THIS SMALL BOOK demonstrates the virtues of compression. From Pound, from Imagism, Young has learned the art of condensare , of saying much in little. He manages this without straying too far from the sound of ordinary speech, in his case, a laconic, midwestern version of what has sometimes been called the international style in 20th-century poetry.
One of Young's special gifts is his eye for detail, which helps him score many successes in this book, such as "Nineteen Forty-Four," a fond recollection of his uncle's Minneapolis victory garden, with its "pine needles, vines, brown leaves, simple American shadows." Equally good is a thoughtful elegy entitled "The Day Nabokov Died"; the poem appropriates some of the bizarre charm of that pixilated master himself: "Wan child,/in a sailor suit, man running by waving a gauzy net, tall fencer, pendant/hotelmensch, empty suit of clothes." These lines show a characteristic rhetorical technique of Young's, the stringing together of appositive nouns to present several aspects of one subject. "It's a technique Charles Wright has domesticated for American poetry from several European forerunners.) Another rhetorical strategy found throughout the book -- too often, I think -- is the one- or two-word sentence fragment. Used sparingly, fragments can lend immediacy and saltiness to poems; but Young relies too heavily on them, and they block the kick of many of his developing ideas and rhythmic movements.
When I took it up, I thought the title poem might prove to be the best in the book. A long meditation on the human and poetic act of naming, it is impressive in its ambitions and originality; but it somehow doesn't succeed. Why? First, the defect of looseness: the 12 sections of the poem could be reordered, or substitutions made, or the whole could be made shorter, without loss. Apart from that, one has the persistent sensation that the will was doing the work of the imagination in this poem. It doesn't take wing; and it ends with an unfortunate feeling of inconclusiveness. Still, there are many good things in it, moments crystallizing around observed detail, philosophic reflection, or verbal insight. Young's actual strengths are those of refinement, not expansiveness; and those strengths are most successfully deployed in the shorter lyrics. To appreciate them, the reader must be alert, patient and receptive -- that is the sort of reader all true poets must assume to be listening on the other end of the line.