On my final day in Malaysia I visited the Great Cave near the town of Niah, site of the oldest human remains in all of Southeast Asia. To get there, I took a bus from Miri, a city not far from the Brunei border, which brought me close to the main entrance of an unceremonious national park. At the museum, I glanced through photos of Englishmen joylessly separating ceramic from bone, and I studied brochures on the local economy, which runs on bird’s nests and guano. Then I walked through a rainforest thick with cicadas until I reached the mouth of the cave, which looked like a secret airport hangar or a decommissioned gateway to hell. Armed with a flashlight and an outdated map, I followed a mossy path through the darkness and breathed in the prehistoric funk. By sunset, I found myself back at the entrance, where swiftlets and bats converged on each other in a giant black cloud above my head.
Dean Young is one of America’s most celebrated poets, the author of ten poetry collections, recipient of numerous national awards, and a fixture of campus bookstores. His poems are tremendously fun to read, and often very funny; for me, his work is distinct in the way it channels the spirit of a stand-up comic. He nests his liberal politics inside a vortex of anxiety; disguises insights as farce; and codes earnest messages in irreverence and transgression. In his latest collection, Bender: New and Selected Poems, this spirit is even more pronounced: His new poems explore the same general territory with a darker, subtler confidence. Young gives the impression that the blank page inspires him the way an unpredictable audience inspires a comic:
The San Francisco Renaissance, that loose federation of poets and novelists who gathered in the Bay Area after World War II, is most famous for having organized the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (and thus given birth to the Beat Generation), but its influence was more far-reaching than that. It was also more varied. As with any renaissance, this one was cliquish, even factional: while Ginsberg cultivated his image as a twentieth-century Whitman and Kerouac descended from madcap literary celebrity to middle-aged alcoholism, a lesser-known group of near-surrealists gathered at the State College of San Francisco for a workshop called “Poetry and Magic.” Taught by Jack Spicer, the workshop combined a modernist aesthetic with elements of ‘theosophy,’ a strain of mysticism that, earlier in the century, had captured the imagination of William Butler Yeats. “Poetry and Magic” occasioned a kind of sub-renaissance (sometimes called ‘the Berkeley renaissance’), and it had a notable influence on a number of successful American poets, including the young Jack Gilbert, who died in mid-November at the age of eighty-seven. His Collected Poemswere published in March, 2012, not long before his death.