Mark Young's Pelican Dreaming
New and Selected Poems 1959-2008

Review by Tom Hibbard


"Art evokes the mystery without
which the world would not exist."

-Rene Magritte


As recently as 1964 Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte created a work called "The Son of Man" that suggests the solitary Being facing the entirety of human experience. The title is from Christian nomenclature, and the work uses symbolism from the book of Genesis, in particular an apple, that metaphysically complicating, irresistibly forbidden and irresistibly plausible fruit of the "Tree of Knowledge" or "Tree of Life." The primary figure, the only figure is the familiar petit-bourgeois businessman of Magritte paintings, well-dressed in black suit, tie, bowler hat and coat, stiff, seemingly oblivious in juxtaposition with his surroundings, whether as on the shore of the ocean of existence or as a group of many outside the window or as perched in the midst of clouds above the city.

Since Magritte's businessman is not the type that asks for trouble, where then does it originate? The apple--large, succulent, green, unripe--looms in his blocked out face, like a grotesque nose, held not by his or anyone's hands (at his side) but as if by some discomforting artificial contraption or electromagnetic force. The expanse that lies ahead is vast not in a literal sense but, rather, its vastness, its inexhaustible beneficence is due to this obstructing or limitation of his sui generic abilities and perceptions, like an unlucky mythological curse put in his way which he must fathom and unlock, as in the case of Prometheus or Harry Houdini.

Thus, in Mark Young's 2008 selected/collected poems Pelican Dreaming, from Eileen Tabios’ Meritage Press, Magritte's intermittent presence is as an ancestral guide similar to Virgil in The Divine Comedy. In fact Pelican Dreaming is a Divine Comedy, but it is also a Secular Tragedy, a Televised Space Walk, a Pantomime Minstrel Show, a Relativist Soap Opera, a Life's Sad Journey. It is, as Magritte’s painting indicates, an instruction on every strange and wonderful thing that life can be. Like Magritte paintings, its stage is set with spiritual realities, everyday illusions, statues, curtains, eyes, umbrellas, barbells, bird cages. "Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see," says Magritte of "The Son of Man." As we descend into the postmodern inferno of Pelican Dreaming, Magritte's warning appears above the gate: "This is not a pipe." And, as we reemerge, into the Impressionist flux, into the pacific Surrealist “innocent vision,” it seems that Pelican Dreaming is about the immensity of life‘s deceptiveness. Love as hate. Life as Death.

She sees he does not really see her.
His world is earth, is sea, is rooms
of shadow; & she is the bird
in that painting by magritte, is outline

Young was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1969 where he has lived ever since. From Thomas Fink's helpful introduction we get the idea of Young starting off as undergrad of many interests: classical cello, jazz; Don Allen's 1960 anthology, New American Poetry, containing work by Olson, Ginsberg, Leroi Jones, Gary Snyder; the films of Kurasawa and Bergman. In 1969 Young published his first poetry collection, Blues For New Lovers, from which however nothing is included in Pelican Dreaming. The subtitle of the new collection, “Poems 1959-2008,” is misleading. After a fast start, it would seem that Young left his artistic interests for some thirty years. The main body of Pelican Dreaming consists of selections from eleven collections churned out from 1999 to 2008.

The title of the anthology is from a six line poem in the 2002 collection Sun Moon’s Mother.

Later he would walk down to the lagoon
to look for the pelicans. they were
his touchstones, the way their
solid bodies gave substance to the
landscape, a centre to it. Only when
they found him would he return.

“Only when/ he found them would they return" is probably an intended alternative writing. All Young's poetry is like that, "later," for example, referring not to "later in the day" but to this whole "post-hiatus" “comeback” period of Young's writing outburst. Pelicans are a Christ symbol, evolving from the fact that the birds seem to pierce their chests with their bills and draw blood and also from the fact that they eat and regurgitate food for their young. The point is that “Dreaming” in the title has a symbolic double-meaning to some degree associated with Young's return to writing. One of the selected early poems, “In Memoriam: Robert Desnos,” written before 1968, begins with the line “J’ai tant reve de toi...” (I have dreamt enough of you).

        Inside the mouth
of my memory, your tongue is mayhem. Words
you once spoke have become as gibberish
in my attempt to set them right in time.

For the allegorical pelican, as for the artist that is not making art, the writer not writing; “dreaming” could be viewed as living a “realistic” everyday life, so that “I have dreamt enough...” is a declaration of returning to writing, a return that will give new meaning to the old words of his wide-awake “attempt.”

