Monday, October 31, 2011

C. Dale Young's TORN in the Bellevue Literary Review

Poetry and Medicine:
Reviewed by Jason Schneiderman

C. Dale Young [...] takes his time. A reader might be forgiven for thinking that a man who practices radiation oncology full time while teaching poetry in a graduate program, and working as poetry editor of the New England Review would be rushed. However, each of his stories unfolds slowly, and while he may loop back to adjust a detail, his narratives move resolutely forward. The main subject of the book is the loss of faith—in the Church, in love, in the body, in America, in mentors. The book is about how to move forward in the face of betrayed trust. What saves Young is his sense of awe. He asks to see the branching scars of a man hit by lightning out of intrigue, not medical necessity. Young embraces tenderness in the absence of faith, a quality he meditates about beautifully:

Tenderness? How do you
define that? I define it this way: the care to address
another’s concerns with the same exacting care one expects
for himself. And this is dark. It has always been dark. (58)

Young’s vision is bodily. He knows that to open the body is to find blood and guts. He can never lose the knowledge of what we are made of.

It may mark me as na├»ve, but I found the racism of his training shocking. In one poem, a doctor quizzes him “in plain sight, in front of all the nurses, the residents, / the interns, the clerks, the other students. She wanted / you to answer incorrectly, wanted to shame you” (70). But even after he passes the test, her cruelty trumps his success:

she announced to everyone that you were the best
minority student she had ever had. And you took it.
You wanted to be like a duck, to let it all wash off of you.

But even in that praise, there was venom. Even in praise,
she found a way to shame you, single you out. And you hid
behind correct answers. But now you must make it personal.(71)

For Young, there is a sense that poetry is a form of redemption, which he needs more than ever, now that salvation is off limits. Poetry replaces faith, for it too can bring structure to a chaotic world in need of order and meaning.

In a sequence of poems about religion, Young addresses God as both visceral and intimate, calling to mind Carl Phillips or Jack Gilbert. In one poem, Young finds himself sinking into a sea of men, in violation of Catholic edict, but also because of it. In Young’s sense of sin, one feels that “formal feeling” of baroque sorrow that points backward to frenzied pleasure.

… In every man, God
had placed himself. In every man, I sought

to touch that God. Silly, I know. Silly.
What I wanted then was to break God’s heart—
I wanted him to snap my neck, break my back. (35-36)

The thrill of Young’s work (paradoxically) is that it takes place in slow motion. The collision is set in motion early in the poem, and inexorably, the impact approaches. The endings of his poems are devastating precisely because they have been coming for so long. He makes us wait, but always delivers. As he says of God: “He lifts me up/ to remind me of my foolish fear of heights” (38).

Poetry has never exactly been the province of the happy. Since the advent of writing, the poet has been a malcontent, a surly outsider wondering why things can’t go her way. Sappho may be the Queen of Lesbia, but she still can’t make that girl love her. James Merrill may have been born with a silver spoon the size of an oar, but he still can’t reassemble the jigsaw of his broken home. So it ought not to be surprising that the poetry of these healers would express such frustration with the medical establishment. But it is surprising to realize how consistent their complaints are about the arrogance of doctors, of the cruelty in placing the profession before the patient, of the need for humility when our culture can only value boasting.

In the title poem “Torn,” Young’s attending sends him to “stitch up the faggot”—and though “told to spend less than 20 minutes, I sat there / for over an hour closing the wound so that each edge / met its opposing match” (85). In the end, what it is needed is time; what is needed is kindness; what is needed is skill.


Jason Schneiderman is the author of the poetry collections Sublimation Point and Striking Surface.