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The Heart Of Dean Young's Pre-Transplant Poetry

Dean Young has published more than 10 books of poetry. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a decade ago.
Laurie Saurborn Young
Dean Young has published more than 10 books of poetry. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a decade ago.

Poet Dean Young has dealt with impermanence a lot in his career, but it's a particularly poignant theme in Young's latest collection, Fall Higher. The new collection was published in April, just days after the poet received a life-saving heart transplant after about a decade of living with a degenerative heart condition.

Young, whose work is often frank and rich with twisted humor, tells NPR's Renee Montagne that as he recovers from surgery, he's also slowly returning to his everyday writing habits.

"I'm getting back to it," Young says. "Not with the sort of concentration and sort of gusto that I look forward to in the future, but I am blackening some pages."

And on those blackened pages you'll find poems like "How Grasp Green," which carries themes of springtime and rebirth. It's one of the first poems Young has written since his transplant.

'The Outlook Wasn't Good'

It's easy to spot clues to Young's dire health situation in the lines of his poetry.

Fall Higher's "Vintage" opens with, "Because I will die soon, I fall asleep/during the lecture on the ongoing/emergency." And the poem "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" — published in The New Yorker in February — opens with the CT scan that revealed Young's heart condition:

After they told me the CT showed
there was nothing wrong with my stomach
but my heart was failing, I plunked
one of those weird two-dollar tea balls
I bought in Chinatown and it bobbed
and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted
like feet and I had at this huge
chocolate bar I got at Trader Joe's
and didn't answer the door even though
I could see it was UPS ...

Young says "Rhythms" was written about the beginning of his illness.

"I had been having a lot of abdominal pain so that I could hardly walk a block. I got sent to a gastroenterologist and he did a bunch of tests, and then the tests came back to me and it was all heart related," he says. "And the outlook wasn't good."

Matters Of The Heart

Hearts tend to come up a lot in poetry, and that's especially true of Young's work, which has clearly been influenced by the troubles of his own anatomical heart.

"A lot of times, it's not just a metaphor," Young says. "For me, it's an actual concern because I've been living with this diagnosis for over 10 years. My father died when he was 49 of heart problems, so it's been a sort of shadowy concern for me my whole life."

But Young's poems also deal with more abstract matters of the heart. He wrote Fall Higher's "Late Valentine" for his wife. It reads,

We weren't exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,
even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire's done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones,
ashy furrows like the folds in the brain
that signal the switchbacks and reversals
of our thought and just as brief. Your lips
were song, your hair everywhere.
Oh unknowable, fidgeting self, how little
bother you were then, no more
than a tangerine rind. Oh unknowable
other, how I loved your smell.

"[We've been married] since late November and most of it has been spent in the hospital," Young says of his marriage to poet Laurie Saurborn Young. "She says ['Late Valentine' is] very sweet."

Staring Down Death, And The Randomness Of Life

Today, Young says, his friends can't help but comment on how pink his cheeks have become — the result of a new heart and better circulation. But Young wrote the poems of Fall Higher before the transplant, at a time when, at its weakest point, his old heart was pumping at 8 percent of what it should have been.

He was staring death in the face — but he was still able to look at his life and see art in it.

"I think that's one of the jobs of poets: They stare at their own death and through it they still see the world — the world of 10,000 things," Young says. "Poetry is about time running out, to some extent. You can think of that purely formally — the line ends, the stanza ends and the poem itself ends."

He says he finds something pleasurable and reassuring about seeing on the page where a poem will end — and that something gets lost when a poem is read aloud.

Young's work also touches on themes of randomness and fate — two factors that contributed to him getting a second chance in the form of a new heart from a 22-year-old student.

"Everything in life is molecules bouncing against molecules," Young says, and having a successful transplant is no different. "Somebody had to die; it had to be a fit; my blood and his blood had to not have an argument; the heart had to be transported; I had to get it."

There were, in short, an amazing number of variables that led to Young being here today.

"I just feel enormous gratitude," he says of his donor. "He gave me a heart so I'm still alive. ... I'm sure I'm going to think about this person for the rest of my life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.