In Torn, his third collection, poet and doctor C. Dale Young continues his investigations into the human, depicted here as both spiritual being and as biological instrument, as both “the soul and its attendant concerns” and as a device that “requires charge, small / electrical impulses / racing through our bodies.” “In many ways / we are all conductors,” Young writes, his graceful pun a reminder of the way poetry is “this song I can barely hum over the wind.” In the beautiful “Windows,” the departing terminus of the collection, Young also situates poetry as an art that tells through visual means: “The story isn’t a difficult one to start, the way // a painter, after collecting many images, / approaches the canvas with something akin / to longing or need.” What is difficult, though, are the subjects of those images—and the challenges they pose for us.
Indeed, what Young tells and shows us, what his poems let us hear, does not aim to reassure or soothe. These are poems written from “white and yellow scraps / covered with words and words and more words— // I may never find the right words to describe this.” These sure-footed tercets register a struggle to understand the spiritual and the human, to come to terms with a religion which has “5,040 prerequisites for heaven” and a society that offers to label us, that requires we “Only use gender neutral when you must talk / about your beloved.” Torn concludes with its title poem, in which the speaker slowly, tenderly, sutures the face of a boy beaten for his sexuality. Here the speaker practices the healing arts aware of the failure written into their fruition: “stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers / attempted perfection.” This failure, Torn reminds us, makes us human: the doctor failing to treat his patients, the teacher failing to see her student as anything but a racial stereotype, the homophobe failing to see how “it was beautiful, that kiss” between two lovers on an Italian beach. Torn is an essential collection by a poet who’s mastered his craft—as healer, as teacher, as writer—enough to know it’s always mastered him.
There was the knife and the broken syringe
then the needle in my hand, the Tru-Cut
followed by the night-blue suture.
The wall behind registration listed a man
with his face open. Through the glass doors,
I saw the sky going blue to black as it had
24 hours earlier when I last stood there gazing off
into space, into the nothingness of that town.
Bat to the head. Knife to the face. They tore
down the boy in an alleyway, the broken syringe
skittering across the sidewalk. No concussion.
But the face torn open, the blood congealed
and crusted along his cheek. Stitch up the faggot
in bed 6 is all the ER doctor had said.
Queasy from the lack of sleep, I steadied
my hands as best as I could after cleaning up
the dried blood. There was the needle
and the night-blue suture trailing behind it.
There was the flesh torn and the skin open.
I sat there and threw stitch after stitch
trying to put him back together again. […]
“C. Dale Young’s poems employ sly forms of repetition, touching back to phrases we’ve already encountered as if to guide us […] ‘Stitch up the faggot in Bed 6,’ goes the most harrowing of Young’s refrains; the speaker does exactly that, mending what he can. And the poet, likewise, brings all his strength to bear on the necessary work of art, which is also a means of tending and of stitching, a craft that by its very artfulness implies the possibility of hope. ” — Mark Doty
“With clarity and precision, the poems uncover the secrets of blood and lust and heart, the nature of selfhood, and the accompanying larger social and political implications of identity. Beneath all this is a quest for beauty and evidence of the poet’s deeply humane intelligence and the breadth of his sensibilities.” — Natasha Trethewey