Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review (Poetry): “Fall Higher” by Dean Young

Review by Lydia Melby, Flyway Staff

One of my favorite poets, Dean Young, whose words and lines leap wildly from connotation to contemplation, from tree branch to some unknown plane of existence, announced in 2010 that he was experiencing heart failure and needed a transplant soon. That such an exuberant spirit could be attached to a failing body was a jarring reality to remember. I spent the following year, as his health slowly degenerated (NPR reports that before his transplant, Young’s heart was working at eight percent normal capacity), attending benefit readings, donating, waiting, hoping. This last April, I joined other Young fans in celebration of his successful heart transplant. The poet is now recovering steadily.

His most recent collection, Fall Higher (February 2011), was written in the face of his crisis, and in it Young confronts his looming, unknowable death with the usual displays of wit and frank humor, as in his opening epigraph:

“hark, dumbass,


the error is not to fall

but to fall from no height”

Young performs less of the aural and free-association acrobatics from his earlier works (skid, elegy on a toy piano, embyoyo), and gently leads the reader on a more contemplative tour of the poet’s mindscape. “Flamenco” deals with the rolling decades of impermanence, each moment “turning, turning

while I remained unchanged, a peach pit…

a collection of eternal accidents

while the body, without pity, shrinks.

and ends with the speaker’s skull “trying to poke a mouse hole in the cosmos.”

But Young’s world is not all doom and gloom. In “Vintage,” death becomes an incentive for life (“because they will die soon/the young couple has another baby”) and “Late Valentine” celebrates new love, even when it comes after “too many divorces, too many blood panels.” He swings from hope to fear to love to acceptance and back through again, and it seems, as in “Articles of Faith,” the swinging is the worst part,

“There is nothing sadder than a leaf

falling from a tree then catching an updraft higher than the tree

then getting stuck in a gutter…”

but this poem also loops around and ends with a contented wonder—

“We are born defenseless.

It’s a miracle.”


Young’s miracle is his ability to offer so much of himself while facing, as each poet does, the question of purpose, of ephemerality. His style, now lovely, now stark, now lurid with imagery and cultural references, can be puzzling and dizzying, but also strikes you at that pit in your stomach when you read, in the final poem, “Teetering Lullaby,”

“The heart’s

adumbration of bees may never

cease, not the hopeful hum

or peevish sting but rest…


So rest my darling, my daring, the journey’s

almost over though I’ve gone nowhere

and never meant to stay there.”