Knotting-Off the Aughts #6: Deanna Young’s Drunkard’s Path
Year of Release: 2001
Press: Gaspereau (Kentville, NS)
Place of Creation: King’s County, NS
Mode of Acquisition: I picked this up at some Word on the Street back in Halifax. It was 2003 or so, I believe. It came as a recommendation from WFNS Exec-Director Jane Buss, who was my benevolent god-motherly figure that year (I like to keep one or two of these in my life at all times). I found out today that Jane’s recently retired from the Fed after a lengthy tenure spent slaying all sorts of monsters (writerly squabbles, funding cuts, a Goliath of a personal illness) with grace, charm, and dignity. Whoever takes over for her, I hope they’re talented and thoughtful enough to do half the job as third as well. If you think you’re up to it (Do you really think you’re up for it?), the Quillboard has the ad here.
Status of Personal Copy: Somewhere along the banks of the Delaware River, on the border between Pennsylvania and New York State. You see, in the summer of 2006, I sprained my ankle playing tennis (“That’s it,” said I, “Fuck sports, I’m done.”) The next week, some friends and I planned a day off from our shared summer job. The idea was to grab some inner tubes from the local Walmart SuperCenter, some beverages, and float aimlessly downriver until we found either a town or the Atlantic Ocean. I took Drunkard’s Path and a half-dozen other titles, my cooler, and The Biggest Sunhat in America (TM). Long story short, kids–if you take two of these, like a dozen of these and, five languid hours later, try to stand up in your inner tube on a bad leg, the only logical result is a literature-soaking overturn. Sad, I know. I hope the plankton of the Delaware have a taste for handcrafted books of lyrical poetry. Ashes to ashes, and all that. I ordered a replacement copy from Gaspereau last week upon the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to write the following paragraphs from memory.
Superdad losing control
as the skis splayed, as broad-faced Kurt Russell
and the girl who played the daughter stood by
mouths full of surprise
when I ran smack
into Irony, that stone wall.
I thought to myself.
And the slanted room full of Disney families laughed.
When, in 2004. an interviewer from The Onion AV Club asked the late Robert Altman the stock question, “Which of your movies is your favourite?” He answered with the stock answer, which I’ll paraphrase as “That’s like asking which of my children is my favourite,” before adding the curious amendment, “though you tend to love your least successful child the most.” This is a refreshing and appreciable answer (unless of course you’re Robert Altman’s most successful child), I imagine the same could be true in reverse: one has a special attachment to the less successful (however that word is defined: perhaps in terms of contentment, status, etc) parent. Carrying the metaphor into the literary world, it could also be said when speaking of our equivalent to the parent-child relationship, namely influency.
Deanna Young has published two books of poems. Drunkard’s Path is the second. The first is out of print and apparently extinct. I’m not sure if there’s a third forthcoming, but I hope so. I’m also unsure where Young is living (Ottawa?) or if she’s still writing. We’ve never met in person. In all the shallow ways success is measured among poets, Deanna Young is my least-successful early obsession.
I think that that opening Altman quip applies quite neatly to my relationship with this book. Drunkard’s Path wasn’t the first collection I kept on my person for months, so I could read from at any quiet moment. It was, however, the first one I ever came across written by somebody I shared a province and a decade with. Now, whenever friends and I talk about influences and early favourites, I don’t see the point of talking about Deanna Young’s poems, because no one else knows about them. This intimacy of influence is a special thing. The fact that the poems in the book are so intimate they suggest an almost physical fragility only adds to this intimacy. I’m protective of this book, in a way I’m not of, say, fellow Knottinh-Off Top Ten, Kevin Connolly’s drift. I feel that, with drift, I could walk away from my adoration, from my fandom, and it would continue to be held aloft by many others. With this Young book, though, because it’s obscure, even for poetry, I feel a personal responsibility to be steadfast, even though there’s a handful of poems in the book that 2003 Jake liked a lot more than 2009 Jake. If anything, this strengthens the attachment. Because, how many other people are out there who remember?
As a text,Drunkard’s Path is a vivid, desperate, barely-held-together collection that shifts back and forth between memories of a violent upbringing out west and a domestic life as a wife and mother in Nova Scotia that, though placid and rewarding, is both charged and charred with the after-mage of its author’s childhood. Perhaps Deanna Young’s real life has gotten in the way of Deanna Young, the poet. As someone who fell madly in love with Drunkard’s Path, that’s disappointing, but reading back through poems like “Photo of Myself at Seven”, maybe it’s an acceptable detente with the subject matter. Much of the more recent autobiographical poems in Drunkard’s Path sound like anecdotes for the chaotic childhood rememberings that preceded them. I like to think that somewhere in this reorganization, she stumbled upon a kind of final cure.
I’m aware of the link between Young’s need to express the personal in her work, and my need to explain the book’s importance (to me) through the context of personal necessity. I’m also aware that, in both cases, there’s the danger of sacrificing real epiphany up on the pitiable altar of the self, of the ego. And that’s the obvious concern with a book like Drunkard’s Path. There’s moments here that flirt with purpleness, but never is sentiment allowed the entirety of a poem’s take-away value. Sentiment is quite rightfully the starting point for a poem like “This Year the Leaves”, which closes the book’s third quarter. But that poem has other surprises for an attuned reader–a masterfully elliptical memory structure, to start, as well as humour, rhythm, and a very specific colour palette most readers (including myself) miss in the first five or six readings.
The juxtaposition of Young’s current and past domestic situations is where the book really takes off. Calling this tactic “subversive” seems to miss the point somehow, as Young is using her own life for both elements of the mismatch. As a subject, she’s the subverted, but as a poet, she’s the subverter. The last of the book’s four sections “Moving In” contains a lot of great poems (“Home for Lunch” being my favourite) but it could be easily mistaken for another collection of mid-life normalcies, writ large! if it didn’t come after a section like “The Desert” which uses all the same pristine domestic motifs but takes as its true subject a relentless procession of domestic assaults, bitter cruelties, and taxing, unrelenting stand-offs.
Drunkard’s Path, like everything Gaspereau Press does, is a beautiful object. The cover design is both minimalist and reflective of the text (and the title). The paper is incredible: it feels like an old woman’s hand and is the colour of French vanilla ice cream. To say that these things aren’t a part of one’s enjoyment of the book is to deny the contribution of many other artists beyond the author. However, the final product somehow intensifies the poems’ cult of personality. The book carries with it a homemade feeling, as if a single creator both milled the paper and wrote the lines. It’s a uniquely pastoral impression. The books that come out of our big cities are embossed with the maps of their communities, the interdependence of the local Poetry Cult. Drunkard’s Path, on the other hand feels like a gift to a friend, as secret and personal as handmade soap. You remember such a gift, you feel compelled to.