the fifty individual poetry titles listed in the Salamander bibliography, an ample thirty-six postdate the earlier selection. Like the modernist artist René Magritte, who figures prominently in both selections, Young achieves what most of us nowadays would only dream is possible: he gets a vast range of ideas moving richly in multiple directions. The poems reach into the very possibilities of thought and language, including the language of the unthinkable and of thoughtlessness.
Beyond Young’s personal unthought, it is our alogical, self-disrupting contemporary Western culture that he really sinks his poetic hooks into. At a time when much libertarian endeavor stays focused on intersubjective boundary marking and the perturbations of psychological experience, an enigmatic, older poet like Young capsizes the entire mirror (see, for instance, the poems: “the angle of incidents = the angel of refraction”; “A dance in five syllables, of which this is only three”; and especially “conv)ex, conc(ave”). Take the relatively straightforward “A Recipe”:
Start with a word. Any word.
Or a phrase, even if it’s in
Greek or Latin & so obscure
that you have to go back & look up
the meaning of it after only a couple
of days. Start with anything; but
if it seems to be leading to a
dead end, then fence it off with
* * * * * * *
& move on. With another word
or phrase. A sentence even. It
doesn’t need to relate to what’s
gone on before, doesn’t even
need to make sense.
In a nutshell, a poem happens out of the blue (“Any word”). Life’s minutiae are fabrications (“so obscure / that you have to go back & look up / the meaning”). Another unforeseen, immediately, forcefully, intervenes (“a / dead end, then fence it off”). The following line’s graphic “fence” of asterisks is a deft touch. Indeed, redirection’s unavoidable and necessary: “It / doesn’t need to relate” or even, ultimately, “make sense.” In “from: Why I am writing this poem,” Young elaborates in mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary fashion: “It is something to do.” One moment’s frivolity is the next’s utter seriousness.
In the prose poem, “The Sources of …,” Young explains, “Sometimes I open at random [a notebook or other item] & make poems out of the lines I find there.” “Languish” asks: “How do you go about creating a language?” — only to speculate — “In that case, what’s the word for the entire” (87). Notwithstanding the verse’s variousness, eight distinguishable methodological features stand out:
1) titles are cryptic, illogical and richly suggestive;
2) lineation is taut, typically chunky (“Enjambment / is unemployed,” Young puns in “topology,” terming it an “optical allusion” );
3) tone is convivial, quizzical, meandering;
4) syntax is generally orderly;
5) progression of thought is contrapuntal, not linear;
6) treatment of subject matter is abstruse, opportunistic, subversive;
7) scale of comprehension shifts irruptively, akin to what happens when one stands before a Magritte canvas;
8) imagery and allusions encompass contemporary affairs, politics, art, literature, metaphysics, technology, and taxonomic faunae.
We, as readers, must ask — and wonder — where on earth we are headed with this cerebral outpouring? Certainly, regular good sense, as traditionally understood, gets scant truck. Neither ponderous nor heavy-handed, these poems are rich in unexpected detours. For example:
Robert Rauschenberg erased a
de Kooning nude to demonstrate
all art is transitory — except,
of course, for the resultant
Rauschenberg. In the light
of that action is self-erasure
an illusion of grandeur or an
attempt at digital re-mastering? (212)
[Above right: Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame, 25¼ × 21¾" (64.14 × 55.25 cm), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Photo: Ben Blackwell / courtesy SFMOMA.]
Beyond the abiding interest in artists, and artful conceit, the crucial turn here happens at “self-erasure.” Notions of proprietorship and presentation carry headlong. The poem asks whether self-presentation aligns with actuality, personal identity, or whether it is always already constituted as re-presentation, lodged somewhere between “illusion of grandeur” (false self-aggrandizing) and “digital re-mastering” (attempts at definitional self-improvement)? Of course, the poem’s meaning isn’t restricted to such possibilities (as “digital re-mastering” hints). The introspective “self,” in the phrase “self-erasure,” highlights the problem of human identity: do we, as self-shaping individuals, have any inkling, any claim at all, to an autonomous “true” self-existence, or is everything about us a mere play of shutters, a shattering of the mirror?
