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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Omaar Hena reviews

The Day Underneath the Day by C. Dale Young. TriQuarterly Books, $15.95.

This piece is 900 words or about two printed pages long.

The Day Underneath the Day, C. Dale Young’s first collection of poetry, is as superabundant in its power and depth as the sea from whence it came. Young was born in the Caribbean and educated in Florida with both an M.F.A. and an M.D. from the University of Florida, and now divides his time between editing poetry for New England Review and practicing medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Young is a fascinating poet by any standard. Formally, his rich, arresting imagery, sensuous language, and revelry in the natural world seem quite similar to William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, or William Wordsworth. Young’s poetry also exhibits post-colonial tensions, where the poet, who was formerly an insider, now returns home from self-imposed exile only to feel at once attached and estranged.

The Day begins, in fact with a sequence entitled ‘Homage to William Carlos Williams,’ another poet-physician. In part I, ‘The Body,’ Young writes:

You removed integument,
you palpated fibrils,
extracted breastplates,
exposed diaphragms.
You saw the once rhythmic heart
still silent, again and again, in a pool of formalin.

We begin the study of life
with our hands buried in the dead.
This is how you did it
and how we will always do it.
The body refuse the name body
taking cadaver, meaning to fall.

Young in this opening poem, and for the entire duration of The Day, conducts a relentless inquiry into the layers of physical, natural, ontological, and linguistic experience. Quite interestingly, cadaver takes kad as its root. This is the same root for such words as cadence, caduceus, cascade, chance, decay, and recidivism — all of which surface into other poems in this collection either by name or significance. Young’s poetry also reverberates with the poet’s auditory imagination, like the ‘silent’ heart which metrically beats here ‘again and again, in a pool of formalin.’ Young, who later confesses to ‘cling’ to form (and he shows mastery of many), undoubtedly welcomes the clever pun of formal in formalin. So from the very start, the reader falls into Young’s world ‘with our hands buried in the dead.’

This notion of returning to one’s past, to the places and people of the dead, recurs throughout The Day Underneath the Day, especially in parts II and III of the three-part collection. Young, though, does not seem as interested in retracing or reclaiming his familial roots as experiencing the natural world. In ‘The Lesson,’ a poem that describes ‘how a storm had torn down the villas / of the English princes’ yet ‘left other houses standing,’ his grandmother instructs him on

how the sea
always took care of its own. Remember.

Outside, it only looked like disaster.
inside I was barely fourteen but pretending
to be a man, my hands behind me.

thinking back, I cannot help
but wonder, to whom does the sea
now owe its allegiance.

This poetry is ripe for post-colonial examination. Here, the speaker is as wary of his elder’s words regarding the powers of the natural world and his ‘own’ as he is about himself, a wavering self-conscious outsider. Often, Young’s speakers seems to have no other recourse but ‘the stance of the reticent, the cautious — // silence, the one sound leaving your lips,’ as he mentions in ‘Angling.’ In several other poems, he expresses a similar ambivalence, between silence and speech, action and passivity. In ‘The Philosopher in Florida’ the speaker reduces the problem of the Caribbean’s colonial history to a polar antagonism:

Our choice is a simple one:

to leave or to remain, to render
the Spanish moss a memory
or to pull it from the trees, repeatedly.

But in ‘The Footbridge in Summer’ the speaker beautifully laments:

What my grandparents left to me, the sound
of the Caribbean, its repetitions, is disappearing.

Ruckus of algae in late afternoon, ruckus
of the anhinga moving over the lake,
the air beneath its wings sounding arcs across the water.

Almost the entire final section of The Day investigates colonial aspects of Caribbean history, from the ruins of Spanish marbled esplanades to children unwittingly singing ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.’ Young concludes the book with a four-part sequence titled ‘Imago,’ a subversive yet lyrically entrancing depiction of Christobal Colon’s Spanish invasion into the Caribbean islands.

Everywhere, though, the natural elements of the islands seem to grow over and perhaps cloud the more problematic and repulsive parts of European colonialism. Nearly every poem here mentions some aspect of nature, whether it is the sound of the sea which ‘would start / countless numbers of poems,’ ‘rows of phontina, each leaf a red flame. . . violent in sunlight,’ a heron that ‘might, without warning take flight,’ or ‘whole patches of grass, / still white without moonlight.’ Above all, Young’s encounters with and recording of nature — both its physical, sensual qualities and the names of indigenous plants and birds — seem to construct his relationship with the place of Caribbean. ‘The day underneath the day,’ as Young hints in ‘For the Sake of Tiger Lilies,’ therefore comes to signify the excess of the outside and inside worlds of the Caribbean that flow behind and beneath the poet’s necessarily framed material and intellectual experiences. It is from here that Young begins the study of life: with one hand ‘buried in the dead’ and the other ‘clutching / shadows of leaf and branch landlocked under moon.’

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