The volta: the turn, the chance, the face, the once-upon a time, the surprise of the moment in which what you thought you knew becomes something you thought you didn’t know. Dean Young’s poems are often masked by a surprisingly delicate resistance to stasis, marked by shifts into reverse gear to turn away from the bull’s eye. The shark of poetry or the inanimate object? Is this set of turns that fold in onto themselves ultimately a way of not moving at all, or of constantly re-locating the beginning point?
“Vacationland” opens with the vagueness of a dreamed “somewhere else” and deposits the newly awakened speaker there. We—the readers—have already become the tourists in a deictic landscape created by the dream itself, created by the poem. This is a poem based on a series of “ifs.” If we knew where or who we were, we might know how to explain ourselves. We know we’ve been set up and yet we work as readers in resistance to the turns, wanting to gain on the poem, to reach the neon-dotted souvenir stands lining the lines. Everywhere you turn, there’s another bright, smart dazzle of words. The turns keep us attached to a narrative path but also excluded—an invisible man with roof-tar on his heels—the light making us appear where we are not. They stop us at the moment of identification, like the first half of a comedian’s observational joke. Have you ever noticed how…
for your loss, at least I would be
given the opportunity…
The higher you get, the more
the details point away from the hirsute
The poem provides us with a feigned experience, a reproduction of the original. It is not a complete fantasy or discrete monologue. Humor is part of the turn, but it is not the entire turn. “The loss—the least,” that repetition of that sonorant “L” for me underscores and secures the notions: the least loss of the loss of the least. This is not an unfamiliar scenario: the poet self-cast as the Observer, isolated in his Observations and cleverness, reveling in the privilege of disdain, the tourists his easy targets. Their mundane existence is a familiar trope, their waddling corpulence and desire for a series of sensual experiences, whether through immersion in the water or divorcee volleyball. What Young’s speaker sees is familiar (thanks in no small part to its products, its beverages) but only as something vacationing in the unfamiliar.
The turn cannot happen just one time in this poem; it is the source of tension between the longing for the left behind and the fascination with the new. When we are away, things happen without us and when we return home, it is our turn to turn into the tourists in our own homes, noticing the shabbiness of the carpet and longing for the nightly turndown service.
Conventional form can speak to movement through a prescribed set of automatic turns; the poem I allude to in the title of this reflection (“One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop) negates the poet’s claims of closure through the requirements of the form itself. The defining repetitions of the villanelle will not allow for true forward movement, and whatever Bishop is claiming to have easily moved past is foregrounded more than explicitly stated. “Vacationland,” however, is less predicated on any sort of received form than it is on a dodging sort of movement to achieve the opposite of what he says. His subjects flicker in and out of frames under an examination which both liberates and imprisons them in its precise and merciless turns. The onslaught underscores the impossibility of forward movement against the rush of the language itself, the destabilizing momentum of each failure to communicate through the “gummy mutter of cell phones.” The line breaks themselves create the turns, as we see in the closing:
The rest of us paddle,
paddle between what we can’t get
away from and where we don’t want to go.
We expect “get” to connect us to something concrete the speaker desires, thanks to the “what” in the line, as in “get postcards,” or “get laid.” Instead, “get” here references distancing, which is what the speaker wants but doesn’t want to get. The turn can be achieved by reversing one’s position while one’s feet remain anchored. In “Vacationland,” the turn is a looking back and forward simultaneously, the acknowledgment of the past and the recognition that the future will distinguish itself through the commission of the same mistakes, the “odd job” of “avoiding each other / and constantly meeting again.” Nowhere are we more vulnerable than when we are on vacation, and yet we allow and encourage ourselves to behave badly, to leave our regular selves at home. You get that feeling from a poem when you read more slowly towards the end, not wanting the final turn to come at all, wanting to delay that moment when you know the poet has you speeding towards the end of inhabiting the world the poem has given you, possibility beckoning to you and then disappearing inside its own tissued walls.
Erica Bernheim is the director of the creative writing program at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. She is a graduate of Miami University, the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Laurel Review, and VOLT, among others. Her first full-length book, The Mimic Sea, was published by 42 Miles Press (Indiana University South Bend) in 2012.