I would say that the whole battle of reading Pelican Dreaming, as in the Magritte painting, is to remove the blocking, this-worldly obstacle that obscures and impugns its motives and to discover the way that its writing fits “in time.” We sense the hint of regret. We miss the quaintness of the head-on cultural collisions that never happened in the empty decades. We lament the tragic heroism that might have been, as youthful drug-taking artist-nauts erroneously leapt into rooms-for-rent black holes of American socio-political tromp l’oeils and long-gone generations. We suspect the collection is too late. In doing so we neglect to observe that writing, if it is worth anything, is madly radical in its time, cataclysmic in its incongruousness and shortcomings. Its promptness is always too early or too late.

One thing though: Young is not American. The time unaccounted for could have been a somewhat unconscious protest, a vague discontent on behalf of his own concerns and methodologies, as though American artistic activity had risen so preeminently that the only way he could separate himself from it was to leave behind artistic activities altogether. In calligraphies (2004), a palliative title, the early icons get mild upgrades, including even the irreproachable William Carlos Williams.

Like that famous

                  red wheel
the african violets set
in a white pot by the
           are also
                  glazed with rain

Miles Davis' album Bitches Brew is somewhat impolitely remembered. The same for Tu Fu. To some degree I think it is true that American pop cultural media-ville has become a desensitized lawless commercial fantasy, running away from social problems rather than leading the way in solving them, as Young pictures it prophetically in a poem such as "Chaos Theory Does Hollywood" or in "Marx and Engles"

To see how I
before starting out
on the television
talk-show round[s]
lined up to co-
incide with
Das Kapital's
publication date
I would stand
on a soapbox
in Hyde Park
practicing my
public speaking skills
by preaching to
the huddled masses
which were in
actuality thin
on the ground
since hardly anyone
stopped to listen

On the other hand, the “Poems 1959-2008” subtitle might give a clue that Young feels his silent decades speak as eloquently or with an equivalent message as the recent prolific one. The cultural collisions took place. It's just that Young chose not to write about them. To say nothing is to have nothing to say, in the sense of no objections, no problems. In any case, at this point, he is not separating himself from his New American Poetry compatriots, many of whom have passed on. Perhaps he feels that, as one of the last of them, he is speaking for them in a way they might have wanted in the end to speak for themselves.

In reading these poems, always keep Magritte in mind. "No chance/ assemblage." "REVE is/ real & not/ a dream. Foucault/ describes it/ as a landscape..." Young does well not to speak as a man in his twenties. His tone is energetic, youthful but gentle and somewhat authoritative. Always endless clouds and waves seem to be in the background. He speaks like one of those advanced civilizations the starship Enterprise encountered every now and then where translucent robed elders appeared in the air saying something like, "Sorry, you flunked the test. We gave you a chance to prove yourselves, but you demonstrated you are too barbaric. Come back again in another five hundred thousand years." But, really, Young doesn't say that. Maybe someone said it to him. The sweet bird of Young is still in its cage, its forests of piled-up houses still unsubdued.

According to Fink’s introduction, “although the design of his Selected Poems does recognize them, Young has emphasized that the individual collections of this decade should not be seen as discrete projects.” I feel that way too. The internet where most of Young’s poems were probably first published in such webzines as “Sidereality“ (defunct), “Moria,” “Jacket,” "Word/ For Word," “Muse Apprentice Guild,” “Aught” (defunct), “Big Bridge,” “Shampoo” and many others seems to me a busy proving grounds, more so than print publications ever were. The ease with which submissions can be made, returned or accepted, with artworks, bio blurbs, formatting, photos, corrections, feedback has transformed small press poetry publishing in a way that makes it much more viable, if much more uneven in quality. Up until around the 1980s it took probably on average a year-and-a-half just to get one poem published. In the case of Pelican Dreaming, a selection from the intense years of submitting and publishing (including a collaboration with Finnish visual artist Jukka-Pekka Kervinen) has resulted, in my opinion, in a lasting achievement. Pelican Dreaming doesn’t mean dreaming about pelicans; it is a phrase intended to mean and to refer to a significant, a deeply substantive activity. Magritte would use the term “reverie.”

One of the sections, one of the collections included is titled Series Magritte (2006), which serves as a key to Young’s poetic style. I think it is important to recognize Young’s poetry as Surrealist. Series Magritte goes into Magritte’s particular ideas about surrealism, but what’s primary is understanding clearly that these short poems are exercises in surrealist imagery, the way they are put together, the way they seem to be about real settings and objects but instead are intended to be taken as symbolic.

The lion
without a cage, the man
within one. Reality
is always
somewhere else. Only
the bridge exists,
hiding inside
the yellow fog
of melancholy.