New world “digital re-mastering” sets about to remaster old world artistic grandeur. For the technologically adept Young, toying with deep-rooted conceptions of appearance and reality, there is no enduring moment to be grasped, no permanent fixture that holds. To be sure, this can sometimes make the poem feel somewhat like a feeding frenzy. Frequently, there are uninvited incursions into other people’s territory, just as Rauschenberg invades de Kooning’s. We see that any single instant in time, on achieving prominence, immediately becomes redundant and an imposition, reduced to an artifact available to reuse. Given this line of thought, what should we make of the allusion in the above poem’s title to seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelling? Maybe the point made is that we live under constant threat of erasure, annihilation, whether self-inflicted or cosmologically so? That’s the darker view. The lighter view is that successive moments immediately culminate and eliminate what precedes them, perhaps everything that’s ever occurred? What a burden emptiness is to carry!
On one level, Salamander surfs a relentless name-dropping: writers (“A Salute to James Schuyler,” “Deconstructing Dickens”), philosophers (“Wittgenstein to Heidegger”), religious figures (“erasmussed,” The Holy Sonnets unDonne), stars (“The early Clint Eastwood,” “Stayin’ Alive”), fashion designers and fashionistas (“Chan(n)el de Chirico,” “The Domain of Arnheim”), Reality TV personalities (“A line from Kim Kardashian”), painters (“A line from Vincent Van Gogh”), composers (“A line from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”), statesmen (“A Line from Abraham Lincoln,” “A Boris Johnson compendium”), warmongers (“A poem from Donald Trump”). As “Pandora’s Box” insists, “There was no evil / given by the original creator. Gaia, the Giver of All Gifts” (125).
“A shared geography” has Young confess, “I am a true / child of the / 20th century” (180) — and truly, he’s all over it. Yet it’s the twenty-first that announces his significant coming out and over which he casts an assured, if devious, spell.
As I approach my seventy-eighth year, I decide it is time I wrote a really long poem. A meisterarbeit as it were, tying in together everything I have learnt over my lifetime & distilling it into an output of such insight & incisiveness that, even if I didn’t finish it, there would be enough for the most obdurate of critics to proclaim it the work that showed literature the way forward into the second half of the twentyfirst century. (270)
In “Lifestyles of the rich & famous,” he mocks George W. Bush, whose unfortunate malapropism “confused the words poetry & poverty”: “It is the aim of this Administration to do away with poetry” (179). I don’t think Young would expect this ex-President — or any of the many celebrities who grace his pages — to be a reader of his verses, or that Young himself espouses a particular political affiliation, despite a number of poems that are rightly considered antiwar and antiestablishment. A more helpful self-characterization might be found in what he writes of Magritte in “Ika Loch’s Bordello” (243), as one who “quite // often shows reflections in / reverse, sees things from be- / hind as it were.” Modestly, Young uses a related image in “The Archer,” in the process elevating himself in personifying his North Queensland hometown: “Maybe / Rockhampton is to / be the new repository / of ancient wisdom & / I am getting in / on the ground floor” (252). Another self-satirical household poem is entitled “Pièce de pestilence” (174), a delightful malapropism in its own right. The coyly inclusive “you” pronoun in “Take” uplifts all ilk of objects in order to “shape them even / slightly in your own / image, even if they / belonged to someone else / at the time of taking” (164). Is Young caught in the Promethean trap, stealing the source only to realize it doubles as burning fire? In “Stayin’ Alive,” he speaks of “an ability / even as you / are moving // to recognise / that single still point / where the noise / divides & / the song / breaks through” (384).
There is more to Young than anarchic abandonment or exploiting the capacity of the internet. The mere fact that something arrives from somewhere, whether arbitrarily or serendipitously, means that meaning is established. Whatever else it might be, chance is part and parcel of what “we were / meant to find.” Our concerted efforts “to / eliminate chance but chance / rises up anyway” (101), indicate only that more value is to be gained by incorporating chance into meaning rather than trying to tame or cancel it. We encounter — are confronted with — what happens, and it’s this unknown something that we try to meld into our purposed narratives. It is not that Young dismisses activism (see many poems beginning “A line from …” and their naming — and often enough shaming — a public figure); rather, he is acutely aware of what Ivan Illich might term “bad faith,” relational disingenuity: “the fact that most things happen at a distance enables us to distance ourselves from what is really going on” (112).
