Herds of Bears Surround Us by Timothy Young, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. $15
Reviewed by Judy Swann
Timothy Young is a heavyweight. His work has been in Poetry magazine. It has been read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac. It has appeared in The Best American Poetry of 1999. The poet himself appears with Robert Bly at the Minnesota Men's Conference. Plutarch wrote about a place of bliss, where the beings cast no shadows, and I think this might be the place that Young is truly from.
Herds of Bears Surround Us is a beautiful paperback book set in a beautiful font, an old style Roman font with a hint of calligraphy that seems just right. The collection is in five sections: “There's Something in the River,” “At Red Wing,” “Blue Music from the Stone Cafe,” “In the Large-Heartedness,” and “Into the Ocean Without Shores.” His is a world Keillor would love, with its Pierce County that could be a real place or a metaphor for vision. His titles are all excellent. Entitling is toilsome—few poets have the knack for it that Young does.
In “There's Something in the River,” Young shows that there are only really a couple of themes out there: the Natural World, Death, Poetry, and Love. Some of the poems in this first section hit all four themes, some just two or three, but they do comprise the complete menu. “A Chill,” “In the Belly of a Cod,” and “After Reading Lucky Luck in Goldtown,” contemplate the Natural World/Poetry/Death. “Spring and Steinbeck in Salinas,” concerns itself with the Natural World/Poetry. In “Snow Has Fallen” (Natural World/Death/Love) we hear the hush of an older song, William Carlos Williams' “The Sparrow.”
I watch the chickadees flit
from stem to dead stem.
They pick at weed seeds
and sing against the cold.
A chickadee warrior
is the bravest of all.
He defends his kin
against any large thing.
(“Snow Has Fallen”)
The bears that stalk across the cover and are dreamt of by the poet in the opening poem (Natural World/Death/Poetry) can be construed as the danger caused by the uncontrollable contents of our unconsciousness, as Jung says, or our “shadows,” as Bly says.
On the way to work
a mature, myopic
blocked my road
(“A Black Bear Near the Cemetery”)
The second section, “At Red Wing,” is about cold hard things ̶ metal, bone, razorwire ̶ and what they called in Chaucer's day “the up-so-doun,” the mirror-world that plays out Wrong, as experienced in a Minnesota facility for male juvenile offenders. This section brings us “Sarcasm,” “Rotary Saw Burrs,” and the tender “My Student with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” The premier poem in this section, however, is inspired by the facility's GED program:
On a day as beautiful
as a trillium among the hardwoods,
an inmate weeps on his Math Test.
Outside, the sun warms the grass,
and a burdened heron
flies over the institutional trees.
(“An Inmate Weeps on His Math Test”)
Leaving prison, Young returns to the world of music, God, and love. Williams whispers again into Young's ear as he writes:
from the bug-eyed,
in my heart.
The book is almost over, we don't want it to end. Then comes the tour-de-force that is the “Homage to Whitman,” a poem that can make even a 17-year-old boy admit to “liking” poetry. Here we have all Whitman's barbarism, all Bly's drumming, all Young's truck with the up-so-doun, all Jung's archetypes.
I give you its second stanza:
This melting snow, this thawing ice, this heart of mine,
twisting, turning, dangling, wringing, watching, and singing
in the clasp of beauty's large fist. I eat beauty,
I breathe beauty, I rub beauty onto my chest hairs.
(“Homage to Whitman”)
And now we turn our gaze back to the bears surrounding us. Thank you, Timothy Young.
Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors. Her poetry has appeared in Lilliput Review, Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine and other places both in print and online. She is an Iowan who often visited Wisconsin in her youth.