Is everything a field of energy caused / by human projection? From the crib bars / hang the teething tools. Above the finger-drummed / desk, a bit lip. The cyclone fence of buts / surrounds the soccer field of what if, writes Dean Young in “I Am But A Traveler in This Land & Know Little of Its Ways.”
Young’s poetry is labyrinthine, philosophical, surreal, often whimsical, occasionally nostalgic, and always profoundly full of the man’s own heart. How ironic, then, when a decade ago Young was diagnosed with idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that decimates the biological heart so ruthlessly that, by earlier this year, it was pumping at an estimated 8 percent of normal volume. Since December, a fifty-pound biventricular assist device has been his constant companion, and a heart transplant remained his only chance of leading a normal life. But heart transplants are hard to come by, and nearly as difficult to pay for. The surgery can set you back $750,000, with monthly expenses in the $2,000-$5,000 range, in perpetuity. And Young — though holding the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at University if Texas in Austin, and well insured — is still a poet, and a rich poet is about as common as arts education is in the California school system.
But Young got lucky. In April, he got his transplant. And, just as fortunately, his friends have decided to throw him one hell of a series of literary fundraising parties — in New York City; Houston; Asheville, NC; Minneapolis; Columbia, MO; Austin; and now Berkeley.
“There is just nobody like him,” said Berkeley novelist, nonfiction writer, and poet Joseph Di Prisco, an old friend of Young’s. “He writes better than anybody else writing these days, period. His poems are world-class. He is not your effete university poetry chair prince of remoteness emanating vatic enlightenment. He is right there. He is immensely generous to everybody. He is kind. He is hilarious; every party or social gathering is just improved with his presence. And he has more integrity than just about anybody I know.”
Di Prisco chairs a national fundraising campaign for Young, coordinated through the National Foundation for Transplants. (Full disclosure: Di Prisco also sits on the board of the California Shakespeare Theater, for whom I work full-time.) At a benefit reading for Young’s medical treatment put together by ZYZZYVA and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall (Maude Fife Room 315) on Thursday, June 23, Di Prisco will read one of his own poems as well as Young’s “The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish,” published this February in The New Yorker. He’ll be joined by such heavy hitters as former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass; poet, translator, and essayist W.S. Di Piero; playwright and director Octavio Solis; poet Brenda Hillman; poet D.A. Powell; National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poet Troy Jollimore; Copper Canyon Press executive editor Michael Wiegers; poet Dora Malech; and writer, poet, and record producer David Breskin. ZYZZYVA managing editor Oscar Villalon will serve as Master of Ceremonies.
For sale at the event will be signed copies of Young’s newest collection, Fall Higher, and specially commissioned broadsides of his poems. A reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres will follow. 7 p.m., donations optional. Transplants.org/donate/deanyoung