An earlier poem, “Knocktet,” traces arbitrary connections that begin and end with “1 slice of Sprouted Wheat Bread […] available on Amazon.com,” rendering the single slice as arbitrary a fixture as anything else found on the instantly accessed sites it populates. Not least is the fact that the domestication of wheat has led to enduring civilization and the “Modern-day benefits” of what a couple of pages later is referred to as a “taxonomy of concepts”: “the claim that a thing exists, when added to our notion of a thing, does not add anything to the concept” (47). Similarly, “WWAD?” notes “It’s / difficult to choose the / pivot point from which / the day’s [financial as well as personal wellbeing] trendline will / emerge,” seeking reassurance in the fact that “Thus we / come across / those things that / we were / meant to find” (81). Indeed, the act of squeezing through the narrow neck of rational discourse tempts Young at times to at least flirt with nihilism: “My intention is that words lose all meaning, all touch with reality. I wish to turn them into abstract commodities” (272).
More to the point is that Young is an artist of decapitalization — erasure and reappearance, to infinity. Another turning will happen on the heels of the one that’s happening now, much as when the object reflected in a mirror has more immediate presence, is more concrete and real, than any wished-for or depicted original. We humans are unable to exist as “ourselves” in any ongoing sense except within an iterative sequencing, at any juncture subject to dislocation or dissimulation. Young realizes that ways of seeing are in mimetic relationship with and contradistinctive to objects seen: life is mentation, down to the level of our daily routines (see “The Revealing of the Present” and The perfume of the abyss group of poems):
day 2 of 3 away Grace note
Took with him what What do we write about
he could but not all at the beginning, at the end?
came. Closed his eyes
Two periods of fifteen years.
to get at the pictures Twenty-five years of silence
in behind. Sunlight
picked at his lids like in between. Began by writing
about lizards. Have come
the ibis who came at
first light […] back to them again. Outlived
the earlier ones. The later ones
Emptiness. He could
not settle in the place he will probably outlive me. What
could not call his own. (210) is the angle of a turning circle? (338)
It seems almost naïve to ask, but, beyond the obvious mischievousness, are we able to distinguish a lingering note of profound seriousness that spreads through Young’s ever-expansive oeuvre? For my part, let me suggest that “Grace note,” which outlines a bare trajectory of his poetic career, offers a provisional answer. Poet and poetry survive — indeed, prevail — by the grace of God. It seems that the power of poetic inspiration holds, albeit in a form that essentially secures and guarantees nothing. The angle of delivery remains hard to anticipate beforehand, like one’s footfall falling away from itself (“angle of a turning circle”), so that the place of arrival is aligned yet somehow out-of-kilter with the point of departure. “Le Pont d’Heraclite” throws its arms around two much loved philosopher-poets, reiterating the process of artistic figuration:
Everything flows, no-
thing abides, eyesight
is a dying sense, wrote
Heraclitus long before
he’d seen the Magritte.
So, is this a painting of
an optical llusion [sic], or an
example of the chemical
process known as sublim-
ation? A pipedream that
the bridge is incomplete,
or a solid transformed to
the vapour state without
ever passing through the
liquid? Doesn’t seem to
worry Heraclitus either
way. Couples are things
whole and not whole, what
is drawn together & what is
drawn asunder, he posits.
Then, more in keeping with
the theme, he notes that
much water has passed
under the bridge & just hap-
pened to rub half of it away. (127)
[Above right: René Magritte, Le Pont d’Heraclite, 1935, oil on canvas, 21.3 × 28.7" (54 × 73 cm).]
We’re given quite a jumble of otherwise clear components: broken enjambments, un/intentional typos (“llusion,” “sublim- / ation, hap- / pened”), juggling connectives (“long before […] So […] or […] Doesn’t seem […] either / way […] Then”), pseudosyllogisms (“he posits,” “in keeping with / the theme”), bridged time (“long before / he’d seen the Magritte”), the illusion of an incomplete bridge reflected in completeness in the water (“Couples are things / whole & not whole”), the drone-like elevated perspective over the scene’s asymmetric symmetry (“So, is this […]?”). All of this in the name of a long-dead philosopher commemorated in a poem in which he is fascinatingly misrepresented.
