Book Review

Field of Light and Shadow, selected and new poems by David Young, Knopf/Borzoi Books, 2010. $27.95 (hard cover), $9.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Alice D'Alessio

David Young is perhaps best known for his translations of such classic Chinese poets as Yu Xuanji and Du Fu ( Du Fu—A Life in Poetry), as well as translations of Eugenio Montale, Petrarch, Rilke and Neruda.  However he has had a distinguished career as an award-winning poet in his own right, as is demonstrated in his latest publication, Field of Light and Shadow (Knopf).

Reviewing a work of this magnitude—covering 40 plus years with selections from 10 earlier books and some 20 new poems—is a challenge. Each time I think I've "got" David Young and can make a generalization, I re-read and discover a new depth, a new sensitivity.  

Young, like the Chinese poets he loves so well, is a poet of plain and simple language, writing about the small vagaries of life as well as the more heart-rending. I was first struck by the quiet of his poems, concerned, on first reading, that the sameness of tone might prove monotonous. On second reading I was underlining great lines, the kind that stir envy in the reading poet…and by the third reading, my book was heavily underlined.  If the words are quiet, they are good words.  The right words.

I was curious to see whether Young's way of thinking, his voice and subject, had changed over the span of years. His voice is very consistent throughout: distinguished by clarity, calm and acute observation.  He is not a "language"poet whose meanings must be cudgeled from the poem, no wild fancy, of artifice or fireworks.  His experimentation—and there is not a great deal—is with form and syntax. Work Lights, from 1977, is a collection of 32 prose poems. I found these the least successful, consisting of unrelated fragments that didn't work together.  He seems far more comfortable in traditional free form—where he has a conversational flow—or in couplets, triplets, quatrains and occasional sonnets.

Young is very much a Midwestern poet. Born in Iowa, he has spent most of his working life in Ohio, where he has been Longman Professor of English at Oberlin since1986. Many of his poems evoke the Ohio countryside: 

From Wind, Rain Light: "another line of storms approaching/sheets and curtains, miles of rain/crossing the plains,/wavering rise and fall/cracking of lightning,/thundery dust and leaves/whirl up to meet the downpour,/ Lake Erie churning and all of Ohio flattened by rain..."

From Ohio: "Looking across a field/ at a stand of trees/–more than a windbreak/less than a forest–/is pretty much all/the view we have."

His awareness of the events of his time—historical as well as personal—is reflected in each of the 11 sections, which makes the book an autobiography in poetry.  He remembers World War II in Nineteen Forty Four: "Since I am seven, that's mostly/cereal box Messerschmitts,/Tojo cartoons, the bombers I draw/sailing through popcorn flak,/bad dreams, brownouts…"

He has a poem for Mandelstam in the gulag; one each for Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  A poem for Chairman Mao, for Adlai Stevenson;  a poem for his mother at 88, his father at 94; and a long, poignant journal/poem about the death of his wife, entitled Nine Deaths.

Young can be playful as well as somber, with a strong sense of irony.  Every good poet needs a strong sense of irony.  There are a number of long poems, in eight or ten parts, on a single theme, and these are some of my favorites.  Night Thoughts is a twenty-page soliloquoy, as the insomniac, hour by hour tries to come to terms with grief, looks for meaning in life, speaks to the ghosts that haunt him:

Spirits are fuming and circling all around me.
Half here, half somewhere else,
lives inside out, they hiss and sigh.
This may be Pound I'm fighting off.
Lie quiet, Ezra.  And this one
may be Whitman.  Of course I love you, Walt.

By 4 am he's pondering the meaning of language: "Language may be a wheel that never rests," and contemplating retiring to an asylum, "I tell myself, Stop fumbling around/in the past and present/stop stringing these necklaces/of order and belief/Stop munching the macaroons of history."

As one would expect given his considerable translation from the Chinese, Young writes haiku himself.  The last section, New Poems, starts out with his own haiku,
"Why I Translate":

You lived in bad times,
Du Mu, and you
almost never complained

What was your secret?
Crabwise, I try to edge my way
inside your life.

This final section is weighted with reflections of a poet facing the inevitable end,  such poems as  "One Hundred Billion Neurons in My Brain":

But, brain, counting aside/you've not worked hard enough./ Once again, old cauliflower,/You've loafed your way through an assignment.

and most particularly in the "Occasional Sonnets: #5—Walt Whitman Smoothing the Forehead of Gerard Manley Hopkins" and "#6—The Dead From Iraq."

The last three poems in the book, "Reasons for Living," the long "Poem at Seventy" and finally, "Graveyard," have the feeling of a mature poet at peace, or at least resigned.  He speaks to those he will leave behind for whom he wanted to "make things that will outlast us," but accepts that this may not happen, they will go on without him:

Oh turn away!  Your own life/is what you should be living./ Mine is gone.  And as I say, it doesn't matter!

I was not familiar with David Young, and in discovering him through this book am surprised that his name is not as well known.  He has had a distinguished career, collaborated with Charles Wright and Jonathon Galassi, and been a friend of Robert Bly and James Wright, and now Franz.  His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, NEA and Ohio Arts Council and a Pushcart Prize. He has edited FIELD magazine at Oberlin College since1969.

Alice D'Alessio is the author of the biography: Uncommon Sense; the Biography of Marshall Erdman. Her poetry book A Blessing of Trees was winner of the 2004 Posner Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and her 2009 book, Days We Are Given was first place winner in the Earth's Daughters chapbook contest.  She is contributing editor to Woodlands and Prairies Magazine