The Infinite Doctrine of Water by Michael T. Young
(Terrapin Books, West Caldwell, N.J., 2018)
The close observer of briny passages
Hunt only at night. Fly erratically.
Defy even your own expectations.
So opens The Infinite Doctrine of Water, Michael T. Young’s third collection of poetry. Like the red-letter passages of the King James Bible, “Advice From a Bat,” containing these lines, is hair-raising, and yet it offers far more than it demands.
Young’s poems are often metaphysical algorithms, not meant to entertain you as much as to prepare you for passages through straits you may not yet have imagined. In this sense, his collections are the Belfasts and La Spezias of poetry, fitting out readers for intellectual and spiritual voyages.
And yet these journeys are often around the corner, in microbial empires of intuition, reminding us again and again that poetry is a voyage into infinity, and that a culture like ours that is always writing its obituary is afraid of something deep and close, a truth that a poem out of nowhere may discover.
Take this penultimate stanza from the last poem, “The Voice of Water”:
When it whispers, it whispers with
the same heaping hush of salt
pouring from an uncapped shaker.
I regard this stanza as perfect in the way Glenway Westcott’s novella, The Pilgrim Hawk, is perfect. And in both instances—Westcott was a poet, too—there is something in the pristine excellence of the work likely to chill those politicians and critics who are most full of themselves.
Young is a poet of near-perfect prosody—who can attain perfection?—a formalist in whom the interplay of observed information and formal versification fulfill the true purpose of alchemy, which is not to turn base metals into gold, but to ennoble humanity.
That kind of alchemy requires the indisputable elixir, and for Young that elixir is very close to angelic. He is such a refined, such an astute observer of least things that we are always reminded of Hebrews 13:2, entertaining angels without realizing it. We would expect an angel to celebrate grandeur in least things, just as Jesus jolted the ancient world by saying how hard it would be for a rich man to enter heaven.
The Trojan Wars, the founding of Rome, these are grand subjects, calling for a Homer or a Virgil, but a tree growing in Jersey City, a paperclip, the moods of the Hudson’s tides—these require an intellect and eye so respectful of the ordinary that its underlying assumption becomes that nothing is ordinary:
It’s a day when one can hear
the morning glories growing,
Who is Michael Young’s intended hearer? In the case of most poets we usually assume an abstract entity called a readership, an audience. That’s what marketers assume. It’s what editors have to assume. But Young’s poetry is much too companionable for that. When you read one of his syllabically precise poems you’re walking down a street with him, chatting in a café. You’re confiding in each other. The poems are interlocutors, that’s how intimate they are:
Every day I have to decide when to cut over
to Broadway, as if choosing a theme,
maybe the expedient dash up Fulton Street
bordered by the iron fence of Saint Paul’s Church,
gravestones blinking through the posts.
The reader feels moved to respond, and the cadence and rhythm, whether blank verse, tercet or quatrain, is as inviting as knowing the quirks of an old friend. That’s the genius of Young’s metrics. They instill a kind of echolalia. They’re not meant to impress, they’re meant to share, like familiar tools. If you’ve loved someone who exhibited echolalia you’ll know what I mean—in sheer delight you’re inspired to repeat what has just been said.
Like Wallace Stevens, whose work Young’s sometimes recalls, this poet is keenly aware that the peripatetic mind is always keener and more adventurous than the peripatetic foot.
The sin of Michael Young’s poems is to dwell among the sights and sounds and sensations that society is designed to rush on by and ignore for fear of being told its premises are all wrong.
The Infinite Doctrine of Water is the exquisite witness of a superb young poet to a world continually refreshed by the briny crosscurrents of New York Bay and the Hudson estuary.
Djelloul Marbrook is the author of seven books of fiction and nine of poetry, including Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press), winner of the Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Three more books of poetry and the fiction trilogy Light Piercing Water are forthcoming from Leaky Boot Press (UK) in 2018-19. A retired newspaper editor and reporter and a US Navy veteran, he lives in the mid-Hudson valley with his wife Marilyn.