From the poem “Not to be Reproduced” (the title of a 1937 Magritte portrait) are the lines

      We do not see
the face. Magritte does not
produce it. Or reproduce it.
Is not reflected in the mirror
for what comes back from there
is not mirror-image
but reproduction. Almost as if
we were peering over a shoulder
only to see the shoulder that we
were peering over. But it is
reflection. The mantelpiece
is reflected & the copy of
Edgar Allan Poe’s Adventures
of Arthur Gordon Pym
that rests
upon it is partially reflected. It
is a book about an imaginary
journey. Magritte’s painting
is a journey of imagination about
what happens between two points
that are the same point
though there is distance

Returning to Fink’s introduction, Fink does admirably to single out the poem “The Baggage Card” from Sun Moon’s Mother. It is a poem that in many ways represents the whole collection. Fink discusses the poem using structurist terms as “addressing the psychodynamics of self-presentation or self-making.” He points out aptly that the baggage is “associated with the self." I think he is right in emphasizing the idea of self-making. But i think also that the meaning of the poem is more easily accessible through the a conceptual interweaving of surrealist symbols.

The Baggage Card

I move & my baggage comes with me.
I stand still. It snaps at my ankles then rises up
& wraps around me like a cloak or
kaftan. (I prefer these images to that
of a bodybag which also comes to mind.)

I try heading off in unexpected directions
but it gets there before me. I visit friends. My baggage
is peering out their window, waving me away. I go
to speak & my words come out as echoes
of what it has already said, pre-empting
my thoughts. Silence is my last defence.

My baggage has become more than me
while I am becoming less; & that
is not becoming. I waste away. It tours the world,
gets written up in the social pages taking in openings
& art galleries, is seen as a bullfight in the
Camargue, flyfishing in New Zealand, wearing leather
in San Francisco. I break my silence, beg it
to come back. Now it becomes the mute.

I received a postcard of a Louis Vuitton valise
with a Guadeloupe postmark. My name & address
are written in an elegant cursive script. There is
no message but the message
is clear. My baggage has moved up
in the world & I am on my own. Unaccompanied.

When I first read the poem i jumped quickly to the conclusion that it was about a former lover, attempting to convey the idea that love carries an existence beyond the individual participants. But upon reflection I concluded that it was a Magritte-like image, that the baggage is symbolic of an involved person’s aspirations, aspirations that are like hopes, dreams routinely dashed, troubled, deferred, hijacked, reflected and eventually fulfilled. In terms of the book overall, what the Pelican dreams is a baggage, a traveler divided from a destination, a voyage unending, until the dream becomes reality, until the silent alienation is spoken and is no longer burdensome. This is the “attempt,” the mythic labor, the "diritta via" (straight way) that makes the collection a (somewhat episodic) whole.

The idea of dream and reality is one of the central themes of Breton's Surrealist manifestos. The value of Surrealism is the glimpse that it is able to provide of life ahead, life higher. The problem with surrealism, in my opinion, is that what the baggage is is never made explicit. It could be a personal ambition, a preference, a matter of pride, an identity, a political party, a hope for society. It could be a loss or an lack. It could be a set of values that the artist/person stands for. It could be something more difficult to talk about in public. It seems to me the challenge of art and writing is to find ways of revealing hidden fears and deeply personal beliefs not masked in symbols and symbolic language but on a level relievingly elaborated into plain view so that they are no longer repressed but grasped once for all.

The pelican dreams its surrealistic yellow-on-green dreams of a new or newly uncovered reality. The last section of this compact, square, simply designed 412-page paperback collection is New Poems. I finish this review quoting two of these merely to show respect for and affinity to the high quality of the poems in the collection. I do not know what the references are in their titles, but I prefer to view them as purely imaginative creations that stake a claim to self-making, to a prototypically separate and successfully non-imitative uncorrupted psychic order that therefore “finally“ and meaningfully is baggage no more.

Genji Monogatari VIII: The Broom Tree

sometimes he guessed
correctly, sometimes
not; but he preferred
to do such things him-
self rather than call in
the others who were
paid to do the tasks. A
way of adding drama,
of turning emails into
fortune cookies, to make
an inside verse out of the
imagined message. He spent
little time with is bride.

Genji Monogatari XI: Wild carnations

Panatellas at
sunset. Wine, icewater,
small sweet balls of
rice. One of several
lives, not all of quality--
some bought new, others
found at garage sales, flea
markets & second-hand
or resale shops. The child
we used to be still lives
within us. Now, in the
night hours, great white
flowers have opened. I
long for climate change.