“Le Pont d’Heraclite” illustrates the eight methodological features listed above. The ninth point I wish to add, crucially I think, is the remarkable legerdemain by which Young manages to bring his mishmash of materials into seeming coherence. This singularity tells us that nothing in life is ever really final. But, while flux prevails, so too do retrieval and recomposition. The ongoing tussle between such “couplings” elicits formally patterned responses of meaning and value. These may prevail for a shorter — or longer — time, like the bridge that “much water has passed under […] & just hap- / pened to rub half of it away,” until eventually all disappears. Another conjecture might be that the clouds have “rubbed” half of the bridge away — or that Magritte’s brush strokes alone have done so (which circles us back to the nonsensical). No matter, the delight is the way in which we can see that experiences are part and parcel of our expectations of normalcy in place, distance, duration.
Young’s persona is similarly ceaselessly rubbing in and out. In “the angle of incidents = the angel of refraction,” mentioned earlier, belated news of Janet Frame’s death reminds him of the “irony of exile” (197) that they share as forlorn kiwis. The melding of his own “citadel / of grief” in response to those he finds in Charlie Parker’s and Billie Holiday’s renditions of Loverman — an “expo- / nential anguish” (223) — comes even closer to the bone. Referring to fellow-poet and sometime Finnish collaborator, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, in “To Jukka, on holiday in Heinola,” Young muses on his own “home” country and apparent lack of renown, reflected in diary-note fashion: “Am leaving for Auckland in a couple of days, off to be a public poet for the first time in thirty years” (295). There’s a wryness here; as there is also in a late poem in the book, when Young lets slip, “I want too much, & / often take the same” (325).
A final poem will demonstrate his exemplary skill and broad repertoire:
It seems so simple
this sense of
shaking off desire.
So many years
nimbus at salient.
Now to begin
the self, using
the negative. Not so
the status quo. (350)
Again, this is a poem with several doors and windows, opening and closing. Unusually candid disclosure (“shaking off desire”) combines with fraught intentionality (“dismantling / the self […] Not so / easy”). Midway through, the odd-couple noun phrase “nimbus at salient” provides an unwieldly (yet verbally delectable: he can’t help himself) center in this topography, blending airiness with firmness. A further hinge occurs between “negative” and “status quo,” ushering us into an altogether different psychic interstice that suggests thwarted endeavor thrown up against an intractable confining “desire.” It strikes me that Young’s occupancy of this unbordered egoic space, as difficult as it must be and as liberating as it promises to be, provides the extraordinary energy of swirling life-dance in these poems.
1. The former’s title poem includes a veritable menagerie: axolotls, tadpoles, hellbenders, mudpuppies, waterdogs, sirens, andrias japonicus, lungless salamanders, mole salamanders, newts. Other gorgeously entitled sequences: A small compendium of bats, Bandicoot Habitat, random salamanders, and The Sasquatch Walks Among Us.
2. In his Salamander introduction, Thomas Fink identifies the internet as a key sourcebook: “Young recognizes what transpires online as both a menace to cogent imagination while tacitly acknowledging and demonstrating through his own work how utilization of the Web, as well as offline platforms, can further imaginative processes.” Thomas Fink, introduction to Songs to Come for the Salamander: Poems 2013–2021, by Mark Young (Santa Barbara, CA and St. Helena, CA: Sandy Press and Meritage Press, 2021), 28.
3. Young, Salamander, 363. I am reminded of Baxter’s comment to then-editor of Landfall Charles Brasch, to the effect that, despite stretches of unavoidable dross, he keeps exploring for “seams” from which will emanate magnificent poems. It has to be said that since 2000, the Young seam continues undepleted.
4. Young, 198. On descending after having achieved the first ascent of Mt. Everest, Hillary told a fellow New Zealander, in typically unassuming style, “[we] knocked the bastard off.”
5. Young, 111. In this case, the poem tells us, the notebook contained jottings gleaned from memorabilia and embroidered “wall-comforters,” celebrating various creative luminaries, found in the rooms of the house of his great-aunt.
6. Magritte is the presiding genius in The perfume of the abyss, named after one of his works. As Magritte biographer Alex Danchev comments: “He was not an artist, he insisted, and he refused to be called one; he was a man of thought and communicated his thought by means of painting, as others do through music, words, etc.” Alex Danchev with Sarah Whitfield, Magritte: A Life (London: Profile Books, 2021), 346.
7. Note Alfred North Whitehead’s view that each present moment “event” (or “occasion”) is causa sui marked by a “decision” that constitutes an “entity” (see Process and Reality, 1929). Existence is extraordinarily granular!